When I was in 2nd grade, I had two best friends. I trusted them completely when they said they liked me—I had no reason not to. Then one day, walking to school, I looked down to the sidewalk and found three horrible words written in chalk: I hate Natalie.
In the next square of sidewalk, it was written again. This time with my name spelled wrong: I hate Natilie. Over and over this was written down my entire path to school. Other kids walking stared at me as I tried not cry, and by the time I got to school all I wanted to do was crawl back home and hide forever. But worst of all? When I found my friends on the playground, they were with another girl. They were whispering and laughing as they looked at me.
That's when I knew it was them. That's when I learned that people can lie about liking you, and that is when I decided that lie was more painful than being alone.
After that, I stopped letting people in. What's strange is that the event was so traumatizing that I forgot it for many years—when I was about 16 or 17 I had to ask my mom if it really happened, because it suddenly came back to me all that time later. She told me it really did happen, and it hurt all over again.
But even though I forgot, the impact was still very clear. I had very few friends after that, and those that I did let in had to work for it. I didn't have a boyfriend until well after high school. I didn't trust any compliment or over-friendly person. In the back of my head, I took almost all kindness as a potential lie. Even from my family. Everyone must be lying—everyone must really hate me and they are just pretending.
Sadly, my friends today can tell you I still struggle with this. There are times when I honestly doubt they like me, when I have fits of paranoia that make me wonder if they are secretly plotting to cut me out. I hate this about myself, that I can pin all this worry on a single event of bullying. But this is the truth behind all the "Bullying is bad" rhetoric. It does hurt people, and the effects can be long lasting. They can stay with a person for their whole life, haunting them in the dark corners or late at night when doubt creeps in.
I try not to let these feelings rule my life. I fight back. But the hurt I've experienced as a child has shaped who I am. I am 28, but I still remember people asking where my horns were because I'm Mormon. I still remember boys snapping my bra straps. I especially can't forget people laughing in my face when I told them I was part Polynesian (Maori, grandma was from New Zealand I got all the recessive genes, okay?). And once even, I asked one of my bullies why he didn't like me. You know what he said?
"I hate you because you were born."
How that still cuts when I think too hard about it. There's nothing you can fix when someone hates you for existing. That is such a helpless feeling. It's a feeling no one should feel.
Kindness can heal. Standing up for someone means more than you can ever know. Bullies have shaped my life, but so have the few friends I let into my life. School was brutal for me much of the time, but I would come home and go straight to the Phan's house. Lam and Phung—they were a few years older than me but took me in like older sisters. I practically lived at their house, where I felt safe and happy. Their mother was from Vietnam and didn't speak any English, and yet she was so kind to me and always happy to see me. She taught me how to weave nets and crush spices in a mortar. Lam and Phung taught me that shriracha made all instant noodles taste better. I would sleep over there sometimes, crammed between them in one little room as their parakeets squawked all night. I loved it all.
Lam and Phung shaped my life, too. They made everything bad at school go away with relentless kindness. They gave me faith that not everyone in the world would hurt me. When we moved, I hated to leave them (this was long before email and Facebook). I still miss them, and I have no idea where they are now. But I still think of them often, about summer days spent in handmade hammocks, eating cold cucumbers with a spicy powder I still crave and can't make to save my life, and playing Mario Kart until my thumbs hurt.
Be kind. Be the person that heals the hurt. That's a much better way to be remembered by someone. Because people don't forget cruelty, but they also don't forget kindness. Especially when they need it most.