Students and young readers often ask me if I was bullied as a child. It’s a fair question, since bullying is a major topic in both of my young adult novels (BUTTER and DEAD ENDS), and it deserves an honest answer.
Yes, I tell them, I was bullied. Sometimes, the youngest—and bravest—students will ask how I was bullied. Then we do a little dance in which I sidestep the details of my own seventh grade nightmare and tell them instead about how that nightmare came back to haunt me years later.
I was on a visit home from college, and I met up with some friends at a coffee shop—my coffee shop, the safe haven where I spent most of my happy high school days trying to forget the way kids had treated me in junior high. It was there, in my safe place, where one of the faces I’d hoped to forget suddenly popped up across the crowded coffee house. She wasn’t the meanest mean girl, but she had definitely been cruel.
I hadn’t seen any of my seventh grade tormentors since my parents had moved me two towns and a whole school district away from them, but suddenly I was thirteen years old again. I would have run for the exit if she hadn’t been staring right at me. And she didn’t just make eye contact. To my horror, she actually started pushing through the crowd to get to me.
I probably held my breath, waiting to hear what she had to say. I didn’t have to wait long. She said her name, asked if I remembered her, then she got right to the point.
“I’m sorry for the way we all treated you back then.”
I think her apology went on a little longer, but my mind got stuck on “I’m sorry.” Her words were meant to heal, but they only opened up old wounds. In an instant, all of my seventh grade shame and anger was fresh again. I believe I responded to her apology with something dead clever, like, “Uh. Okay.” Then I went and hid in the bathroom.
It was a one-in-a-billion moment that I squandered when I failed to forgive her. Years later (because yes, it took years), I realized my mistake and tried to track her down, but despite this age of social media and global connectedness, I’ve never been able to find her to accept her apology. So I forgive her the best way I know how—by writing characters in shades of gray—even the “bad guys,” because those bad guys may just grow up to be good guys.
I tell this story to students because I want them to know when I write about bullying, I don’t just write for the bullied. I write for the bullies, too.
“Bullying” has become such a buzzword in recent years, it’s almost lost its meaning. The media like to make it all very black and white, good kids and bad kids, victims and villains. (I feel safe in my media critique, since, as a TV journalist, I am part of the cycle of oversimplification.) But what I can’t do when writing facts, I try to do when writing fiction—and that is to tell a deeper truth about bullying.
That truth is this:
We are all the victim. We are all the bully. This week’s mean girl is next week’s target, and people who are capable of great cruelty are also capable of great kindness.
I learned that lesson from Judy Blume, actually.
I read BLUBBER at the exact right moment in my life—at a time when it mirrored my own experiences. I didn’t know then that it was a book about “bullying.” I thought it was a book about my life! I recognized all of the mean girls from my own classes, and I identified with how quickly the narrator’s status among her peers changed, as she slid from the top of the social totem pole to the bottom. BLUBBER was relatable, and years later, when I started writing my own books, I knew I wanted to try to do what Judy Blume did—to write what felt real.
If a young reader walks away from one of my books thinking a little harder about how they treat people, or vowing to not just stand by the next time they see someone doing something hurtful, then so much the better, but all I really want is for readers to connect, to see a little piece of their own reality in my stories. For me, bullying is just a part of that reality, and I can’t imagine writing books for teens without it.
And maybe some small part of me hopes if I keep writing about bullying, then someday, somewhere, a girl who used to be cruel but grew up to be compassionate and brave enough to right her wrongs, will pick up one of my books and read between the lines those words I couldn’t say to her all those years ago.
I forgive you.
Erin Jade Lange writes facts by day and fiction by night. As a journalist, she is inspired by current events and real-world issues and uses her writing to explore how those issues impact teenagers. Erin grew up in the cornfields of northern Illinois, along the Mississippi River in one of the few places it flows east to west. She now lives in the sunshine of Arizona and will forever be torn between her love of rivers and her love of the desert.
© 2013 Erin Jade Lange. Author photo: Matt Helm. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.