Your Bullying Did Not Break Me by Katie Bucklein
Sometimes, when I think back to my high school years, they feel like yesterday. In a way, they were. I graduated in 2012 as an eighteen-year-old with a single blonde stripe in my brown hair (18yo-me thought it was bad-ass) and a goal to one day become the Secretary of Defense (lofty, I know). But that’s still four years between high school and now, where I am as a twenty-one-year-old college senior determined to become a real life Abigail Chase and a published author.
But what I want to talk about occurred back in 2009, during the first months of my freshman year of high school. To provide a bit of backstory, I had moved to Arizona with my family (two older brothers, two younger sisters, two parents, and a crazy dog) when I was in 7th grade. I wasn’t a very social person, very shy and bookish, of which I am very glad. Had I not been that person, I would never be where I am today. I don’t even think I would be writing, so even though moving was a horror story at the time, I’m glad it happened. I had two lives, if you will: one at school, where I had a best friend (we shall dub her Saruman), and one at home, where I had another best friend in my neighborhood (we shall dub her Sauron).
By the time we entered high school, Sauron had decided to attend the school that Saruman and I had been accepted into. It’s a small school, no more than 200 students. My graduating class was 40 total. And I thought Sauron, Saruman, and I would become the Three Musketeers. Saruman and Sauron had hit it off almost immediately after I introduced them that first day of freshman year, but as we had differing schedules, I was not in their orbit. The only time I saw the two of them was during lunch and passing periods, since our lockers were nearby each other.
To this day, I’m not entirely sure what happened to cause all of this to begin to unfold. Perhaps it was because they were together all the time, and I had to make other friends in my schedule of classes. Perhaps it was because I wasn’t “cool” enough to hang out with them. After all, I was awkward and shy and dorky. (I recall, about a year after I had been friends with Saruman, she told me, “I thought you were this weird short girl when I first saw you.” Perhaps that should have been a signal that she wasn’t the best person to keep around, but I digress.) But somehow, over a gradual progression, I grew further and further apart from Saruman and Sauron, despite trying my hardest to hold onto their friendships. During the first dance of the school year is when it all began to appear. Saruman and Sauron were getting asked to dance by boys, while I continued to dance with my other new friends. This pushed me even further from their orbit. Then Saruman ran out crying, and I followed to see if I could help her feel better, which in hindsight was definitely the wrong thing to do. How? I’m not entirely sure.
After that first dance, things continuously got worse. I was excluded from hang-outs, from parties, from shopping trips to the mall. When they saw me in the quad, they looked away, and only acknowledged me if I walked up to them and inserted myself into their conversations. I recall during one lunch period, Saruman and Sauron were sitting on the field eating with their friends, and I walked up with one of mine to join them. I was definitely on the outskirts, but as tenacious as I was, I thought inserting myself was the best way to show I wanted to still be friends. They clearly saw me as an annoyance. That was the day I was given the name “Katie Fucklein” (rather than my true last name, Bucklein). It was made explicitly clear that they did not want me near them, as I overheard the two of them whispering that I shouldn’t be there because weirdo me didn’t belong with their new, cooler friends. I wish I could remember what was said, but alas, it’s one of those treasured high school memories we all end up suppressing.
Time passed, and the bullying didn’t get any better. A rumor began to spread that Sauron wanted to punch me every time she saw me passing her in the quad. I had successfully kept it a secret from my family, but the day I heard that rumor I burst into tears when my mom picked me up from school. So we drove around for an hour or two while I told her everything that had been going on. When we got home, she called Sarumon’s mother (a teacher at the school) and the principal. With the two of them on alert, I was given permission by my parents that if worse came to worst and Sarumon or Sauron physically attacked me, I was allowed to hit back as hard as possible. I told another friend—in confidence—that the school was now aware of the bullying I was facing. This friend turned around and told Sauron and Saruman, telling me that she wanted to warn them about any bad things happening. I was furious, but I forgave her. Why? I’m not sure. It just happened. My mom said it was a good thing Sauron and Saruman knew about the school being on alert, but I was upset.
You would think that this would cause them to stop bullying me. You would be wrong. It got worse, and spread to another high school, where a girl Saruman and I had gone to middle school with attended. This girl was told that I had said horrible things about her, and then Saruman and Sauron gave her my cell phone number. The texts began slowly, as though she wanted to make sure that I was truly Katie and not someone else. When my identity was indeed confirmed (I, naively, thought it was perhaps a boy who had a crush on me but was too shy to talk to me in person), she began to send me threatening texts. Saying that she wanted to meet up with me behind our local movie theater with some of her male friends to “talk things over and come to an agreement.” That text came when I was at a music recital with my family, and I once again burst into tears. I’m not someone who cries easily, so my parents swooped in. My dad called up the girl and asked to speak to her mother with the girl on the line. The mother was very blasé about it all, very unconcerned that her daughter was threatening to attack me with her male friends. It was only when my dad threatened to get the police involved that the girl apologized. Then, since I had Sauron’s phone number, my mom called her up and talked to her for a good hour or two. Prior to high school, Sauron had often come over to my house and become quite close with my family, so my mom hoped to break through whatever was going on inside Sauron’s head.
I’m not sure if it worked, though Sauron shed many a tear.
A few days later, I was at a play my younger sister was in with Saruman’s younger sister, when Saruman’s older sister came up to me. I was worried, of course, despite her always being friendly with me. To my surprise, she told me she knew everything that was going on, and that she was on my side. I was dumbstruck, to put it in a word. How could Saruman’s older sister be on my side, over her sister’s? Whatever the reason, it made me feel a lot better. I was a lowly freshman, but this senior and her friends were on my side when most of the freshman population was not.
The last thing I ever heard from Sauron and Saruman about all of this was that Sauron wished I would leave the school so she didn’t have to see my face again. But at the end of freshman year, Sauron was the one to leave for another school due to her bad grades. I survived. Saruman and I never rekindled our friendship (something I do not regret), but I recall there were many instances where we happened to be in the same room together or washing our hands at the bathroom sinks, and she would avert her eyes, guilty. By the time we were seniors, she had graduated to soft “hello’s”. I’m a firm believer in the motto “kill them with kindness,” so that’s what I did. The only thing I do regret is never finding out what truly caused the two of them to turn on me. (Perhaps it was Sauron’s mind tricks. Who knows?)
I was lucky enough to have a great family, amazing teachers, and a wonderful friend who helped me through it all. Looking back, I am glad I went through this, because now not only do I know I can survive something as traumatizing as that experience was, but also because I have this knowledge in my pocket to help my sisters (now eighteen/a senior and sixteen/a sophomore) and other teenagers who are going through situations like this. It shaped me into the person I am today, but it’s only with time that I’ve been able to be glad that it happened.
My two main takeaways are:
1) Find just one friend you can always count on. For me, this friend was the difference between drowning and breathing.
2) Do not be afraid to tell adults about what you’re going through. I know teenagers—myself included as a fourteen-year-old—often want to tackle things on their own. But had I not looped my parents and the school in, I’m not sure what would have happened.
To Saruman and Sauron: I hope you read this one day, or find one of my books on a bookstore shelf, and remember what you did to me when I was fourteen. I hope you realize your bullying did not break me. And I hope you know that I have forgiven you. We are all capable of messiness when we’re teenagers trying to make our places in the world of high school, but that doesn’t mean we have to let it shape who we are as adults.
Katie Bucklein started writing at the age of twelve, when a girl challenged her to a dare: who could finish writing a novel first? Spoiler: Katie won, and has since written contemporary, historical fiction, and dystopian, but found fantasy to be her true love. Now a student of history at Idaho State University, she spends her days researching stories of past civilizations and people, with an intention to one day be a real life Abigail Chase, and her nights holed up in her writing cave, fueled by music and insomnia.