On Friendship and Forgetting

There were two articles in the Boston Globe this morning that I read with interest. One was about the changing definition of “friendship” in the world of social networking. The other was about the ongoing Phoebe Prince case.

For the most part, I benefit from social networking, as much as I tend to grumble about it. There have been many people from my past that have reached out, and I have been more than happy to hear from them. I accept their offer of virtual “friendship” in most cases. But how many people on this list of “friends” really fit the pre-Facebook definition? How many of them could I call when I’m feeling down? How many of them are on my Christmas card list? How many of them know anything about me other than what I vomit up onto my wall?

Lately, I’ve been turning down requests. If someone can’t be bothered to include a few words about how he or she knows me, then I’m simply not inclined to accept the offer. My own list of “friends” numbers close to 600. Sometimes, I have to go through the list to see if I actually KNOW most of these people. Because of my Irish Catholic heritage, a good deal of them are related to me. Others I know from having played in a band for several years. And many more are people with whom I went to school: grad school, college, high school. Finally, there is a small handful of people from my elementary school.

I am very, very guarded when it comes to encountering people from that particular time of my life. I’ve certainly made it no secret here that I was bullied, pretty relentlessly, during the last two years of my time at that school. I have spent years hashing this over, wondering what I did to deserve it. I was a wise-ass and a loudmouth. I made my feelings known. Only fairly recently have I been able to really say: “No. No one deserves that. I did not deserve that.”

I was bullied because I was weird, fat, not rich. The barrage of mental and verbal cruelty did not cease outside of the school, either. I was prank-called at home, on weekends. When I transferred to another school, there were girls waiting to pick up where the others had left off, having been appraised of the situation (which was that I was a loser and deserving of absolutely no peace). The turmoil died down once I got into high school, at which point I’d found an outlet for my pain, and the friends who’ve remained my friends to this day.

Phoebe Prince didn’t have the chance that I got. Seeing no end to it, she did the only thing she believed would take away that pain. In today’s article, two of her accused tormenters faced Mrs. Prince and heard, from her own mouth, what it was like to hold her daughter’s cold body. They were put on probation, required to perform community service. But more importantly, they were shown that actions have consequences. They will always remember having to stand trial. They will not forget what happened.

While I struggle with the idea of legislating classroom behavior, the fact that these kids will not escape the memory of this ugliness, and what that ugliness wrought, is a good thing. Because I have certainly found that people – by and large – don’t remember having been truly, genuinely ugly to others. And you know what? I get it. The years go by, you put away “childish things,” you get married and divorced, you raise children of your own, you rotate through a series of jobs and offices. How can you be expected to remember what you did when you were 12?

The burden, the ramifications, of that behavior almost always is carried by the recipient.

Several months ago, I got a Facebook “friend” request from someone from that school. And she DID introduce herself, she did remind me how I knew her. And she excitedly informed me that there were many others from that school with Facebook profiles. She told me that I should definitely add them all. She didn’t mention that she had called me fat, that she had asked me – in front of everyone – when my pregnancy was going to come to term. Because I’m sure she didn’t remember this. She didn’t remember that I left that school in the middle of seventh grade. She didn’t remember harrassing my younger sister – still a student there – demanding the details of why I had left.

I declined her offer. I’m sure she’s a lovely woman. Pillar of her community and all that. I am, despite what you may be reading into all of this, at peace with what happened. I have, to the best of my ability, “gotten over it.” I try to be aware of the marks that bullying has made on me. With the help of others, I have come to understand my “role” in it. I have become aware that my responses to the world around me have been informed by my past experiences. I have learned much about my reactions to people and situations, and I have come to understand that when these reactions are inappropriate, I need to apologize for them. And to some extent, I have learned to forgive myself, as well as the people who bullied me.

But I don’t need their “friendship.” I’ve got plenty of friends.

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