People who go to my Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood elementary school usually flock together to survive the next chapter of their lives in middle school. However, before I graduated from 5th grade, my father and I decided that I should apply to a different school.
I was ecstatic when I was accepted to a prestigious Center City middle school. I was ready for a change. I knew the environment would be different, but I knew that I could adapt.
On the first day at the new school, it seemed like my new peers could smell fresh meat on their turf. Walking into homeroom, I felt overwhelmed thinking that people were staring at me, making premature judgments about the way I looked. Later, in art class, the “popular kids” asked me to sit with them. That’s how it all began.
The siren call of popularity
I started to hang out with my new friends on weekends at an ice rink in South Philly, slowly at first. I had to travel from one end of the city to the other to be with them, but when you are 13 years old, being with a big group outside of school makes you feel like you’re part of something. I assumed that I was part of their group.
They introduced me to other kids from nearby schools who did things that were inconceivable to me. Some were smoking, drinking, and losing their virginity at age 13. I still hadn’t had my first kiss!
To keep up with them, I created a façade. I became a compulsive liar. I stuffed my double-A cup bra with tissues. I started wearing makeup and curling my hair like a Barbie doll. But no matter how I tried to be someone I wasn’t, it didn’t shelter me from being bullied — and eventually becoming a bully myself.
I’d heard rumors spreading about me, and I wondered if people were starting to believe them. The people who I thought were my friends started to treat me differently. I was the easiest target for them to terrorize. I was one of only two Asian-American girls in my grade, so I encountered racial slurs and jokes often. One classmate asked me if I ate dog and started to mock the Chinese language with gibberish and noise.
Everything that was unfamiliar to them, they used against me. They said my school uniform cheap because it was from Forman Mills and not a designer brand. My socks were too baggy and overlapped the topline of my beaten up Converses. My hair was greasy, my teeth imperfect. They called me an emotional box-shaped dwarf and compared me to Mike Wazowski from “Monsters, Inc.” because my of my short torso, a visible effect of scoliosis.
The new ‘queen bee’
Feelings of terrorization and alienation were constant. I became depressed. It seemed like everybody I knew was against me, and I didn’t know why. Instead of fitting in, I became the prey. I cried to my mother one night, begging to transfer to Catholic school.
It’s sickening to think now that I let the criticism of other kids my age dictate my self worth. It pushed me to such an extreme that I harmed myself and thought about suicide just so it would end.
I needed a change, so I decided to take charge and become the leader. The popular kids didn’t get teased, because people were afraid of their backlash. So I became the stereotypical queen bee. You didn’t want to mess with me. I struck fear in the halls. My language had no filter. And I had no regard for other people’s feelings. It took me to the top of the social chain, and it felt great.
In 8th grade, two new girls came into our class, both of them “different” — both of them easy targets. One girl had a speech impediment, and the other was mixed race, Asian and black. Her weakness was naïveté. She fell behind when it came to trends. Like me, she wasn’t exposed to much.
Because I had felt targeted for so long, I saw this as my chance to terrorize those girls. Just as the popular girls had taken me in, I wanted to be the one doing the “recruiting.” I pretended to be their close friend, to show them the ropes, but in reality I wanted to show them who was boss.
When I found out that both girls had fallen for one of the guys in our group, I pursued him so they would be enraged by jealousy. Neither of them said anything, because they didn’t want to get on my bad side.
I made fun of them constantly. I hid behind Facebook like a coward and made rude comments under their pictures to make my other friends laugh. I made fun of their poses, their outfits — just to make myself feel better.A trend started on Facebook with “to be honest” posts, where clicking “like” on someone’s post was equivalent to requesting an “honest” opinion from them about you on your own page. When I saw a “like” from the mixed-race girl, I pounced: I told her that I wanted to give her a makeover so she could be prettier. I said she was annoying and weird.
A wake-up call
The Facebook bullying led to a significant event that made me change my ways. One of the guys in my group of friends made a Facebook post saying he hated the girl with the speech impediment, and he tagged her in it. I liked the post because I thought it was funny. The next day, everyone who liked his post got called down to the principal’s office.
The girl felt humiliated and hurt, and her mother was upset. She thought we were her friends — like I had thought those popular girls a few years before were my friends. Just imagining the rejection I made her feel made my stomach turn.
In that moment, I knew that I wasn’t being myself. I remembered how the popular kids made me feel when I was the new kid — and I had become exactly like them. I couldn’t be that person. You don’t know what someone is dealing with until you’ve been in their shoes. I had no right to call out flaws or insecurities in others because I was feeling insecure myself.
So now I am finally speaking out on something I’ve been afraid to tell people for many years. I want to apologize for being a monster. I want to apologize to those two girls.
If you ever encounter bullying, speak up. No more making each other feel inferior. No more taking each other down because we’re different. Everyone we know deserves to feel safe and accepted.
Being on both ends of the bullying spectrum is an experience I will never forget, and I hope this story helps people realize the damage that bullying causes. These traumatic experiences stay with you for a lifetime. Let’s end them now.
Amanda Thieu is a high school senior at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia.