Tuesday, October 20

My High School Bully Just Called Me 25 Years Later

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by Ken Schneck, Editor

So here’s what happened a few hours ago: While utterly consumed with the now-harrowing process that we used to call “just going grocery shopping,” I missed a call on my cell from a 201 area code, the numbers of my northern New Jersey homeland. After I de-masked in the car, I listened to the voicemail.

MALE VOICE: Hey Ken, can you give me a call back? [Insert Number] I’d appreciate it.

The message was 12 seconds total and the male did not identify himself.

My parents still maintain my childhood home in that area code, so I figured I had to call the number back just in case it was something family-related.

Here’s what I can transcribe word-for-word from that call.

KEN: Hi, this is Ken returning your call.
MALE VOICE: Yeah this is [Insert Name].

And that’s all I can reliably remember. Because the name he said was exactly the same name as my high school bully from 25 years ago.

Which makes sense, because it was my bully from high school calling me. 25 years later.

Quick recap: high school sucked. Though I was not out, I was a J-Crew-wearing tennis player who sat with girls during lunch. Immediate connotation to anyone who encountered me? He’s gay. I never expressed any attraction to the same sex, but the—ultimately correct—conclusion had been drawn.

I threw myself into every conceivable extracurricular activity to avoid having a social life, because I really didn’t know how to play the part of a straight kid. By my senior year, the word “faggot” was thrown at me every single day of the week. It all came to a climax on a snowy Friday night, sitting in my parent’s basement, when Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World” came on Z100 and I tried to smother myself with a pillow. My feeble life-ending attempt was happily unsuccessful.

There’s still a part of me that isn’t quite sure how I made it through that time, as I held everything inside with no one to tell about my struggles. But I did make it through and I’ve done pretty darn well for myself, not just in life, but in LGBTQ+ life. I get to work with this amazing platform that helps amplify LGBTQ+ voices. And I am almost never in an environment where I have to pass as anything other than an out gay male, a privilege so many of my Ohio LGBTQ+ siblings simply do not have.

And then my bully called me from high school this morning.

My phone tells me that we talked for 12 minutes, but even these few hours later, most of our conversation is blurry.

Here’s what I know happened from his end:

  • He told me that he has a gay friend and that his gay friend stumbled onto an article I wrote 7 months ago mentioning my bully by name in a throwaway sentence.
  • He kept asking, “Did I really do that?” because he was not able to reconcile his behavior then with who he is now.
  • He apologized profusely.
  • He asked if there was anything he could do to make it up to me.
  • He asked if I could please take his name off of that article.
  • He relayed that it would be terrible if—as a high school teacher!—his students or administrators saw his name in that article.
  • He asked if I could please take his name off of that article.
  • He apologized profusely.
  • He asked if I could please take his name off of that article.

Here’s what I know happened from my end:

  • I said that I appreciated his apology.
  • I highlighted that most people would not have made the call and that picking up the phone speaks volumes about who he is now.
  • I told him that I do not want to minimize his actions and their effect on me. I reminded him that he called me a faggot daily, that being in the locker room with him was habitually and legitimately a terrifying experience for me, and that I barely made it out of high school.
  • I let him know that I’m doing really well now, kicking ass even! I explained that I have unbelievable opportunities to support the LGBTQ+ community, including helping to scaffold LGBTQ+ youth in a way that I wasn’t supported when he was bullying me.
  • I informed him that the publication in which I used his name doesn’t even exist anymore, so I don’t know if there’s anything I can do. But that I would let him know.

The call was overwhelming, and I know that I got choked up at one point, but I was desperate to not let my voice crack. There was talk at the end about us writing something together. He finished the call by asking me to please let me him know if I am indeed able to get his name off that article.

So…yeah. How do I navigate through this one? Here’s where I’m at:

  • I feel grateful that my high school bully just called me to apologize.
  • I feel enraged that my torment meant so little to him that he doesn’t even remember that behavior.
  • I feel guilty that I used his name in an article about my experience being bullied.
  • I feel nervous that using his name in that article used my platform inappropriately, making me the bully.
  • I feel confused as to what percentage of the call was genuine contrition, and what percentage was making someone’s Google search yield more positive results.
  • I feel proud that I stayed on that 12-minute call.
  • I feel proud that I didn’t minimize my experience with a “No worries,” but instead explained to him in great detail what I experienced back then.
  • I feel proud that I repeatedly acknowledged his apology, and commended him for making the call.
  • I feel proud that, when I explained how kickass my life is as an out gay man, I really meant it.
  • I feel proud that I didn’t get off the phone and think, “Ugh! I wish I had said something different!”
  • I feel proud that I get to write these words.
  • I just feel proud.

I have no clue what happens next, what I’m supposed to do, or feel, or write. I know this doesn’t happen every day and that most people don’t get a call 25 years later from their bully with an actual expressed apology.

It’s been 25 years since I attended Pascack Hills High School. That quarter century feels like a lifetime ago. And, right this second, it feels like yesterday. Yes, he wanted his name omitted from a piece that didn’t speak well of him. But I really do believe that he heard me describe the bullying I experienced at his hands.

I don’t have a big impact statement or society-altering conclusion to insert here. But that moment of feeling heard doesn’t feel like nothing right this second. It actually feels like something, and it feels like something good.

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5 Comments

  1. I would echo the other comments here. I too was bullied growing up in Montvale and during a HS get together 35+ years later my bully actually came to the bar to apologize to me in person. It was much appreciated for/from both of us and long overdue. But my bully was physical beatings and tormenting because he was older than me.

    However in you situation it was much different. I do think you should have said more to him when he called you. There are consequences to his actions even if he doesnt remember doing it. Something innocent that meant nothing to him meant something your whole life. That is why intolerance is such a bad thing. If his current job and administrators have a problem with HIS past that isnt anyone’s fault but his own.

    You on the other hand have every right to share your experiences in the Hope’s it can help someone else, inspire someone. Glad you shared.

  2. Ken, this is an amazing story! I applaud the guy for calling and I love that you wrote “I feel nervous that using his name in that article used my platform inappropriately, making me the bully”. I believe that you’re already the bigger person for considering removing his name. Nothing good will come from reversing the hate. High school can be terrifying for many kids even when they’re not being bullied … so who knows what issues he also had going on (maybe he was being bullied at home). Kindness rules- good luck to you!

  3. Dale Grossman on

    This has broken my heart and built it up again. This is karma: to be heard, and (in the midst of a surreal experience) to ensure you were heard, is what you’ve deserved for a long time. I hope he seriously considers the disconnect between his memories of that time and the actual impact of his actions now that you made it clear. It seems like his self-interest was the purpose of his call – and whatever you decide to do about that is the right answer – but because you didn’t minimize, because you expressed exactly how his behavior affected you, maybe I’m an optimist, but I think you changed that. I think – and hope – he hung up focusing more on that perception v. reality gap than his name in the article. In a better world he’d be up front about his bullying and share this story with his peers, students, and community groups as a cautionary reminder that Maya Angelou was right: “you always remember how someone made you feel”, so we all need to make sure we behave with empathy and compassion. Maybe a joint article is a start to that. It is something, and something very good, and if he is now a person who can make that call, there’s no telling what else can happen; that more good things are possible. Much love, Dale

  4. Nancy Witherill on

    Ditto what David Kleiner said. Your bully’s job is to write that article himself – about what he did, its impact, and how he feels about it now. And don’t feel bad about using his name in the article. You are not the bully when you’re calling someone out on their emotionally assaultive behavior. That’s called using your voice and standing up for yourself. He has to face the consequences of his homophobic behavior. It’s not your job to protect him – he never protected you!

  5. David Kleiner on

    You’re and inspiration dude. Personally, I don’t think you should take it down his name. He should own that shit, direct his HS students to it and be a leader of what not to do. He should tell them how lucky he is, that you didn’t kill yourself because of his torment. Owning up to this, isn’t just a 12-minute phone call 25 years later – it’s owning up to it and wearing it on your sleeve and showing others the dangers of such despicable behavior – AT ANY AGE. (—Dave Kleiner)

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