Or so he thought.
Nick slowed as he neared his locker to get his homework. Someone had written RAPIST PIG across it in giant letters with a black magic marker. A muscle ticced in his jaw as his fury mounted.
He was so sick of dealing with the blowback caused by Dina and her redonkulous, petty jealousy. Let it go, people. Get a life.
And let me have one again.
“Don’t feel so bad, Nick,” Brynna said as she came up behind him. “They got me, too.” She pointed to her locker, where someone had written SLUT and drawn obscene images. “I already told Mr. Head about it, and he promised they’d paint over them before school tomorrow.”
Yeah, great. After everyone had seen it all. What good was that?
Hey, kid, sorry they shot you in the head. But here, let us stick a bandage on your finger so that you’ll feel better about that missing frontal lobe.
Nick let out a low, deadly breath. “I’m really getting sick of this, Bryn. It’s ridiculous. They made her apologize to us publicly, for God’s sake, and admit to everyone she was lying about it all.”
“Doesn’t matter. People believe what they want to, truth be danged. It kills me, too. Take my cousin, Kim, for example. When she was in middle school, she was voted homecoming queen two years in a row. The second year, the mother of one of the other girls in her class calls up my aunt in hysterics, complaining how unfair it is that no one likes her cow of a daughter. And how wrong it is for Kim to get to be the homecoming queen twice, even though everyone in class voted for Kim and not the cow, or another girl.…”
Brynna shook her head. “God love my aunt, she’s just like your mother, Nick—the kind-heartedest person ever born. Not wanting any drama, and not wanting to hurt the feelings of a homely fourteen-year-old girl, my aunt convinced Kim to share her crown that second year. And because Kim’s such a sweetie, too, she took pity on the girl and agreed to it. Then, four years later when they’re both seniors, that hag, who can’t hold a candle to Kim on her best day, starts telling everyone that Kim’s mother was the one who called up in hysterics and made her share her crown. As if … And here’s the kicker. The homecoming queen was announced publicly to the school when the votes were first counted. It wasn’t until the very next day that they went back and added the cow as co-queen. Everyone knew Kim had won it, free and clear, and still some of them believed the hag four years later when she lied about it. Ridiculous, right? One lie … and an eternity of pain. I think it’s why those soulless creeps do it. They don’t care what lies they tell or who they hurt.”
Wanting blood from all of them, Nick shook his head. “There ought to be a special place in Hades for them all.”
“There is,” Brynna said emphatically. “They have to live their miserable lives trapped with themselves. I can’t think of any worse punishment.”
Nick scoffed. “I can. A mouth full of busted teeth.”
Brynn tsked at his suggestion. “Violence begets violence.”
“And sometimes violence begets satisfaction.”
She sighed heavily. “You don’t really believe that, do you?”
He looked at his vandalized locker as another wave of indignant anger consumed him. “Let’s just say if I knew who did that, they’d be limping home.”
She patted him on the shoulder to soothe him. “Do you remember what you told me when I allowed the jerks in this school to almost drive me to suicide over Dina’s lies?”
Of course he did. He’d been terrified that he’d lose her friendship over something as stupid as human cruelty. “That you were worth more than all of them combined.”
“Yes, and you said that I should never let them steal my day. That they weren’t worth it. And you were correct. They’re not.”
Yeah, but right now, he couldn’t find that decent part of himself. All he could feel was pure, stone-cold hatred. It infected him to the bone level.
Brynna opened her notebook and pulled out several sheets of paper. She handed them to him. “LaShonda and I are starting a new initiative … the Anti-Bully Brigade. That’s the poster and manifesto we’re handing out and posting everywhere they’ll let us. They’re even going to print it in the school paper.”
Nick smiled at the logo they’d come up with. It was a fanged cat-looking key with ABB forming a butterfly-like design. In big white letters over the red key were the words, It’s Easy to Make the Grade. Join the Anti-Bully Brigade.
He pulled the other pages to the top so that he could read them.
Today, you made me cry. You made me feel like the lowest piece of dirt that has ever walked this earth. You stole a piece of my heart and soul, and my self-esteem. Just when I had finally managed to convince myself that I wasn’t quite the ugliest or dumbest person alive, you came in and reaffirmed that never-ending playback in my head that insults me even when you’re not around. The same playback that tells me, over and over, life sucks, and it’s never going to get any better no matter what I do, because I don’t deserve anything better. I am nothing, and nothing is all I’ll ever be. Even when I try my very best, like I did today, it’s not good enough to make me human or worth something in the eyes of the world. I don’t need you or anyone else to reaffirm something I already know about myself.
My hurt didn’t show on the outside because I learned a long time ago to make sure that you couldn’t take that pleasure, too, that you and the others who think you’re funny or witty or cute, or are too afraid of you to do anything more than follow along, couldn’t see how much pain you’ve caused me. The times in the past when I made the mistake of letting you see my tears, all of you laughed at me over them, and you made it worse. You made me choke on my dignity, and hate that which had been a source of pride for me … until you mocked it.
You have kicked me in my heart, and ravaged what little self-worth I had managed to scrape together.
But that’s okay, because that is what makes me stronger than you and your followers. I don’t have to point out someone else’s flaws. I don’t need to put someone else down or mock someone in order to feel better about myself, or to prove my worth, authority, power, or intelligence. The mere fact that you do proves that we who refrain from such cruelty are a superior species. We are the ones who have evolved beyond simple animal behavior that makes a base creature attack something it doesn’t understand, something that is different or not as strong.
It doesn’t take superior intelligence to tear down someone and/or their hard work. To mock their best effort or a physical trait that can’t be helped. It doesn’t prove that you’re more intelligent or better in any way. A stick of dynamite can level a building, but it can’t build one.
You have made me afraid to go to school. You’ve made me sick to my stomach whenever I think about going to work. You’ve made me afraid in my own home. You have needlessly insulted me in stores, on the phone, or wherever I accidentally stumbled upon you. You have ruined my past, my present, my day, and stolen a part of my soul.
Like the rest of us, you come from all kinds of backgrounds. Some not very happy, and cruelty is all you’ve ever known, so you lash out in an effort to ease your own pain. Others have no excuse whatsoever. Your background is above reproach. Rather, it’s a vicious need inside you that we don’t understand, and it’s why it’s so hard to identify you at times, because you blend in like an undetected poison.
You’ve been my teachers, clergy, my fellow students, coworkers, bosses, principals, sometimes you were a former friend or even family I once trusted.
You’ve taken things I told you in utter confidence, and twisted them into lies to be used against me. Without cause, you have told lies against me. You have refused to see me as a human being. You have kicked me when I was up, and you have kicked me when I was down.
But today, you will kick me no more. I will no longer be your verbal or physical punching bag. Today, I discovered the secret that will never allow you or your friends, who will one day turn on you too, to hurt me again.
Today as I lay broken and bleeding in that dark place I crawl into when I think I can’t take it anymore, I found something extraordinary.
As my soul screamed in bleeding agony and I wanted to die rather than live one more day in a world where you exist, I realized that my tears and ability to feel pain without lashing out to return that hurt to someone else makes me human.
I find my pleasure when someone smiles over something I’ve said or done. When I make them feel better about themselves and their lives. When I look at an okay drawing and tell the artist that it is a work of art, worthy of hanging in a museum. The smile on their face, the pride that glows in their eyes, the happiness I see inside them makes my heart swell. It gives me a joy you can never understand. Just as I will never understand your need to hurt.
Kindness costs nothing to give, but to the person who receives it, it could be the one thing that saves their life. The one thing that gives them hope in their darkest hour. No act of charity or kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.
In the immortal words of Maya Angelou … people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
Whenever they think of me, I want them to smile and feel good inside.… And I will never allow you to take that from me or from them.
No matter how you taunt or beat me, I will not become you, and pay your cruelty forward. In time, you will be gone from my life, and I will move forward to become even stronger and smarter than I am today. Because I can celebrate with others and applaud their efforts with an open heart capable of love and acceptance, I will evolve to an even greater level of happiness while you stay mired in your petty hatred and bitterness.
More than that, I discovered the best secret of all. I don’t care what you think because I don’t think enough of you to listen. You’re not worth the energy it would cost me to hate you. There is nothing about you that I want to be. I don’t want your clothes. I don’t want your friends. Your job. I don’t want your life, and I definitely don’t want to live an existence where I have to hurt someone else in order to feel good about myself.
I will not let you steal my humanity. You will not teach me your hatred or intolerance.
Not today. Not ever.
In spite of what you think, you’re not anonymous.
No matter where you come from, or the clothes you wear, or the computer screen you hide behind, you are just like all thieves. Rather than work and create something yourself, you prefer to steal from someone else. Even your emotions are stolen.
And while I might not be able to see the future today or any light whatsoever, I know it will come through this darkness and free me from the ugliness you’ve caused. If I hang on with both hands, my strength will save me. My life is a gift and I will not let you take that from me, too. You’re definitely not worth it.
I am here and I am important. Maybe not to you. But to those I make smile, to the ones who see the beauty inside me, the ones who seek me out because of who I am and because of the positive emotions I give to them, I am irreplaceable.
You are not. Should you die tomorrow, no one would weep. I’ve been to your funeral and I’ve seen that truth, too. When you die, there will be another bully, just like you, spewing the same cruel lies and lines that never change, to take your place.
As I said, you are all alike.
But we are not. We are individuals. We do matter, and to those closest to us, we are the entire world. Our loss would cut them to the core of their hearts and they would weep forever. Our death would leave a hole inside them that never closes. We are the fragile flowers that spill our fragrance into the world, and bring beauty whenever we’re spotted by those capable of seeing us in all our glory.
And so I finish my letter with this. Go ahead and laugh at me. Mock me. Insult me. Tear me down. Do your worst. Because through it all, I will do my best in spite of you and your cruelty. From this day forward, I will never hear your ugly words again. I will live my life for me and those few who love me just as I am, the ones who cannot imagine a world without me in it. From now on, I will laugh at you when you start in on me, because I now know the simple truth.
Animals attack what they fear. And you, in spite of all your bluster and bragging, fear little old me. If I truly were insignificant and worthless, you wouldn’t bother tormenting me. So I will continue living my life for me with the happy knowledge that I threaten you.
Meanwhile me and the rest of my real friends won’t bother talking about you. You don’t matter enough to us to take up time better spent on preparing for a future where you don’t exist. Time changes everything and everyone. Today you’re the bully. Tomorrow someone will bully you. And when that happens, unlike you, we will reach out to you in sympathy and love, and try to make you feel better. Because that is who and what we are—