Revisiting the past to discover what became of old class mates often prompts mixed emotions but for writer Karen Glaser even more was at stake …
When the invitation lands in my inbox, I hesitate. Reconnect with my classmates of, gulp, more than 30 years ago?
Part of me, a big part, is definitely curious. But another part of me, shudders. My school days were most definitely not my happiest. On the contrary, my life got good when I left my South Wales secondary. For although there some people there I liked, and who it would be nice to see again, the truth is that there were others who bullied me. Horribly. And though three decades have passed since those tortuous years and I am now a successful writer and the mother of two lovely children myself, the invitation to a reunion cocktail party at the place of my former torment, unsettles me.
So, I ponder for a bit. But, three days later, I wake up with fire in my belly and email the school secretary: count me in. Do I feel a sense of trepidation? Of course. But my curiosity burns brighter. And my curiosity is not just about my former classmates. This invitation has rolled back the decades and got me thinking about my younger self. How did the teenage me get so horribly bullied?
It started when I was 14, and only ended when my school days did. In my third year, I was initially very friendly with twin sisters in my class, but towards the end of the autumn term, I began to feel suffocated by our threesome and tried to introduce another girl to the group. The twins, who I’ll call Alison and Joanne, expressed their displeasure, and I presume sense of rejection, by becoming nasty and, crucially, getting several other girls to join in the malice. I am not sure how they managed to get them on board: I guess they were just powerful enough to do so. These days, the phenomenon has a name: mean girls syndrome.
This was a suburban, single-sex school, and I was never in any physical danger. In the main, the bullying took the form of faux googly-eyed staring; swerving or running dramatically away whenever our paths crossed in a corridor; and puerile, yet piercing, comments such as “there’s a smell in here” followed, inevitably, by peals of histrionic laughter. Today it sounds almost pathetic to detail this. Back then, it made me feel singularly miserable.
Why did they pick on me? Probably because I was different. I was quite a serious child: I recall talking about world events and life’s Big Questions in my favourite history and English lessons while my bullies sniggered quietly in the background. What I don’t recall is my teachers, who must have heard, ever upbraiding them.
Having a Polish-born Jewish mum who spoke with a foreign accent, and who put alien things such as rye bread and curd cheese sandwiches in my lunch box, can’t have helped me melt into the background either.
For back then, that’s what I tried to do: melt away. I never faced up to my bullies. Quite the opposite: I tried every means to avoid them. At first, by hiding in the toilets, later by setting myself apart through an edgy, Goth-flavoured social life.
These days I dress more conventionally, but it’s fair to say I still struggle with face-offs. My instinct is still to circumvent them
And this is what I’d like to do when I see Alison at last month’s reunion: walk away. But true to form, she takes control and makes an immediate beeline: “Karen! I recognised you immediately. You haven’t changed a bit!”
“Al-i-s-on?” I say slowly, feigning confusion and buying time. “Is that you? Hey, what are you up to these days?”
We exchange chit chat about our children, and I ask about work. Alison mutters about kids being a full-time job. I agree: full- time parenthood certainly equals full-time work. But I can’t help recall her boasts that she’d work in TV, and part of me, the insecure me, is tempted to talk about my career in a not entirely laudable attempt at one-upmanship.
But it is Alison who speaks next. “Erm, this is bit awkward,” she says, eyes darting, “but actually I came over because I wanted to say something to you, Karen. I wanted to say sorry, you know, sorry for all that stupid stuff that happened when we were young.”
A wave of shock hits me, and, helplessly, I look at the floor. I feel my face and neck flush hard. We stand there in prickling silence.
But then I gather myself. And looking my former bully straight in the eye, I say in my most understanding voice: “Thanks for the apology, it can’t have been easy to make it. But don’t worry, it all happened a very long time ago now.”
And with those words, something in me lifts. I hadn’t planned them, but they were the right thing to say. And now I feel better about myself and, astonishingly, about the past too.