An Open Letter to my high school bully
(originally published July 27, 2016 on oxygen.com)
Dear Julie ,
I’m not using your real name because I hope and assume that you’ve grown up to be something other than an asshole, and the last thing I would ever want is for you to be subjected to the same sort of social ostracizing that I suffered in high school as a consequence of your actions.
Now that some years have passed, I am finally ready to stand up to my high school bully, so, Julie Darling, I am coming for you.
I know what you’re thinking; you were mostly totally nice to me in high school. We were casual but distant friends. How on earth could I possibly think of you as my bully?
Fair question, Julie . I’ll explain.
Remember that time you wrote in my yearbook, “It’s so cool you don’t care what other people think about you? Have a great summer!” Well, reading that comment was the first time I every thought about what other people might think of me, and I’ve been obsessing over it ever since.
You never actually made fun the fact that I used to wear tiaras to school to my face, but after reading that comment in my yearbook, I absolutely stopped wearing them, sure that you were critical of it when I wasn’t paying attention. I stopped drawing cool designs on my jean shorts in sharpie and making up songs for our AP History class to remember the names and dates of major world events.
I replayed all of our previous interactions trying to pinpoint instances in which I had done something that you secretly thought was stupid or inappropriate, whereupon even though you didn’t say anything about it all, I assumed made you like me less. I obsessively kept score on all past and potential outcomes until there was no way I could end up anywhere but a zero.
I thought about that one time we hung out, just the two of us, junior year. I called you on the phone. You answered and sounded surprised. This was back when people still called each other on the phone to make plans. Or did they? Maybe I was just behind the curve. Again.
“Do you want to hang out this Monday? We have the day off of school,” I asked.
“Sure,” you said. “What time?”
“When do you wake up?” I asked, even though now I know I should have said, “Whenever.”
“What?” you said.
“Like, when do you get up? How long does it take you to eat breakfast? We can hang out after that.
Lame. Lame. Lame! How could I be so lame!
“How about like seven. We can see a movie or something?” you said.
“Ok. Cool. See you then.”
I can’t believe you even talked to me back then. I was such a loser, you were just too nice to say anything about it, until that fateful day you tipped your hand in my high school year book, and I finally got the memo. I was an idiot, and everyone hated me. Finally. The truth was out.
I made it my mission to keep a mental list of “things I was doing that nobody else seems to be doing, and therefore are totally stupid and, even worse, uncool.” I dedicated years of my life to addressing every humiliating example of past, present and future events when I might have accidentally stood out. If I was the only one listening Disney songs on my work out playlists at the gym, then no more Mulan for me! I got rid of the leggings I got on a class trip to Spain that had clouds all over them, and which I had always thought went so well with my velour zebra trench coat. I also threw away the trench coat.
I no longer made hand puppets out of my bread bowls at Panara.
When you’re making up reasons for other people not to like you, it can be difficult to know when to stop. Clearly other people hate me because of my shoes, but what about that time I said “girl?” in conversation. Was that, like the the worst thing ever? I’ll assume that it was. I am never saying “girl” again. Better be safe… I am never saying anything anymore I haven’t heard someone who is demographically similar to me use previously in conversation and had visibly positive results.
Years, Julie. I spent years trying to figure out why everyone hated me, or at the very least, thought of me to be tragically unhip.
A couple of years ago, I retold the story of my highschool yearbook, and one of my “friends” pointed out that you may have meant your inscription at face value: that you really did think I was cool because I was different and weren’t being sarcastic at all.
I let that notion sit with me, but went back to assuming everyone hated me and trying to come up with reasons why nobody liked me.
This past year, I went to Italy on vacation with a friend. When she ordered white wine at dinner, I got flushed and waited for the waiter to leave. “You can’t have white wine with red meat dishes, Heather!” I said, “You’re supposed to drink red! This is Europe, and people care about these things here! Our waiter must think we’re idiot Americans, not that he didn’t already, because I am wearing open toed flats like an asshole at this very nice restaurant, when I very clearly I should have gone back to the Air B&B to put on heels!”
My friend paused. “You really care what people think about you, don’t you? What’s the worst that can happen. He hates us? We’re never going to see this guy again. Who cares?”
I was jealous that my friend didn’t seem to care at all, that she carelessly sipped white wine up with her steak florentine, which would never dream of doing, myself. . “It’s so cool you don’t care about what other people think of you,” I said to her. I meant it, too.
When I look back on photos taken of me from high school, I am jealous of how truly oblivious I was to the rest of the world, and how confident I was in my choices to tear up fish net tights and wear them as sleeves, instead.
Now I’m working backwards to un-think all of the terrifyingly mean thoughts I assume others are constantly thinking of me, so that compliment can be mine once again. If I tell a joke that doesn’t land in conversation, I assume my friends aren’t going to go home and Yelp about it. I’m not back to my carefree high school days just yet, but did recently bedazzle my own shoes and don’t give a butt about what anyone thinks about them.
So, Julie, I hope you’re happy. No, I really genuinely hope you’re happy. It took me the better part of a decade to understand the depth of your compliment, so I’m sorry this thank you note is overdue. Please don’t hold it against me. Not that I would care if you did.