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By Lenore Look
I ran into my first bully in kindergarten. Her name was Lisa and she used to wait for me at the top of a long flight of concrete steps leading into the old Beacon Hill Elementary School in Seattle. When I got to the second-to-the-top step, Lisa would block my way and not let me pass, and then we would begin a terrifying dance back and forth along the edge of the top steps, with me trying to ascend the summit and Lisa doing her darndest to keep me from it. Worse, she would begin her threats, “If you don’t play with me, I’m going to tickle you and make you fall down!”
It was a long way down. But I didn’t want to play with her either. Any six-year-old could see that it was a lose-lose situation. I was going to die if I didn’t play with her, and I was going to die if I did. I dreaded going to school. I dreaded meeting up with Lisa on the steps every morning. And I dreaded falling down those stairs, dead.
According to my kindergarten report card, I was absent thirty-two days in the second marking period – a remarkable feat that I’d always chalked up to being a sick child, but now that I am recalling the bullying, it makes me wonder if the two were not somehow related – was I sick due to the usual childhood viruses, or due to the stress of being bullied? Could I have been faking it on some of those days because it was the only way to avoid my tormentor?
How I ever got into the building and managed to be counted present at all, I have no idea. Lisa probably ran inside as soon as the bell rang because bullies, if not for their aberrant social skills, are prompt, courteous, helpful, rule-followers and models of exemplar behavior when they need to be. That is, when there’s a grown-up nearby. Once inside, I did my best to avoid her, no doubt, and I must have been very good at this because I have no other memories of Lisa. The only tangible proof that Lisa existed at all, is that she’s in my kindergarten class photo, and again in my first-grade class photo – and in the latter, she’s standing off to one side, clutching the class sign, like a prize she had won and dragged away from the rest of us. It isn’t obvious from the photo that she bullied anyone, but looking at it now, I find it interesting that I could cut along an imaginary dotted line and remove her, and the entire rest of the class would still be intact. But if I try to delete anyone else from the picture – we were all sitting or standing very close together – I would destroy the entire image.
Bullies are like that – no one misses them when they’re gone.
And friends are like that too – lose one, and a chunk is taken out of your chest, or your arm will be missing, or your entire left side is gone.
Which brings me to tell you that also in these photos are two of my best friends. I don’t mean my best friends only then, but my best friends now and in every year since kindergarten. Vivian is sitting in the front row, looking every part the fashionista that she was. Always with a keen eye for style and design, she’s now an architect in Boston. Standing behind her is Karri, smiling and happy. Always self-possessed and smart, she’s now a doctor in Seattle. I have many wonderful memories of playing with them after school and on weekends. And in my mom’s photo albums are pictures of them, perennials at my birthday parties through the years until the last one in high school before we left for college.
All of us are moms now and my kids grew up calling Vivian and Karri “aunty.” It’s a Chinese thing, I think, a term of endearment that we bestow upon a friend we consider as close as family. And because their children are still young, I am currently enjoying my aunty status, or in the case of Olivia, Karri’s youngest, who is now five, I’m the “birthday girl” because her mom threw me a birthday party last year, and this year I will return to celebrate another birthday with them.
People are astonished whenever I mention that I still have friends from kindergarten. Their jaws drop when I say that not only were they my childhood buds, but they’re my closest friends now, more than forty years later. And when I allow myself to think about it, to really think about our long, enduring friendships, I’m amazed too, and filled with wonder and a gratitude so deep I will begin to weep.
My close friends are the weave and weft of my life. Even in writing about bullying, it is impossible not to mention them, like a jeweler examining pearls against a dark cloth.
As for the bully, rarely does she ever come to mind.
Karri and Vivian remember her as being “mean.” But none of us knew about the other’s troubles until we were safely grown up. Then we laughed about it. And we said things like, “I can’t believe she did that to you too!”
None of us knows whatever happened to Lisa.
Nor do we have any memories of her besides her cruelty.
We had long snipped along the dotted line without even knowing it.
And none of us missed her.
LENORE LOOK is the author of the popular Alvin Ho series, and several acclaimed picture books, including Polka Dot Penguin Pottery, and Henry’s First-Moon Birthday and Uncle Peter’s Amazing Chinese Wedding, both of which received three starred reviews and were named ALA-ALSC Notable Children’s Books.