This is a First Person column by Melanie Chambers, who lives in Rossland, B.C. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
It happened over three decades ago, and yet, as I type a message to my high school bully, my hands are shaking. I feel like I’m once again back in the hallways of Dartmouth High, walking toward her. Back then, I would keep my eyes to the floor until, wham, she shoulder checked me and sent me stumbling and my books and pens flying. Her cackling laughter would fade as she walked away, leaving me on my knees to collect my things.
But now, decades later, seeing her photos occasionally pop up on friends’ Facebook pages, I reach out.
“I wanted to know why I became a target for you? Had I egged you on in some way? Or, was it that I was with someone you wanted?”
Click. Sent. Message gone. Deep breath. But as I stand up to get a drink to calm my nerves, I notice the tiny dots moving on the screen. She’s already responding! I sit back down and wait for Kendra’s message.
“I’m so sorry that you think of yourself as a target of mine….it feels so awful to know I’ve had that kind of negative lasting impact on anyone. Especially someone who didn’t do anything to me to deserve it. Please be clear you did nothing wrong. It was all me.”
In a long thoughtful reply, Kendra revealed her own experiences of trauma, sexual assault and years of therapy. It was so much more than a single answer. So much more than what I’d asked for.
As a child, I was often targeted by my female peers. In Grade 4, I stood out as the new kid. Our family moved from Dartmouth, N.S., to the sleepy rural shores of St. Margaret’s Bay and I often wore my mother’s hand-me-down blazers and dresses. At recess one day, several Grade 6 girls backed me into the brick wall like a prisoner facing a firing squad.
“Prissy girl, who do you think you are?” they yelled.
Later, in Grade 9, when I dared to date a friend’s former boyfriend, my friend group ostracized me for the rest of high school.
Kendra was a grade above me, and we’d never spoken before she began bullying me in Grade 10, but because of her, I dreaded school that year. When she finally got the new boy I was dating, (he dumped me for her), the teasing subsided, but the damage was done: I’d learned women were the competition.
When I met Kendra on Zoom not long after our initial Facebook messages, she revealed more.
“Do you remember when we had to be pulled apart from one another in the school bathroom?” she asked. No. I had blocked this memory of us pulling at each other’s hair entirely. What else was I suppressing?
We made plans to meet face-to-face when I was in Halifax a couple of months later. I was writing a memoir about female sexuality, and I was curious to meet her. Perhaps this bullying incident might explain why I had always found it hard to trust other women. After we signed off, I closed my laptop and sobbed, shocked at my relief. Her words released three decades of tension I never knew I carried.
When we finally met in person, we hugged intensely.
Initially, gazing into her eyes after so many years felt surreal, confusing and scary. Women are notoriously hard on one another: we gossip, we vilify one another. But in those three hours over dinner, she often touched my arm and said my name reassuringly as we talked about age, sexuality, the shame of being a sexually curious woman, body image, therapy, mothers, fathers and relationships. We said all the things we’d learned about what it meant to be a woman. We discovered we were more similar than different.
Saying goodbye, we hugged again.
“You were a gift to me, Melanie,” she told me several times over the course of our dinner.
I realized I had given her a chance to say she was sorry and reconcile the past. Her words were healing for me, too. I often mistrusted women and her message softened some of that judgement. It changed how I view women — we all have our back stories. And this time, we were finally on the same side. As friends.
If you or someone you know is struggling with bullying, here’s where to get help:
Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (phone), live chat counselling on the website.
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