"And then?," I press.
"That's it!," he exclaims, and goes off cheerfully to finish eating his lunch.
Now and then I ask my sons if there are any bullies in their schools. Nope, or Not really, they answer, bored, humoring me. My older son describes a boy who once grabbed his deodorant and threw it over his head while the two were dressing in the PE locker room. But he is not particularly perturbed by the incident. "It was mostly in fun," he adds, and shrugs dismissively.
I have to believe that the anti-bullying initiatives so prevalent across our school district (and others) have worked. Bullying has gone underground, online, away from teachers' prying eyes, and is problematic mainly among girls, which of course is nothing new. Girls fight with words; they always have.
If my boys think that I bother then about bullying too often, they do not ask why. If they were to wonder, I suppose that would tell them my stories. I might even start talking and never stop.
I don't know what it was about me as a child, or maybe I do. I was pretty, with long blonde hair and a turned-up nose. So it wasn't about my looks. It was likely more about my exquisite sensitivity, which like Swiss cheese came with holes dotting its landscape. Or about my good grades, which teachers tended to broadcast, without considering the consequences of doing so.
Fifth grade was the hardest year. My best friend, or once-best friend, took up with another girl, and the two of them attacked me relentlessly. One morning, my erstwhile best friend pointed at me and sang, loudly, "You darken up my life...," her take on the popular Debby Boone song. 1977, it was.
On my birthday that year, the same girl told all of our classmates not to speak to me for the entire day. Everyone complied, sheep-like. I went home that day shaking and refused to go to school for the next few days. I lay in bed, listening to the BeeGees and crying.
My mother thought that I was sick. Well, I was sick.
Seventh grade. A different girl. Her issues with me had more to do with looks, mine versus hers. She was plain. Her nose was pinched, beaky, and at the same time too large for her face. And kids were mean about that nose; they... bullied her about it. My brother would say, later, that she had the face she deserved. You'll forgive him his protectiveness, I'm sure. We were friends, went to each other's houses. But one day I received a letter in the mail. There was no return address on the envelope, and my name and address had been typed. Puzzled, I turned it over and over before opening it. Inside, one page, typed. What stood out was:
I HOPE YOU DIE.
There were other words, words that made it absolutely clear who had sent the letter, because they referred to a story I had told only to this friend.
I keened. My mother rushed in, and I gave over the letter. Horrified, she called the middle school principal. Who did... nothing. She couldn't, she told my mother. The letter was anonymous. There was no way to prove who'd written it.
And that was that. A different era.
If my children do ever wonder why I quiz them rather too long and hard about bullying, I will share my history, which is bad, but not worse, and definitely not worst. I never fantasized about killing myself as a way out, so there's that.
And I will remember to be glad, for once, to have been spared the task of raising a girl all the way through to adulthood.