by Emma Baines-Dinning
‘I’ll swap you,’ she said, proffering an empty cassette-tape case.
How could I say no?
This coming from the girl used to getting exactly what she wanted when she saw it. The girl who’d look right through me and say to her tribe, ‘Can you hear that?’ her words dripping in the kind of sarcasm and malice specific to children who have learned it, a wall of tiny, impenetrable, whispering, tormenting backs assembling in front of me, my invisibility lasting for as long as she saw fit and for a myriad of misdemeanours: speaking to someone she didn’t like, being kept off school sick, not following her demands, thinking for myself.
I looked down at my new mittens, Minnie Mouse smiled back at me from under her fluttery cartoon lashes. I wasn’t being offered the opportunity to swap. The question was not: how could I say no? It was: do I dare tell her no? I was the bug she had pinned under a stick.
I slid my mittens off and handed them over, pocketed the rubbish she’d obviously pilfered from the door of her mum’s car, remembered to look thankful. It had been such an uncomplicated and seamless transaction until my mum, justifiably angry I’d given away my new mittens for a piece of worthless junk, got them back for me.
Only I could see the sense in giving something I treasured away for nothing. Only I knew what it would mean to have something she wanted back within my possession.
Twenty-four years later and I’m listening to my sister’s breath catch in her throat on the other end of the phone. I’m hearing her voice break helplessly as she tells me my kind, funny and smart eight-year-old niece is being bullied at school. She reads me notes that my niece has written to herself. She confides in dogeared bits of paper that she hates her life, that she doesn’t feel heard, that no one likes her, that she’s stupid. I listen to my sister detail all the ways in which these kids pick and peck and poke and prod all day long until my niece is broken and scared and tearful by bedtime.
My heart cracks clean in two for her.
“Know this: their insecurity is not yours to carry. You are not like them.”
I think about what would have made a difference to me had I known then what I know now my bully. I think about what will make a difference to my niece and I decide on this:
A bully is riddled with fear.
Underneath those layers of spite and intimidation and untrustworthiness is a girl or boy who is scared. The only way a bully knows how to cope with being inside their own skin, is to try to make you feel just as unsure about being in yours.
The names they call you; the underhand way they position you in situations rigged to make you look guilty, the vicious rumours they start behind a cupped hand over an impressionable ear; the playtimes they’ve deliberately made you a spectator in their games, dangling under your nose the friendships you so desperately long to be part of; the lonely feeling of exclusion settling like a rock in the pit of your belly in each of these moments is a feeling your bully knows right down to their sad and lonely bones.
Know this: their insecurity is not yours to carry. You are not like them. You do not have to believe the hurtful things they say about you, you can choose to believe in your own truth instead. And knowing your own truth is where your power lies.
All this to say: do not change, darling girl.
Stay kind. Keep having the courage to stand firm in your compassion for others, and don’t ever be swayed to treat other people badly just to find a way to fit in. A bully doesn’t know how to extend kindness to others, like you, because they don’t know how to be kind to themselves first.
Do not bend yourself out of shape trying to convince someone to like you. It cannot be done. Do not think that by letting someone treat you poorly, you will eventually earn their respect. You won’t. A true friend will love you just as you are, they will celebrate what makes you, you. They will let you see your magnificence through their eyes in small ways and big ways and in all the days you’re lucky enough to know them. They will lift you up, always. They will not see to it that what makes you dazzle gets extinguished. A true friend will bask in your light so that you can bask in theirs because there is room enough for both of you to shine.
And if ever you are left questioning who you really are to someone who calls you a friend but seldom acts like it, then they are not really your people. You will know who your people are when you find them, and you will. Because true friends are the family you choose.
True friends are the ones who feel like home to you.
Emma is a greedy reader, a storyteller, and a work in progress, writing about love, life, being brave and being face down in the dirt. Basically, talking about her feelings on the internet is her jam.