When I started the seventh grade all the other kids seemed to tower over me in the halls. The girls had women’s bodies, and the ninth grade boys had peach fuzz moustaches. But me? I was just a skinny little kid with the unfortunate nickname of Hollye Smally.
I was a friendly girl, well-liked by most of the kids. I made friends with the nerds, stoners, surfers, black kids, white kids, everyone. It was my outgoing nature, and also a good survival tactic. So I kept smiling and waving, smiling and waving…But there was one girl, Liz Baker, who just hated me. I mean, hated. And the strange thing was, I didn’t even know her.
Liz was a tough, mean, athletic girl, and a ninth grader – which meant she was untouchable to a scrub like me. She also happened to be twice my size. Whenever she was hanging out with her friends from the softball team and I walked by, I was sure to get thumped on the head followed by a stream of insults. She went on relentlessly about my prissy ways, my long hair, my walk, my skinny ass, you name it. She always called me stuck up, which was almost laughable, since she didn’t have a clue about my life: my single mother worked nights in a bar, my dad was in prison, and we were on food stamps.
One day I saw her writing “BITCH” on my locker. I waited until she was done, then tried unsuccessfully to scrub it off with wet paper towels. After that I stopped using my locker and carried my books all that year even though my back ached from the weight of them. There wasn’t much I could do but endure the year, and try to avoid running into her around campus. Oh, how I rejoiced on the day she graduated, knowing I’d never have to see her again! Finally, freedom was mine!
Fast forward to thirty years later. I was at a party – a reunion of my Junior High friends. I walked in, no longer Hollye Smally, but an average sized woman with a full life. We were having a great time telling stories from the old days, when I mentioned mean-girl Liz Baker.
“Oh, you mean Larry?” said my friend Kenny, and everyone laughed, but I didn’t get it.
“Are you kidding- you didn’t know?” he howled.
“Liz had a sex change operation. She’s Larry now!”
Everyone whooped and hollered as the jokes flew around the room.
This was my big moment – my chance to finally laugh at Liz and feel victorious. But I didn’t laugh. I felt sad, because in that moment I realized that Liz was just a tortured soul, trapped in the wrong body. She must have really hated herself. And there I was, the embodiment of everything she rejected in herself, with my “prissy” ways, my “long hair” and all my girly-ness. I was a walking bulls-eye. But hearing this news did give me a sense of peace, because I finally got it. It never was about me. It was always her problem.
As an adult, I’ve learned how to tolerate bullies. I never engage in conflict with them nor do I let their taunts and insults settle under my skin, because they aren’t mine to own. I simply won’t swallow the poison they dole out. That ugliness belongs to them alone.
It saddens me these days to read about girls bullying one another. When you’re young, you don’t yet know that one day you will desperately need other women to survive. Whether your relationships are falling apart, you’re raising children, you have health scares, or times of terrifying self-doubt, you’ll need the wisdom of women who’ve been there before you. My sister-friends help me to understand my own heart and mind. I need them like I need the air I breathe. Liz Baker never understood that. The sad irony is I’m a person who would have empathized with her. I have two gay brothers. I’m a huge supporter of the LGBT community. I could have been her ally, had she ever taken the time to know me, but she never did.
I later did a search for Liz-Larry but could never find him. But if I could talk to him today, I would tell him this:
I hope you realize now that there is room for each of us to stand tall, unique in who we are, in this vibrant, diverse garden of humanity. Surround yourself with others in bloom, and when bullies creep up like weeds, even the ones in your own heart, rise above, always keeping your face turned toward the sun.
And finally, I forgive you Liz-Larry Baker, and hope you’ve forgiven yourself. I wish you nothing but peaceful days in your garden.
*(name was changed to protect his identity)