After Emily Bazelon’s new book about bullying, Sticks and Stones, came out last month, Double X wondered what it was like to be on the giving end of schoolyard torture. Do bullies know that they’re bullies? Do they regret their actions in hindsight? Can they change? We published a confession by Carly Pifer, “I Was A Mean Girl,” and asked readers to submit their own stories of cruelty and (perhaps) redemption. The series runs this week. Entry No. 3 is printed below.
I met Ben in sixth-grade choir class when we were assigned to the same small group. Neither of us could sing well so we stuck together and mumbled as the others carried the tune.
He was shy but funny, goofy in unguarded moments, and when I’d visit his house, we’d spend time in the basement with his BB gun taking shots at his action figures and childhood toys. Ben fired a BB right into G.I. Joe’s privates one day. It was the funniest thing ever. “He’ll never have a sex life!” Ben shouted, and we could hardly breathe for our laughter. Ben’s father heard us and frowned: “You boys should go outside.”
Ben didn’t have many other friends because of how quiet he was, but I played sports and mingled in other groups. Two of my best friends, Kevin and Steve, were from Little League and from the pick-up games on weekends in the school lot. Steve was a bit like me—somewhat easy-going, not one to lead a group. Kevin was the loud one. Big and bold, he’d wear a purple baseball hat with a single horn sticking out from the front center.
Ben spent the night once, and the next morning, I got a call from Steve: “Hey, we’re going to the school to play baseball. Wanna come?”
“Sure,” I answered, without thinking to ask Ben what he wanted to do.
When Kevin and Steve arrived, the four of us attempted to play catch in my backyard, but it didn’t go well. Kevin threw the ball to Ben, and it bounced off the edge of his mitt and then ricocheted off his left ear and into the bushes. He winced, and his ear turned red. Kevin and Steve found that hilarious. I didn’t, but I didn’t say anything. I just ran over and got the ball and threw it to Steve.
Every subsequent throw by Steve and Kevin to Ben was either very fast or just out of reach. He tried his best, but he missed most of them and received only laughter for his efforts.
“Ha! You throw like a girl,” Kevin said more than once. And me, I never defended him, not even when he tripped and did a nose-dive into the grass while dodging a particularly fast throw from Steve. He stained his shirt, a short-sleeve collared thing with three buttons at the neck that was far from cool, and got a scratch on his arm. Steve and Kevin doubled over in laughter and went into a few dancing choruses of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” No one helped Ben get up, and even I sang along with the second chorus, me with my terrible singing voice.
“I’m going to the bathroom,” Ben said.
He went inside then, and the rest of us waited and waited.
“Let’s head to the schoolyard,” Kevin suggested.
And we left.
That was pretty much the end of our friendship. I never went back to his house. He never came back to mine. And I wasn’t smart enough to understand why it worked out that way.
Six months later, my family moved out of state, and Ben faded into my past. It took time and distance, and a lot of both of those, to make me realize what I did to him. It was a moment when three boys crossed a line from fun teasing to bullying and open derision. The dynamic of that afternoon got turned on its head, and none of us did anything to right it, even though it would have been an easy thing: “Hey, you OK? Sorry about that throw.”
Maybe Ben would be glad to know that I remember him more fondly than Kevin or Steve. It’s from regret, of course, but not completely. He made me laugh then, and I still laugh now to think of him taking aim, the smile on his face before he pulled the trigger, the joy, the exclamation.
“He’ll have no sex life!”