When I was about 11 years old, growing up in Elmont, there was a girl with a mean streak — and somehow I got on her bad side.
I’d said something apparently offensive to her older sister. I don’t recall what it was — nothing insulting, I just recall having asserted myself. But in the school cafeteria, the older girl warned that she would report it to her younger sibling, who would beat me up.
Apparently both girls didn’t like me. And I admit they weren’t alone. It was a lonely time and my friends were few. I don’t know what my peers didn’t like. Perhaps I came on too strong, annoying them while seeking their acceptance. I thought I was the only unpopular, scorned kid among my peers. Everyone seemed prettier and street-smarter. I felt everyone else was good, right all the time and, generally, better than me.
In my memory, the 1960s were oppressive times. Peers were mean and elders authoritative. Every social role, duty, philosophy and outcome was cut and dried, black and white, no deviations or creativity allowed. Some girls on Long Island got married and had kids right out of high school and generally seemed to have parochial interests and narrow views with their deluding, black-lined eyes that felt like they were mocking me. I know I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Others expressed similar sentiments to me years later.
Hours after the big sister’s threat in the cafeteria, I was coming out of a friend’s house and looked to the street. There stood the younger sister. The squint in her blue eyes told me she meant business. She said I had ranked out her older, an expression that meant I’d shown disrespect.
She stood with two other girls who encouraged her to go get me right there. (Years later, one of them expressed remorse for that day through a mutual friend.)
I made a beeline for the backyard of a neighbor’s house. She caught up with me and started hitting me and swung me around by my hair. She wouldn’t stop throwing me to the grass. My humiliation seemed to goad her on.
“Don’t you ever ... answer ... my sister ... like that again,” she said, catching her breath every few words. She spoke in a deep, throaty manner.
“Say you’re sorry!” she screamed.
I looked up but couldn’t maintain eye contact. I was on my knees. My heart was pounding, and I started to cry.
“All right!” I cried. “I’m sorry!”
I couldn’t defend myself. Make it stop, I thought. Just go away. Stop the nightmare. I don’t know who I am, anyway, and nobody in school loves me.
When she and her cohorts left, I dragged myself home and never spoke about it to anyone.
It is a long way from the time in that Elmont neighborhood when I often felt alone. I grew up, married and moved away from the old crowd.
I rarely thought about the incident, but a little more than 40 years later, one of a handful of classmates I’d befriended reached out to me on Facebook. We exchanged emails and kept in touch. She told me about a girl in our Sewanhaka High School graduating Class of 1968 with whom she recently made friends.
It was that girl.
She asked, would I like to be in touch with her? I didn’t answer her. I thought to myself, no thanks, I’ll pass.
Shortly after, I got an email from the girl who beat me up.
“I feel so bad about what I did to you back in school,” she wrote. “It has bothered me all these years, and I have felt guilty ever since. I’m hoping you can forgive me.”
The incident sounded like it was yesterday for her. Although I had let it go, she had carried it with her. This offering brought me full circle. Wow, I thought, people really do carry guilt for decades. I never would have known she was so affected by that incident. Back then, she acted as if she had every right to intimidate and assault me.
I wrote back and said I forgave her. She thanked me and said she was relieved that I accepted her apology. I felt better as well.
Some victims of bullying commit suicide. Many others overcome their pain. Lady Gaga was thrown by school peers into a dumpster. The gifted British singing discovery Susan Boyle also was bullied. Both showed their one-time peers who they really were when they soared to fame.
To victims of bullying, I say, power through it. Draw on inner strength and spend your gifts where you can. Life holds good surprises sometimes, and they are worth living for. School peers can be cruel. But when they mature, they can regret their bad behavior.
I had already gotten on with my life, but I received closure I never would have expected from that girl who came after me in the yard.
Reader Gloria Schramm lives in North Bellmore.