I had a bully in school. It wasn’t anything too severe. Sometimes I came home with a few bruises. My self-esteem was more affected than anything. I certainly consider myself one of the lucky ones.
The impression that remains with me is an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. Did you know those feelings can lie dormant in a person and resurface? Suppose ten or more years pass, and you’re walking into a grocery store in your hometown—you could be on your cell phone finishing a call—and someone approaches. You look up, wondering who’s impersonating a human wall in front of you, only to find yourself peering into a face that sends you back to elementary and junior high school. What would you do? Would you drop your eyes and keep talking on the phone, pretending not to have recognized your old bully?
That’s what I did. He walked away. He retreated behind the Hallmark card display. I knew he thought I hadn’t recognized him. I let him think that and kept walking. Mentally, I wanted to greet him, all assured and genial, ready to laugh over those school days. That would’ve been the mature thing to do, after all. Instead, my body reacted as though it was going to perform a none-too-composed sprint into the parking lot. My heart was in my throat. I couldn’t breathe. It was everything I could do to stroll over casually to the produce and pretend he wasn’t there still.
As the initial dread wore off, I became curious: Why was he shopping for cards in the grocery store, his head floating above the display as though it were disembodied*, haunting me like a gruesome nightmare? Why had he approached me and not spoken? That soon changed to indignation. How dare he show his face in the same store! Why didn’t he leave? I hoped he would be gone by the time I came back to the checkout.
While I shopped, I kept a sharp eye out for him, looking over my shoulder at every turn. Gathering milk from the dairy cooler, I slewed round repeatedly, just to keep a constant check on my blind spots. I must’ve looked mad. I felt mad—insane, unreasoning, and furious all at once. Why was I acting like a kid again? Adults don’t act like this! Do they?
It would be nice if I could say I met him again and learned he is actually very nice. I didn’t. The only other thing I recall in that brief meeting was his sweatshirt with the word “Marines.” That was at eye-level. Maybe he’d relocated.
There is no real closure to this. That’s why it makes for a perfect story idea. Most of the stories written begin with a question like, “How would it be?” or “What would have happened?” The best stories are based in fact, where the vivid emotions choke the writer as the words are penned.
So, I went with that. I let Amanda Hartley pour out her soul in her own words about her middle school nemesis, Paul Skinner. Angry rant after angry rant, her life unfolded before me until the anger became knowledge and the knowledge became understanding. I followed her for the next two years, purely through her journal entries addressed to Paul, the notes in school, the Facebook posts and messages, and their texts, and watched her develop confidence and unconventional friendships.
When I finished writing I Have Nothing to Say To You, I knew I’d exorcised my own bully baggage. I also knew the story premise was dated. The term “bully” has undergone a significant makeover in the last decade. Middle grade readers would not be open-minded, having been indoctrinated with almost religious zeal to equate bullies with proud rack-of-dead-deer-posing, Global Warming-loving, nasal brain-scraper-toting Nazis with questionable attributes linking them to a dastardly species of genetically modified zombies. And I shudder to think what terrible creatures those bullies are. Mine was just a mean, often pain-giving, sort of person—still roughly human.
*Edited- This was originally ‘disemboweled.’ (sheepish grin) Thanks, Mom O!