I guess with a name like Shelley Armstrong, you were born to flex some muscle. I don’t think she started out as a bully; she was a tomboy that went through life playing sports, hanging out with boys — never having an interest in anything girlish. She was average in size, even an inch or two shorter than me.
She was a new student in 5th grade, but I didn’t know her until we sat next to each other in Mr. Lyons’ 6th-grade homeroom at Kimball Elementary. Shelley was an artist, a straight-A student, had a good sense of humor and was somewhat attractive and well liked by a handful of kids in our class.
I said hi to her immediately, and she reciprocated, but little did I know that right from the start she saw me as a loser. Yes, she made a point to tell me that later in the school year; my initiating contact by saying hi to her automatically made me a dork.
We actually started out as friends, sort of. We would hang out at recess, when another classmate, Sheila Reynolds, would sometimes join us. These girls were both tomboys, and I was a bit of one, too, although I still enjoyed girlish activities as well, like playing Barbies, slumber parties and reading Bobbsey Twins books.
My best friend Karen Bryce was unfortunately not in my class. She was lucky enough to be in an entirely different class, with an entirely different teacher, classmates, and just general environment. So she and I would sometimes hang out at recess, but other times, not. Even as best friends, Karen and I had conflicts where we would sometimes go weeks without speaking to each other.
I’m not sure exactly how the bullying started, but it must have been sometime in October. It was so silly; I was sitting next to Shelley in Miss Gianni’s science class — we were at these long tables — and Shelley jokingly started kicking me under the table. I told her to stop. She continued. My eyes started to tear up, and she said tauntingly, “Your eyes are watering.” She seemed to get a cheap thrill from that. That’s all I remember about that particular incident, but from then on, things did escalate; then we would be just like friends again. The bullying would be sporadic, with us sometimes hanging out at lunch and recess other times.
Shelley’s signature bullying tactic was a hard slug to the arm. Sometimes it appeared to be a sign of affection, but other times it just seemed mean-spirited.
I must have been a very insecure and desperate 11-year-old to have hung out with someone like Shelley back then, but I guess there was always that hope of acceptance. When things were good, they were great; but when things were bad, well, I always had hopes that the next day would be different; and it usually was.
I couldn’t really talk much about it with my parents as my dad was a truck driver, always off on a haul, and my mom worked at Crown Zellerbach, predominantly the swing shift, which was from 3:00 – 11:00. We had babysitters, as my little brother Brian was barely a toddler.
Our desks in homeroom class were in sets of four, sort of facing each other, with you sitting beside one person, and across from two others. Somehow Sheila wound up getting moved to our table, and it seems that that is when the bullying got worse. Sheila started to chime in, sharing the same glee with Shelley when the teasing got too mean and my eyes would well up. “Your eyes are watering,” they would both start in.
Another girl named Karen Pires made up the 4th person, and she somehow remained somewhat indifferent. She seemed to be more mature than all of us.
“You guys are ganging up,” I would point out. “That’s right,” Shelley and Sheila would sneer. They were wicked, and I was basically a wimp.
Their favorite form of physical abuse was to say, “Hey, Kelly!” and when I would turn around they would clap a chalk-caked eraser in my face. Then they would howl with delight, and sometimes other students would join in. It was mortifying, to say the least.
Their favorite non-physical tactic was to threaten, “We’re gonna tell Mr. Lyons that you started your period!” Mortified at this thought, I hadn’t started menstruating yet, but knew it could come at any time, I would sometimes start to cry and beg them not to.
Sometimes they would say mean things about my family. “I’m sick of you always bragging about your baby brother,” Shelley would say with disdain.
There were times when Shelley would avow, “I’m calling you out,” which basically meant, “Let’s fight.” Of course I declined, to which the inevitable “cluck-cluck-cluck” chicken noise emitted from both Shelley and Sheila.
I never fought back, as the thought of having kids crowding around my adversary and me as we duked it out would be even more mortifying. A visit to the Principal’s office usually ensued after that. It happened all the time with other kids, but I was determined to never let it happen to me.
So with that “play-it-safe”philosophy, I got myself in between a rock and a hard place. In a sense, I was somewhat of a prisoner.
I guess there were times I opened up to my mom, and she was probably more indignant than sympathetic. “Call you out?,” she asked, in a somewhat flabbergasted tone. “Good grief; boys fight, not girls! What is the matter with her?” At one point I think she did mention that we should go to the principal, but I begged her not to, as that would only exacerbate the situation. Plus there was always that hope that the tormenting would cease altogether.
One day in May the bullying continued on my walk home. Shelley and I had part of the same route, so as I walked home with Melissa Caldwell, Shelley followed us, taunting along the way. “You’re just a big baby, Kelly,” Shelley called out. Well-meaning Melissa came to my defense, avowing, “She is not! She’s just tender-hearted,” which, of course resulted in a big “Awwww,” from Shelley.
Shelley wound up hitting me, and a flash of rage and pent-up resentfulness overwhelmed me, and I socked her back —hard. Not sure why, but I had a pencil in my hand, and the pencil put a small puncture mark in her upper arm. She looked at me in disbelief, not only because I hit her back, but apparently because I “played dirty,” in the process, using a “weapon” and all.
“Good, Kelly,” Melissa cried out. “How about that, Shelley?”
Shelley pushed me, I pushed her back, and there were some punches — and a few choice words — thrown into the mix. The fight had to have lasted 2 minutes, tops. Melissa was the only one nearby, so the crowd of spectators I had always feared never materialized.
I got the last punch in and Shelley stood there, looking somewhat exhausted. “Just get lost,” I yelled. Shelley started to walk away, so Melissa and I turned to continue home. Shelley ran up behind me and kicked me in the butt, then ran across the street toward home.
It was a tearful walk the rest of the way home, with Melissa giving me support and encouragement. “I don’t understand,” I sobbed, “I’m a good girl, I try to do the right thing, stay out of trouble….why is this happening to me?”
“She’s just a bully, Kelly,” was Melissa’s only answer.
Once home, I got a chance to talk to my mom before she headed to work. “Good thing she didn’t run out in front of a car after she kicked you,” Mom said.
“I wish she had,” I cried angrily. “I wish she had gotten creamed by a car!”
“Oh, now, stop it,” Mom scolded. “I hope she doesn’t get lead poisoning from the pencil wound.”
I fired back, “Who cares?!”
I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening crying. Our babysitter Debbie was very sympathetic, but I was inconsolable — and scared to death to go to school the next day.
Morning came soon enough (after a sleepless night), and needless to say I avoided being anywhere near Shelley. School hadn’t started yet, but I could see her down the hallway, entertaining Sheila and some other people with a reenactment of yesterday’s fight. Karen Pires was standing with me, and commented with disgust, “Look at her (Shelley); telling everyone about the fight. She’s such a guy!”
It was incredibly awkward once class started and I had to sit at the 4-top table. Shelley and I ignored each other for a couple hours. Sheila made small-talk with Shelley and Karen, but said nothing to me.
Recess came, and again, no contact with the enemy, which suited me fine. I could go on this way forever if it meant my days of being tormented were over. I had proven to Shelley that I was sick of being bullied, and even more importantly that I, too, could pack a hard punch.
After recess Sheila announced to me, with Shelley sitting right there (with a somewhat sheepish look on her face), “Kelly, Shelley is sorry, and she wants to be friends.”
“Why?” I looked at her and Shelley with doubt.
To this day I don’t know what reason they gave, but the bullying did stop. I wouldn’t exactly call us friends, either, as I made a point to hang out with other people that were more trustworthy.
My mom picked me up from school the afternoon of the reconciliation and as I got in the car Sheila and Shelley waved goodbye from a few yards away, as if nothing wrong had ever happened.
“Mom, don’t stare at them,” I said, a little embarrassed.
“You’re damn right I’m staring at the little bitches,” she snarled.
“Yikes, “ I thought.
It’s a shame that the majority of my last year in elementary school had to be such a bullied one, but that was the last time I was bullied in school. Shelley had plans to go to Antioch Junior High with me the following school year, but her family wound up moving to the next town over which resulted in a different school for her. I never saw her again.
Although Shelley and I parted in a good way, I was still quite relieved to find out she had moved. Sometimes paranoia would set in and I would think there had been some mistake, and Shelley would one day appear in some of my 7th-grade classes.
Sheila did continue on to Antioch Jr. High, and we hung out sometimes. As karma would have it, I witnessed Sheila getting bullied by a group of girls, and on one occasion I saw her and her grandmother — who she lived with — get into a very heated physical altercation. Not knowing much about dysfunctional families back then, I look back on her situation now as having a huge influence on her toxic behavior at school. She, too, wound up moving away toward the end of the school year, to go and live with her mother, I believe.
Sometimes I look back on my mostly miserable 6th-grade year and think, “How could I have been such a wimp?” But another part of me chalks it up to just another life experience, one that did eventually make me stronger, even building some character and compassion along the way. In a sense, it is good that it happened that year, where just one class in a smaller school kept it somewhat contained. Sheila wasn’t as lucky, as Jr. High consisted of 7th through 9th grades, coming from four different elementary schools. That, combined with the awkwardness of puberty and a messed-up home life might have very well been factors in Sheila’s move to be with her mother.
So this concludes my series on Bullying for my “40 Days of Writing.” Saving my most poignant experience for last only makes sense, as it is the primary reason why I have such genuine, heartfelt compassion for bullied kids of all ages. I have been there. I hung in there. I prevailed.
To every bullied child out there, please, never lose the hope that you will get through it and also prevail. There are so many wonderful people and amazing life experiences in the world just waiting for you. Trust me.