Monday, August 11, 2008

How do you make it right?

This post is not directly related to learning, but it has a lot to do with school and expectations and bullying and exclusion.

Nearly thirty years ago, I finished high school. I am still in touch with several of the girls who were in high school with me. Some have remained in touch ever since high school, others have regained contact with the advent of Facebook.

But there has been one girl I have been hunting for for over 10 years.

You see, I wasn't quite one of the 'beautiful people' in high school, but I wasn't far from it. I was bright, bubbly, pretty (if I say so myself), sporty. I was popular with the boys. I was in the first team for netball and atheletics (track). I was in debating team. I played significant roles in all the school plays. I sang in choir. I was on our version of an academic honour roll. In other words, I was your basic all-rounder. I don't say this to brag, simply to set the scene. The fact that I was riddled with insecurity and constantly in trouble with the teachers because I had no brakes on my tongue (still don't!) was beside the point.

When it came to playing rounders during PE classes, I wasn't the first one chosen, but I wasn't far down the list.

There was one girl who was always picked last. In fact, she wasn't 'picked' at all - she was simply allocated to the side that got second pick. She was a large, lumbering girl. While her weight was probably something she could have done something about, her lack of agility was no doubt genetic. I will call her Jenny.

Her face haunts me. Every PE lesson she knew the drill and she simply stood there, waiting for inevitable. To my shame I was always relieved that I wasn't like her, that I didn't have to deal with that ritual humiliation.

One week, it was my turn to choose, and I got first pick. I chose Jenny. I thought I had the chance to make her feel special just for once. I thought I was being so big-hearted and magnanimous, but everyone laughed, and her shame was worse than ever. Our team got soundly whipped and I was ridiculed for not knowing how to choose a side... in front of Jenny.

As clear as day I can still see her face, and the hurt that was written all over it still cuts me to the quick. Is there any group capable of greater cruelty to their peers than a bunch of teenage girls?

At our 20th reunion, I looked out for her. I hoped to hole up in a quiet corner with her and lay the ghosts to rest. She wasn't there. Why would she be? Why would she want to be reunited with us? For the ten intervening years I have hunted for her. Facebook. Friends reunited. Google. Naymz. LinkedIn. You name it. I have found people with the same name all over the place and contacted every single one of them, only to learn that this was not the person I was looking for.

Then, a couple of days ago, someone mentioned on a new FB group that she was in contact with Jenny's older sister. I asked if she knew how to get in touch with Jenny and was immediately provided with both her home number and her cell phone number (I have pointed out the risks to the person concerned, but that is another issue for another time).

Now I finally hold in my hot little hand the means to contact Jenny and... and... WHAT DO I SAY????

I never thought this far.

Maybe by phoning her and raking up the past, I will just make it all come flooding back - all the hurt and humiliation she thought she had finally left behind.

So tell me, those of you who were the Jenny of your year... how would you prefer the likes of me to handle this? By seeking exoneration from my own pain, would I selfishly be making hers worse?

Vicki, I think you have experience that could help, here. You have shared stories that resonate with this one.

Apologies for the even-more-personal-than-usual post, but perhaps it serves as a sobering reminder that two-thirds of a lifetime later, the foundations laid in high school still remain.


Graham Wegner said...

I don't think that my advice is really what you are looking for, because I only went back to one high school reunion and immediately wished I hadn't. One way to look at, for better or worse, we aren't the same people we were as teenagers and the events that unfolded make us who we are today. Despite my less than fond memories of boarding school, it has made me who I am today - it has done the same for your friend and if she hasn't attended the reunion, it just could be that part of her life is no longer important to who she is today. I've had two former friends from my high school days contact me via FaceBook and I am still to reply and acknowledge that I am indeed that same Graham Wegner they remember. Except that's not me anymore - what advice would you give me?!

Jackie Cameron said...

I agree with Graham . We are not the people we were when we were teenagers. That does not make us better or worse - just different.

As you have gone to such trouble to get Jenny's contact details I think I would do is contact her to say hello. Tell her that you have been able to find so many of your schoolmates but she was the hardest to find ( which is true!).

If she lives nearby does she fancy catch up over a coffee?

Her reaction should tell you all you need to know. Her sister has probably told her you might call so she may have had time to prepare.

I am not sure I would go into any sort of offload on her though. If you do manage to build up some relationship of trust now then at some point in the future you could just simply say "sorry".

Anonymous said...

@graham I think your advice is exactly the sort I need. Perhaps Jenny is like you in avoiding contact with past classmates, and perhaps I might be putting her in the same position as you in respect of the classmates who have contacted you. In fact, maybe the two who have contacted you had the same motivation as me - maybe they want to lay the ghosts to rest, too. I would say that the choice is yours. Do you want to be in touch with them? If not, say no. You have that right.

@Jackie Odd how defensive I feel reading your last sentence - I feel as if I want to protest my innocence and point out that I have nothing to say sorry for, that I wasn't one of the bullies. Interesting reaction. Of course, we are not the people we were as teens... and yet we are. I've noticed that when old school friends get together, the old dynamics and pecking orders tend to re-emerge. I have to consciously remind myself that I don't need to be intimidated by the girls who scared the living daylights out of me at school - that I've come a long way since then.

Jackie Cameron said...

Hey Karen. I still meet 5 of my school friends every month - and that's been the case for the last 25 years! Your comment that we revert is so spot on and made me smile. We have grown up together, had our families, careers etc yet we "revert to type" at the first opportunity.

I met someone who made my life a misery in my early career recently. In my mind I had run through all sorts of smart comments that I would make if I ever did meet him again. In the end he looked ( and sounded ) so miserable himself that I just felt sad - that he had been like that with me - and that I had let it affect my life for such a long time. Lesson learned for me.

Anonymous said...

The song The Bard of Armagh has a line:

...The merry-hearted boys make the best of old men.

I've always read that as meaning, in part, that people may change, but they don't transubstantiate. The insecure tend to remain insecure, bullies tend to remain bullies, easygoing people tend to remain easygoing.

With luck, we gain the perspective and the tools to have greater control over our feelings and thoughts, over how we respond to life. But it's hard to get around our blind spots when we don't know where they are.

Pretty much everyone is self-centered and clueless a good part of that time of life. Your teenage self was doing the best she could under the circumstances... and so, sadly, was Jenny.

If you do get in touch with her, don't do it with any goal of changing the past. (You can do something about that for yourself, but Jenny has to do her own changing.) Your interest in your school friends is genuine; go with that.

Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher said...

Here are my thoughts:

1) If you're calling to give her pity -- don't do it. That will make her the victim all over again. Do you remember anything about her that was cool? Do you only remember that you felt sorry for her? Was she funny? What was redeeming about her? Contact her because you really wish you'd gotten to know her better.

I had an employee that backstabbed me to HR when I was a general manager. I didn't know it. She called me up to tell me she was sorry for something I didn't even know she did. It was to relieve her conscience but it didn't help! It just made me angry that she did that and it was like it just happened.

I say this to say, be careful what you say. Be careful you don't make her relive it.

2) I think that perhaps I would write her FIRST. If you write her, you can get out all of your thoughts and you can choose your words wisely. After she knows your heart and how you feel about it all, then perhaps she'll want to reconnect... or maybe not.

I did this twice -- one time we reconnected, the other time, we didn't. The person who didn't didn't want to reconnect.

Give her a sense of power. Let her pick you.

3) Once a victim doesn't always mean a victim.

Just make sure you view her as a person who you want to know. As an equal.

Just say you wished you knew her better and be careful about it.

I think if it were me, I'd love a, "I'm sorry if I was unkind, I've thought a lot about it over the years and wish I'd known you better. I think that you seem like a really cool person. Have you done well?"

Those are just my thoughts.

But as Graham has said, I don't like to go back to reunions either, although I do. In fact, several people on the school board I also went to school with. And although they don't know it, I'm again often on the outside all over again, only now, I'm my own woman and have another path.

I'm happy w/ who God has made me. Their "pity" would only make me a victim all over again and I'm not a victim.

So, think about your motivations, thoughts, and how you want to approach it -- make sure you approach her as an equal and give her a choice!

On a personal note, I've missed chatting w/ you! I've been offline a lot trying to get school started and trying to return to the blogosphere now, although it is tough.

You have been one of my oldest and dearest "blog friends." We have got to meet if I'm able to get to England in the next year or so!

Anonymous said...

@Vicki Thanks for your helpful advice and insights. And you're absolutely right that we have to get together if you come to the UK. In fact, when I mentioned to my husband that you might be coming, his immediate response was, "Invite them to stay for a couple of days." Something for you to consider...

V Yonkers said...

I was "Jenny" in grade school (Junior High). I have come across some of my "bullies" years later and marvel at how they are still stuck in grade school and I have moved on. Vicki's advice is good: don't reminisce about the "good old days" but rather focus on why you are contacting her. For example, you might start with "I have thought about you over the years and wondered what you were doing."

I would first create a relationship with her as an adult. Treat her as the stranger she is today and ask the questions you would ask of any new acquaintance. Perhaps later, if you end up having a deeper friendship, you can discuss your perceptions of school together. Perhaps you have a distorted idea of what school was like for her and she has a distorted view of you (maybe the memory of that time was how kind you were in choosing her for the first time in her life, and what an idiot the teacher was or maybe it was that she hated you because you set her'll never know).