FIRST PERSON

It Got Better So Why Was I Still Angry When I Met My Bully From High School?

bullyIt didn’t take long for the kids in my high school to call me a faggot. What started as an insult in the corridor of the main building my freshman year quickly echoed into four years of prank phone calls, threatening IMs, and physical assaults. However, Dan Savage’s sermon is not a lie. It did get better after high school. But while my life changed in so many ways, when I reflected on those awkward years, I found myself furious, and still holding a grudge. It wasn’t until over 10 years later, when I came face-to-face with my bully at a small bar in Miami did I find forgiveness.

High school wasn’t the first time I was bullied. I had been called a faggot, queer, mariposa, and flamer at my small Catholic junior high school in Miami because of my over-stylized hair and obsession with Sailor Moon. It didn’t end with name calling in junior high. During Ms. Boffil’s religion class, while we were readying ourselves for the sacrament of Confirmation, the other boys would poke my butt with their Paper Mate ballpoint pens while softly chanting “fag” in my ear.

I found confidence the summer before high school. The new school I would attend was in Coconut Grove, and no one I knew was going there. I would finally be liberated from my tormentors. This newfound confidence translated itself into how I acted. I became extroverted, talking with my hands and letting my emerging lisp run free. I made bold fashion choices: frosting the tips of my hair and wearing tight tees from Pacific Sunwear. For the first time in my life I was proud when I looked into the mirror.

On that first day of high school, there was no one else with frosted tips. The metamorphosis I had gone through over the summer only made me a neon target at the new school. Words like “fag” and “gay” were remerging. I dyed my hair brown but it seemed every thing I did, from how I wore my uniform to the way I walked, was deemed gay by my new peers.

“You walk like a pato,” one girl told me. “Walk like a man. You don’t want to be gay do you?”

I eventually made friends in high school, but there were always plenty of people ready to bully me. Some were overt about it, shoving me in a locker like a sad cliché. Others were more coy, sending me anonymous IMs with the word pato. But there was one person who’s bullying made me feel helpless, and I carried his cruelty with me the years following high school. For the sake of this article I’ll call him TJ.

TJ was not the meathead, Karofsky archetype from Glee that one normally thinks of when talking about bullies. He was a straight A student, in AP classes, and constantly on the morning announcements for his accomplishments. If there was anyone who was going to be valedictorian of La Salle High School in 2002 it was going to be TJ. He was also charming, able to win over large crowds with jokes and sat at the head of his lunch table like a king.

It’s easy to look back and say TJ was taking out some buried insecurity out on me. That wasn’t true. In fact he was the opposite of insecure. He was confident.

bullyOne morning junior year, TJ chased me to biology class, storming the classroom, and exclaiming in front of everyone, “You’re a faggot, Paul.”

Another time, an online message board was started. The message board was a sign of rebellion against the school’s administration, as evident of the communist Cuba motif it sported. On the board there was a thread dedicated to my sexuality with the usual slurs being thrown. Weeks after the thread was started, our dean pulled me aside to say, “Don’t worry, they won’t call you gay on the Internet anymore.”

The founder of the message board was never revealed, but in my opinion it was clear who started it — or at the very least who had a hand in its creation.

Over the years I forgot about the message board and biology class, but what stuck was the humiliation. Not the humiliation of being embarrassed, but rather the humiliation that TJ knew me better than I knew myself. He announced to everyone I was a faggot before I had the chance to discover it, and I had to defend myself without knowing exactly what a faggot was. He forced me to say in front of everyone, “No! I’m not a faggot!” as if being a faggot was the worse thing imaginable.

High school ended. My college years were truly the best of my life, and then I moved to Manhattan.

I spent this past summer back home finishing my first novel. My friend Karina invited me to grab drinks with her, and a few other people from high school at a small bar in downtown Miami. We drank, laughed and got along. No one called me a fag and instead congratulated me on my accomplishments. It seemed any ill feelings were in the rearview mirror.

Then Karina exclaimed, “TJ is on his way.”

I spent over 10 years playing scenarios of running into TJ in my head, and how I would confront him as an adult. And yet I was trembling with both fear and anger at the thought of seeing him again.

TJ made eye contact with me when he stepped out of the cab. I ignored him and went back to my conversation. The post-high school stereotypes are true. Bullies do become overweight. I don’t say this out of spite but to demonstrate that from the second I saw TJ that night he didn’t seem mythological anymore. He looked vulnerable and unsuspectingly human. I continued to ignore him and as the evening progressed it began to feel anticlimactic. How could I not confront TJ? I owed it to my inner kid.

Karina was with him at the bar when I approached. We gave each other half a hug. He knew I was in New York, and mentioned he went to law school in Queens. I steered the conversation to how great my life was, telling him about the book, fabulous Manhattan parties and how much I paid for my sneakers. In retrospect showing off must have given away that I had something to prove, but at the time I thought it was pivotal in establishing self respect. I kept mentioning I was gay to let him know he was right back in high school. I was a faggot and a proud one at that.

TJ said he’ll tell everyone in his office to buy the book, and picked up my drink as a congratulations. We took the conversation outside and at no point did it feel right to tell him off. After several shots of tequila, we were left alone. In my drunken stupor I asked what else he was up to, and he replied proving himself.

“I’m like Jay Gatsby,” he mumbled, intoxicated. “I’ve climbed up from nothing to impress this girl.”

I placed my hand on his shoulder, acknowledging the man I held a grudge towards no longer existed, and said something to the effect of “Well, she’s an idiot if she can’t accept you for who you are.” And we clinked our tequila.

We forget it does not get better for bullies after high school. Where we spent years thickening our skin, they are released into the world no longer kings of their lunch tables. I never asked Karina if TJ said anything about me. In the weeks that followed I found myself silently rooting for TJ, hoping he got the girl and learned to get over his insecurity. More importantly, I found forgiveness and closure. I no longer remembered him as a monster, but rather as a boy in need of love.

UPDATE:

TJ reached out to me after reading this article. He wasn’t angry. In fact, he praised the writing and my ability to be objective. Most of all he apologized for his behavior during high school.
 

I wasn’t seeking an apology when I wrote this piece. What I wanted to do was remind all of us who have been bullied that it’s imperative to forgive and that bullies are human too. But even so, receiving that apology demonstrated TJ’s own character and how much he has grown since high school. And yes, life got better for him as well.