…it will definitely take me longer than 19 minutes to write this post, but should certainly take you considerably less than 19 minutes to read it. If it does take you 19 minutes or longer to read, I highly recommend having your eyes tested…or your IQ…or both. (If you have sufficient wits to have gathered that was a joke, by all means, keep reading.)
I hope it’s not plagiarizing to borrow the title of a book for the title of my blog post. Since I plan to readily acknowledge this fact and credit the author of the book, I’m relatively sure my pants won’t get sued off. I just finished the book Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult (at 2am this morning actually…yes, I’m bleary eyed and mildly stunned at work). Picoult is the author of such books as My Sister’s Keeper and Handle With Care – both of which made me weep profusely. In fact, Handle With Care left me so raw that I didn’t read anything for several months. Seriously. You can read it, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Anyway, despite what I’m about to say about the writing quality, the book left my thick skull overflowing with feelings and opinions, many of which I think are worth sharing (although not all in one blog post because then it would actually take you 19+ minutes to read.) If you’re intrigued by what I have to say, or how I like to say it, stay tuned for my future thoughts on American culture, gun violence and the nature of happiness (yup, happiness – yes, I know it doesn’t seem to fit in that list)…for now, though I’ll at least attempt to stick to how this book made me feel on a personal level.
Just in case you don’t fancy reading an entire book just so that you’ll have a clue what I’m rambling on about, I’ll provide the über-quick and not-even-remotely-comprehensive synopsis that Nineteen Minutes is a novel that centers around a bullied boy who goes on a shooting rampage at his high school. The school shooting topic has been covered a lot in recent works of fiction and to be perfectly honest, with considerably better literary skill. If you feel drawn to the subject or you just think there’s a chance that I have good taste in reading material, I would highly recommend The Hour I first Believed by Wally Lamb and We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. Also, I feel the need to clarify that I’m not obsessed with school shootings: Wally Lamb is among my favorite authors (I hungrily devour anything he writes, and you should too) whereas the Shriver title was simply a best seller that a friend recommended to me.
What I think probably surprised me most about this novel versus the others I mentioned was how great my empathy could be for a character who is a mass murderer. I found myself hoping against hope that there was a chance this boy might not be convicted of the crimes he’d committed. He had endured so much at the hands of his bullies that I didn’t think he deserved any more punishment. Perhaps the author’s ability to convey this suffering so poignantly matters more than the grammatical mistakes she made. (I have a ridiculous internal spell check for which I have yet to locate an off switch and unfortunately it can interfere with my reading pleasure because I can’t help but notice the errors. Sounds useful? It’s not. Nobody yet has offered to pay me for my services so I’m basically just annoying myself…and occasionally others…) But back to the book. As I found myself more and more engaged in the story of Peter, his experiences reminded me of my own and I’d feel my throat tightening in anguish for the little boy who got pushed down so many times he no longer saw the point in getting up; who heard so many unkind words, he started to believe them; whose innocence was shattered by year after year of cruelty.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words cut so much deeper.
Inside me, and sometimes perilously close to the surface of my ridiculously thin skin, my own painful bullying memories remain. I was bullied from grades 3 – 6 at my small-town school. To be fair, what I went through was not at nearly as extreme as the experiences of the character Peter, either in terms of severity or duration. My social status during grades K – 3 was pretty average, I think, and mercifully, the bullying dissipated very significantly after grade 6 because my school fed into a much larger middle school which combined students from about 7 other schools and my bullies were diluted sufficiently to make my life drastically more pleasant. My experiences from grades 7 – 12 were probably completely normal – the odd unkindness or exclusionary action but no more so than is customary for anyone else in the middle of the social road. I was neither an outcast, nor an exalted social princess at the top of the heap. I had good friends to hang out with both at school and outside school. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be relentlessly bullied on a daily basis starting in kindergarten and continuing without ceasing right throughout high school. To be frank, I don’t think I would have survived. I’m confident I wouldn’t have resorted to violence against the instigators but I will readily admit to wishing something bad would happen to them and I’m sure these feelings would have been significantly amplified had the bullying continued through my middle school and high school years. Even at 31, I could give you the name of the kid who made my life so utterly miserable that I would dance a little jig tomorrow if I heard he’d dropped dead of an untimely heart attack or been killed in a fiery car wreck. I know that’s not exactly a flattering admission, but there it is.
About 4 or 5 years ago, not too long after I began using Facebook, this now-full-grown asshole had the audacity to send me a friend request. Seriously. I think he probably saw my name and face on a mutual friend’s list and noticed that I’d turned out pretty well (if I dare say so) and thought ‘why not?’ Now I could have just declined the request and let the matter slip away, but I didn’t feel like it. I wasn’t the mousy, down-trodden, self-conscious child I had been, I was a reasonably well-adjusted, university educated, attractive woman by then and I wasn’t afraid of him anymore. So I sent him back a message that read, simply, ‘Go fuck yourself.’ It produced an intoxicating rush of self-satisfaction. Surprisingly, I got a response. Something to the effect of ‘Whoa, I don’t know where this is coming from’ (which I ignored and deleted promptly. I knew it would be neither healthy nor productive to pursue any further exchange with him.) I was utterly incredulous. How could this guy, who had been the indisputable ring-leader of the bullying contingent, not have a clue as to why I might not want to be buddies online? It pissed me off at the time, but now, with the benefit of hindsight, it makes me incredibly sad. This person left indelible marks on my soul. I can still hear some of the cruel things he said to me ringing in my ears to this day and yet he couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t all warm and fuzzy towards him on Facebook. Those three years were basically the worst of my life. That guy is the reason I still find myself uncomfortable in a crowded room, for fear that people are talking about me. He’s the reason I can’t hear the word ‘hibernate’ without feeling sick inside and the reason I don’t like wooden rulers. He’s the reason the check-boxes on magazine quizzes make me grimace and the reason I squirm at the mention of ‘gifted’ programs. I bet that even though his voice has changed I could still recognize his laugh without seeing his face and that it would still have the power to cut me like a knife. I wish none of this were true, but I can’t help that it is, and maybe it’s healthy occasionally, to pull these ugly memories out of the mental drawer I’ve stuffed them into and see if I can file any of them elsewhere; if I can lighten that load by letting go of any of that poison.
I watched an Oprah program about a year ago that explored the concept of forgiveness. (I think it was one of her Lifeclass shows and I can’t recall who she interviewed but that doesn’t really matter in the least.) Oprah’s guest defined forgiveness as ‘letting go of the hope that the past could have been any different’ and proposed that forgiveness is something you do more for yourself than for the party who wronged you. After some consideration, I have come to the conclusion that, to me, that definition seems more aptly applicable to regret. It is often said that we grant forgiveness and I feel like that expression implies a gift given to the offending party. I don’t think I owe anything to my bully, or his cohorts. I haven’t forgiven them. Their words and actions hurt me so deeply I can’t imagine ever wanting to. But I am willing to concede that I have relinquished my regret over it, and here is why: We are the sum of our experiences and I like myself. I suffered the pain of bullying but it contributed to the woman I have become and I am proud of her. I think she’s pretty great. So very flawed, and complex but so worthwhile a person. I am a good friend, a good wife, a good daughter, a good sister and a good musician, because I am fortunate to have suffered enough to learn empathy.
I had the most wonderful landlady in my fourth year of university. She lived in a beautiful century-old cottage in a quaint neighbourhood, and I rented an apartment in her basement. She was Finnish and had the most beautiful accent and was so very kind: sometimes she would invite me into her home for a visit and a cup of tea or glass of wine, there was an occasion when she did my laundry for me ‘just because’, and the time when I went to her back door, bawling because there was a centipede in my bathroom (I’m terrified of them, and yes, I know that’s ridiculous but they just have so many legs!) She marched down into my apartment and vanquished the evil insect, even though I was 23 years old and really ought to be killing my own bugs! Anyway, I went through a rough time in the fall of that year and ended up moving home for a couple of months to pull myself together (I found my landlady’s friend dead in his car in her driveway, and then I got dumped by a guy I was really into and I just sort of crumbled.) When I came back to school, she invited me in for a chat one evening. I will never forget what she told me as long as I live. She looked at me with such compassion and she said ‘Some people are as deep as a plate because they go through their whole lives without anything bad happening to them. When we get hurt, it builds character.’ Of course, she was right. It felt like a hollow consolation at the time, but it was such valuable wisdom. Some of the warmest, most interesting people I’ve ever met are the ones whose lives have not followed easy paths.
I wish I truly believed that the current attention being given to bullying in the media was translating into a less damaging experience for the victims in our schools. The truth is, I don’t really buy it. There will always be bullies and there will always be kids who are vulnerable for one reason or another. Teachers and parents can’t be watching and listening at every moment of every day, and so the cycle continues. I’m not suggesting that current educational and disciplinary tactics should be abandoned, but maybe – just perhaps, what we should be telling these kids; the victims, is that it can only get better. That it’s seriously overrated to peak in your adolescent years. That they’re likely to be the coolest adults around.
That there’s a whole world out there that values diversity and uniqueness and it can’t wait for them to arrive.