I was only bullied for one summer. I was nearly twelve years old and at my second year of sleep-away camp. For two weeks, I was pushed, yelled at, set up, lied to and lied about.
Some of it was so subtle I didn’t even realize what was happening until it was too late. And other moments were downright dangerous. Like when one girl tried to kick me off the top buck. I clung to the sides, desperate and afraid, hoping she would stop. Even today, my arms clench when I think about it.
It wasn’t just in the cabin though. At the activities, the albatross around my neck came, too. Once in awhile, a girl would take pity on me and agree to sail or canoe with me. Mostly, the girls refused.
My sailing instructor went out of his way to be kind. He encouraged me to sail alone. He promised that it would be amazing. Did he stop the girls? No. But it helped to have one person not think I was weak.
One afternoon, I was allowed to be with the other girls. I sat in a rowboat with two of the girls. They forced me to row. Then they took away a paddle and told me to row again.
I said: But we’ll just go in circles.
They responded: DO IT ANYWAY.
My shoulders slumped, and I began to row berating myself for getting in the boat with them. They laughed. We were quite far from shore, and I was afraid. Suddenly, I stopped rowing. They yelled and taunted. And I sat there. Terrified and surprised at myself and my unwillingness to obey.
One girl threw the other oar into the lake. And threatened me again. Told me to get the oar. I said no. We sat at an impasse as the three whistles blew to come back to shore. I quietly prayed that we would get back to shore. Eventually, a boat came out to find out why we weren’t heading back. Someone said (maybe me?): We lost our oars.
They hand us oars, and I rowed us home. No counselor asked anything more. I didn’t volunteer it.
Now, the bullying didn’t stop because I didn’t row. Standing up for myself only meant I didn’t have to row in circles for twenty minutes. I still had days of snickering and exclusion to go.
But I held on to that moment as proof that I had a voice underneath all the confusion and terror. And I survived.
I told no one about it, but I just didn’t go back to camp the following summer. I slept. Like eighteen hours a day.
But, by the end of eighth grade, things had changed. I was more popular.
I don’t know why.
I went back to that camp that summer. Those girls became my friends.
I don’t know why.
No one ever mentioned the summer before seventh grade.
And I was glad.
I didn’t even realize there was a name for what had happened to me until a few years ago when I read about the children being harassed for months and years by classmates. I thought bullies were giant boys from bad families who punched small boys and stole their lunch money. I didn’t realize that the helplessness of my seventh grade summer, when people thought that it was okay for ten girls, who lived in the same cabin, to hate one, to accuse one, to scare and ignore and lie to one, well, that was bullying, too.
I can’t imagine what years of that would’ve been like.
But I can imagine wanting to die rather than face another day of it. Two weeks stayed with me for years.
Which means I need to be more vocal. More aware. I’m sure our counselors had no idea how often I was afraid. But maybe they should have.
Regardless, I believe those moments of encouragement, as I sailed the lake alone and capable, allowed me to retain a sliver of dignity. For twenty minutes, I didn’t feel like the the smallest person in the world.
A friend often reminds me: Courage is not lack of fear but taking action despite fear.
I found courage those two weeks.
Maybe that was the gift. I would need that courage again and again in my life. The stamina to take a stand. Or just hold my ground for a bit longer.
Today, I remember to smile at the children and adults eating alone, brows furrowed, or standing just on the edge of the group. Hopeful.
I make an effort to be kind to everyone I encounter.
Because I’m never sure who’s in that row boat.
And what it’ll take to get them back to shore.