Usually it doesn’t matter what Matt Lauer says; it’s always beautiful. As long as words are cascading off his delicate-in-a-manly-way lips, they’re forming sentences I want to hear.
But this morning when he started telling a story about Whitney Kropp, a Michigan teenager who contemplated suicide after being elected to her homecoming court as a “joke,” my heart plummeted in a way contrary to my usual Matt Lauer Response.
I watched this sweet girl, not any less beautiful than your typical 16-year-old, recount the experience of hearing her fellow students laugh when her name was announced. My default setting of RAGE kicked in as she described feeling “unworthy” after finding out she was nominated because her classmates “thought it would be funny if someone unpopular won.”
And while her town rallied behind her, creating a Facebook page that generated over 40,000 supporters for the bullied teen, I couldn’t help but think “That’s nice, but it won’t heal her.”
I’ve never understood bullying. Oh, I’ve been a bitch, for sure. Blessed with the gift to deliver a comeback freer and faster than Zappos shipping, I’ve been known to leave an unsuspecting opponent nursing a sting for years. But a bully? Never. I see an underdog and build them a kennel. Unfortunately, this compassion and sensitivity (which, I’ll admit, has become much more selective over the years) made me a target as a teen.
Brandi Shrub was a tall, skinny, and – ok – pretty brunette with teased hair and tattoos, donning silicone tits by the time she was 16. Rumor had it that Brandi’s father split before she was even born, and she’d been largely unsupervised since the age of 5, when her mother began bartending night shifts down at Rundown Inn. Having been left back two or three times on account of her preference for making out under the bleachers instead of attending class, Brandi and I shared the same 8th grade lunch period despite our three year age difference.
An innocent idiot, I made the mistake of having a crush on Rick Serafino, the junior high “Bad Boy” who piqued my interest by being a potential bad influence. He not only did, but dealt drugs, and had more sexual experience at the time than I do to this day. Way out of my sheltered little league, Rick was the epitome of danger. Already an enthusiast for drama and pain, I had no choice but to fall for him (Rinse and repeat for the rest of my life, by the way).
It was only after I’d let the news of my affection leak that I discovered Brandi liked Rick, too. I learned this bit of info from the source herself.
“LAUREN,” she yelled on my way out of the cafeteria.
Brandi Shrub knew my name? This realization was both terrifying and exhilarating; my first brush with the feeling I’d grow to love.
“Hi!” I replied, turning to greet her as if I were comfortable.
“You’re disgusting,” she spat as she sauntered past, close enough to intentionally knock my backpack off my shoulder and onto the floor. “Stay away from Rick. He’ll never go out with a fat pig like you.”
All of the blood in my body drained to my knees, now trembling. I braced myself for a hard faint, but nothing happened. I just stood there, shaking, trying to come to terms with the fresh wound that just opened in my soul. This wound would heal slowly and gradually over time, but my DIY stitches would always be visible.
The comments continued every day for a week. I learned to stare ahead and travel outside of myself as I endured the abuse. I tried to hum loud enough that I couldn’t hear the words being hurled at me, along with paper airplanes, as I’d walk for what felt like hours towards my spot at the lunch table each day. But even in my attempts to ignore the insults, I grew to understand that I was:
Gross with greasy hair,
A mistake that should have been aborted, and
A waste of space and breath.
Even months after Brandi got bored enough with me to start torturing someone else, I was still numb. Something had changed inside of me, permanently.
I never spoke to Rick Serafino. He’d walk passed me and wink in acknowledgment that he knew what I’d been through. I appreciated his pity. It was the best I could get. It was the most I deserved.
On my birthday that year, each of my friends gifted me with a balloon – a ritual for junior high cliques. The bunch of balloons you carried through the halls proved your level of popularity for everyone to see. As I shuffled down the hallway, I couldn’t feel the happiness that should have come from carrying 23 colorful birthday balloons. I couldn’t hear the multitude of birthday wishes from the many people who liked me. All I heard was the laughter of the one person who didn’t, as she popped one with her pencil when I passed.
Today, I’m 32. I haven’t seen Brandi since shortly thereafter, except the picture of her that appeared when she tried to friend me on Facebook last year (request denied!). But she’s still vaguely present in my life.
I laugh a little too loud, find a joke too funny; I hear her. I walk into a crowded room late, becoming the center of attention; she heckles. A doorman whistles when I walk by; she scoffs. I admit I have feelings for someone; she mocks me. He leans in for a hug and grazes my midsection; she smirks.
She has told me more about myself over time than she ever actually said. She is relentless, wicked, and always there.
Lauren Hand is a 32 year-old curmudgeon living in Astoria and blogging at www.thewittybiddy.com .