January 19, 2014

On Bullying (& How That Thing Called Karma Gets Us All in the End). ~ Helga Lewenberg

I was thinking about someone from my past the other day.

The word “bully” pops up all over the media these days. I hear the word “bully,” and you might as well say his name. Ryan.

I was raised by a single mom in Dallas, Texas with my three sisters. We got by. Food in our bellies, roof over our head. But there wasn’t room for extras in our lives. Our clothes came from K-Mart or Target. In case anyone doesn’t know, Target, back in their early years, was the equivalent to K-Mart. Sometimes she shopped the Goodwill, sometimes a garage sale. Payless for shoes.

My mom scored me two pairs of almost perfect condition Britannia jeans at a garage sale in the spring of 1982, at the end of 6th grade, that by utter chance fit perfectly. I loved them. Until that fall, 1982, when I started junior high.

So many new kids from different schools. All of a sudden we were defined by what we wore. Nike. London Fog. Izod, Kaepa. Gloria Vanderbilt. Esprit. Jordache. Calvin Klein. Polo. I had none of these clothes. So what was I defined as?

A target.

Like a bull’s-eye on my belly, the more I tried to keep my head down, keep quiet and blend in, the more I stuck out as the perfect kid to pick on. And pick they did! Like pros, these kids. My Britannias were C-list level as far as they were concerned. I didn’t even have the B-List back up jeans—Chic, Lee, Sassoon, Levis. But at least they weren’t Wranglers. Woe is the kid wearing Wranglers.

You know what I hated about Payless shoes back then? They would put their lame version of the Nike Swoosh® symbol that screamed “fake.” No one fell for it. Might as well take a Sharpie pen to our shoes and write “Not Nike!” on them.

One kid in particular made my life hell.


He was small with mean, squinty eyes. And to make matters worse, he was in my home room, and lunch section. He and his buddy Kevin—also in my home room and lunch section—just used to drill me daily. So I had a possible three interactions a day with them.

He was relentless, as mean as a kid gets.

Digs at how poor we must be, or how lame (fill in the blank—whatever piece of clothing he had his barbs ready for) was. Or if he got tired of picking on the clothes, he would find something else to belittle. My name. (“Go to Hell…ga! Get it? Helga. Go to Hell ga! Hahahaha!” Look around for laughs, get a few. Yes, Ryan, that is truly hilarious!) My teeth were in desperate need of orthodontics. He just made it his mission.

I was quiet and intimidated, never defending myself. Too meek.

I was able to spend the summer of 1982, before middle school, in Germany. My grandparents lived there, and almost every summer they would fly one of us overseas to spend two glorious months with them. It was heaven. I ate well (the chocolate! Glory be!); I slept well; I went to the ocean; I met family from Norway and Iceland. I didn’t have to share a thing with my sisters.

Summers in Texas at my house were hot (no air conditioning) and boring (no money for activities). We would sit around the house doing a whole lot of nothing. Sometimes grab a ride to the pool or bowling with a neighbor. But it was nothing special.

That summer in Germany, that was special. If a person looked at every picture from that summer, they would see me smiling, happy, laughing, loving every minute of it. In my Britannia jeans. Nobody cared what I wore. Especially me.

That’s how being a kid should be. Happy, growing, learning, just being a kid. Flowing along, soaking up life. Why do some people have to come along and try to squash that joy?

One day during lunch, we were all ordered to sit where we were told, not by our friends, because the lunchroom had been too noisy lately and this was our punishment. Well, my punishment was to be sat right next to Ryan, to my left. Who started in on me. Then he reached over and threw a buck and change on my lunch tray. Said, “We are taking up a collection for you, maybe you can fix your teeth!” And oh, the laughs he got. That was my breaking point. I curled up my right fist, swung it around, and punched him square in the nose. He fell backwards, onto the floor with a surprised yelp. He would have hammered me two ways to Sunday if a teacher hadn’t been nearby to step in right then.

You can imagine how determined he was, coming after me in the days that followed. (My husband is very familiar with Ryan and all that went with that namehe said “Of course he came after you twice as hard! He got knocked to the floor! By a girl! In front of everyone at lunch! What did you expect?”)

One day he and Kevin cornered me in the hallway.

They were ready to pound me, teach me a good lesson. Tiny, skinny little me against the two of them. Wanna take bets on who was going to win this round?  Ryan laughed, gave me a smirk and said, “Yeah, you got one sucker punch at me. Anyone can do that,” with his mean, squinty eyed look as I stood in the corner, terrified.

“Oh, look, she’s shaking!” Ryan said with glee. Kevin laughed. They looked so delighted at the idea of giving me a beat down like I had never experienced before. Boy, was this fun or what?

(I have to add a sidenote here. Because questions come up in my head as I ponder this. What, exactly, were they going to tell everyone? That the two of them, two boys, kicked Helga’s ass? Is that something other kids were going to say, yeah, you two are so tough, ganging up on one girl and beating her to a pulp. High five bro! I wanted to ask, where was the victory, what would they brag about when all was said and done? I wish I had thought to ask at that moment. I might have gotten an extra smack for it, but maybe I could have had an answer.)

Just then a teacher came along and saw right away something was up. He moved the boys along, I scampered off to class, the thumping of my heart in my ears. I thought it was only a matter of time before they got me.

But, shockingly, they never did, physically. Oh, they continued their torture. Two whole years of it. I grew a thicker skin and dealt. Tried to lay low when I could.

Once middle school passed, he and Kevin went on to my rival high school, only a few miles away, I never saw their faces again. Not once. Living in the same town, one would expect I would have, but I guess luck was on my side at that point.

I used to dream about how good it would feel to see Ryan get what was coming to him.

You know, maybe he would get in trouble and get suspended, or some other kid would kick his tiny, squinty-eyed mean ass. But he never picked on anyone bigger than him. He always targeted the kids who clearly were not going to challenge him. Isn’t that the way bullies operate?

So, back to the present.

I was sitting with my husband a few days ago, we were reading on our iPads. TV in the background. I heard the word “bully” and Ryan’s name popped into my head. I never thought to do it before then, but in the Google search box I typed Ryan XYZ and Dallas, Texas. And there he was. Staring straight at me with those mean squinty eyes, one can never forget, on Mugshots.com. His thin, pasty face, lips tight in a grimace that had replaced his smirk; he looked like he had seen very few good days. There weren’t many details there—violation of probation and in jail as of January 2012.  Half a million dollars for bail. I gave a sharp intake of breath, which my husband caught.

“What’s up?” He asked, not looking from his book.

“It’s Ryan.” I handed him my iPad. He studied it quietly for a minute.

Handing me back my iPad, he simply said, “Nope. That’s karma.”


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Assistant Editor: Laura Ashworth

Photos: elephant journal archives

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Helga Lewenberg