My 15-year-old son texted me from a small bookstore in Massachusetts. “Can you please come here now?” It was a rainy day, and I had popped into the Starbucks next door. I grabbed my coffee and walked to the store.
When I got there, my son shot me a look, the kind that says “uh, I’m not really sure what’s happening here.” I quickly figured out why he had asked me to rush back. The woman at the counter, who appeared to be in her late sixties, was crying. “I didn’t expect to have this reaction,” she said when she saw me eyeing her. “A mom and her 10-year-old son just came in looking for a book on bullying. Kids have been taunting the boy, and it brought back horrible memories for me.”
“I’m really sorry you were bullied,” I said. She looked at me and sighed. “No, that’s not it, I wasn’t bullied. I was the bully. When I was about 11, I was cruel to a little girl. She was chubby, and I called her a cow. I called her so many things. The family ended up moving away. I’m old enough to be on Social Security, but it still haunts me.”
I was struck by the irony. That morning, I’d been writing an article about bullying, transcribing notes from adults who’d been tormented as children. I hadn’t considered that some bullies might carry guilt into adulthood.
The woman continued her story. “I’ve thought about contacting her, but I don’t remember her last name. Besides, what good would it do at this point?” She paused. “I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t upset your kids. Let me ring up their books. Do you work?” she asked. My older son sent a pointed glance my way, one that said “please tell her you’re a florist or an accountant.” His 9-year-old brother leaned against me and quietly studied the woman, who was still wiping tears from her eyes.
“I’m a school counselor,” I replied as I paid. She looked at me. “Ah, then you get it. I just have to live with what I’ve done, right?”
I considered her perspective. I recalled a conversation I had had with a close friend a year earlier. At the time, it seemed like I couldn’t catch a break. I felt stuck in quicksand. The more I struggled to surface, the faster I sank. With quicksand, the only way to float is to stop flailing. I decided that my best option was to let go, which meant giving up something that mattered to me. My friend, a novelist, had mixed feelings about this decision. “I don’t like the way your story ends at all,” she said. “So I’ve decided it’s only chapter three. You need to keep writing.”
I passed along this advice to the salesperson. “It sounds like your story needs a better conclusion,” I told her. “I wonder whether there’s something you could do to make yourself feel better.” She told me she often toyed with the idea of speaking at elementary schools about her experience.
Instinctively, she was looking to make meaning out of misery. I told her I loved her plan, encouraged her to give it a try, and wished her luck. As I left the store with my sons, I handed them their new books. My older son was silent and reflective, but his 9-year-old brother spoke the second we got outside. “I’m telling you both right now,” he said. “I’m never, ever going to call anyone a cow.”