For most of us growing up, bullying was ubiquitous.
If it wasn't happening to us, it was happening to someone we knew; maybe it was name-calling, or a vicious rumour told behind our backs. Maybe we were singled out for something that made us different—our height, our hair colour, the sound of our voice. For others, it was more of a physical thing; the Wedgie. The Swirlie. The Gas Pedal. These were a schoolyard tormentor's go-tos, before phones and internet made bullying even more insidious.
For any of us who have ever been on the receiving end, all of those shoves and taunts and stolen lunches prompted two big questions: “Why?” and more importantly “Why me?”
Having put this question to several former bullies, I've found the relationship between bullies and victims isn’t always as cut-and-dry as it seems. Certainly, some kids are straight-up shitheads. But some bullies were victims themselves. Many acted out because of personal insecurities, or because of problems at home. And, as the below stories illustrate, some bullies grow and change. They come to realize the effect they had on others.
Collected here are the recollections of four former school bullies—two men, and two women—stories of rumours started and faces punched, of mouths full of dead bugs and visits to the principal’s office, of adulthood apologies and being confronted by former victims.
No swirlies, though. Let’s all be thankful for that.
*Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
When I was in elementary school, I was the leader of a gang of boys. It was me and a bunch of dudes—me, Ramsay, and Jeff—that would bully these two or three other guys in our school.
My parents were going through a very unpleasant divorce around that time. And my mom didn't handle it well. We definitely struggled for a very long time. I remember being 11, and drinking on the kitchen floor with these two boys and even they were kind of like what the fuck? Jeff had a lot of demons. He got really into drugs in high school. But in those days, he was just angry, and didn't know what to do with it. So we picked on other kids. And Ramsay just kind of went along with it.
It was usually kids who had already been singled out. There was one boy named Tyler who had red hair. And we would sit down and write songs about him, and how much he sucked. One time, Ramsay and I held his arms, while Jeff took a running start and head-butted him in the stomach. Or this other kid, Leland, who we were just terrible to. We'd do things like all get tennis balls, and just whip them at him. But he'd still try to hang out with us every lunch hour. I couldn't understand it. Another one of these kids—Justin—would still come to my birthday parties. He was a friend, but he was the most pathetic one of our friends, so we'd always pick on him.
We used to play a game called “Justin's home.” We'd give him five minutes to run, and then we'd hunt him down, drag him back to the playground, and not let him leave. He didn't want to be playing a game like that. He'd be like: “Can't we play tag or something?” But we wouldn't let him. And if he wouldn't play, we'd be yelling at him: “No! We want to play Justin's Home!”
It's so weird. Because Jeff and I were peer councillors. We were on the playground, supposedly, to help kids. We were there in case anyone wanted to talk about their problems. We were also getting straight As. At the same time, we were getting sent to the office for putting spicy pepper on a mint as a gift, and giving it to a supervisor.
I eventually ran into one of the boys I used to bully quite extensively. I was probably 19. I was in a bar, and he came up and was like: “Hi. Do you remember me?” And after a second I went, “Oh, shit. Wow. I'm sorry.” I immediately apologized. And he was like: “It happens. We were young. Kids do it. I'm fine now, but what you did was pretty shitty.” I tell people stuff like that now, and they're always like: “Woah. That's really fucked-up.” And I agree. It's something I did. I don't think it was the right thing to do, but I've got to own it.
I was a bigger kid growing up, and I suffered from bullying starting at a young age. From probably kindergarten—it was older kids making fun of me. So, to feel better about myself, and to look better in front of other people, or try to gain friends, I started making fun of people who were easier targets than I was. I never really saw it as bullying at the time, but it totally was. And it became apparent later on that it was all part of a full-on cycle of abuse.
Because of my weight, I never thought I was good enough, or up to the level of my peers who were all athletes. So I'd make fun of people to get a laugh. And I never realized until later that people might be affected by that. When I stop to think about it now, those kids I was tormenting, they probably didn't want to come to school because of me in the same way that I hadn't wanted to see the people who had tormented me when I was younger.
I remember being in high school, and sitting in class with a buddy while he made fun of this girl, calling her “fatass.” And laughing about it. We didn't think much of it, because to us, she wasn't fat at all. But in her mind, it drove her into nearly having a goddamn eating disorder.
Or when I was in elementary school, I remember walking down one of those bike paths, and there was a younger kid walking the opposite direction. And I was with friends—it's always with friends. It's that gang mentality. You're with other people, and you want to impress them. And there were a few of us, so this kid didn't have any space to pass. And I can't remember what I said exactly, but I puffed out my chest, and stared him down, and asserted my masculine dominance in whatever way. And I didn't think anything of it at the time. But then a week or two later, the principal calls me down to the office, and he's talking to me about this “incident.” And I didn't realize, but this kid was trembling. He was terrified.
I always thought it was funny when I was the bully. I remember chasing this kid around the playground, and going “Yeah, I'm going to beat you up.” I didn't even know what that was. I never threw any punches. I mean, maybe pushing someone to the ground. Calling them names. This kid wasn't that well-off financially. Maybe a bit less well-off than my peers and I. Something stupid like that. And there was a parent around, and they were telling us to stop, knock some sense into us. But the way they did it, it was always threatening. It was always threats, threats, threats. And I don't feel like, at any point, anyone said to me: “Hey. Do you realize what you're doing?”
And that's the problem: If a bully gets a rise out of somebody, they're going to love it. It's a laugh. When I was younger, if parents would lose their shit, I'd think it was hilarious. You and your friends laugh about it for years. I think about this sometimes: in this day and age, if I were to see a group of kids bullying a younger kid, how would I address it? If I were to witness something like that today, I'd address it in a very matter-of-fact way. Nonchalant. In the same way you'd talk about the weather. You know? I'd want to talk to them, instead of losing my shit. It's not effective.
The crazy part is, I remember being bullied. It sucks. I'd take different routes home so I didn't run into this particular group of kids. Because you'd inevitably get pushed or made fun of, or whatever. It's so frightening. And I never realized that I was that asshole. It never once crossed my mind until I was much older, that I'd become that which I was afraid of.
There was one guy I knew, who I thought was really fucking cute, and I didn't know how to deal with it. I didn't know I was gay. I just had the hots for him, and I didn't know why. So I just beat the shit out of him. I think for a lot of people, they see their own personal issues in others, and they already hate it in themselves. I was probably 11 or 12, and I would find him on the playground, and just beat his face in. I'm a pretty open person now, but I didn't used to be.
Growing up, I heard the word “faggot” more often than I heard my own name. Back then, I was getting beat up a lot by my stepdad. For 11 years, I put up with that. So, looking back, if I hadn't been in that position, I might not have treated this kid like that. When he first moved to town, we actually hung out a lot. We got along at first. But he started acting really fucking strange. He was talking weird shit all the time. He said a lot of stuff that sounded like fabrication; like that his parents would buy him porn. Kids were already starting to make fun of me for hanging out with him.
The first time I ever hit him, I felt all this peer pressure for no reason. There were all these cool kids around, and I wanted to look cool. He came walking up to me on the snow hill, and I just shoved him and went: “Get the fuck away from me.” And I remember shoving him again, against the wall, and kicked him in the ribs. The next week, he came up again, and I did the whole thing again. This happened at least four or five times. And the cool kids around, they thought this was hilarious. I got left alone all day after that.
And then one day, after a few months, everyone went on a ski trip, and he and I were the only two kids in class that didn't go. We were in the computer lab over our lunch, and it was just the two of us, and all of a sudden, he started rubbing my leg out of nowhere. And he goes: “Oh, I'm not gay. I'm just really horny.” And I just freaked the fuck out. So, the next day, when everyone was back, and we were finishing up some project, I called him out about it in front of everyone. He got it so bad that he had to switch schools.
I saw him once. Years later. We had a youth centre in town. I went there one time in the summer, and he came in, and we actually got along really well. We started playing DDR. He eventually got kicked out for messing with some kid. Never saw him again. I've tried to find him many times over the years. I've even contacted classmates from back then, trying to track him down. Because I want to apologize for doing it. And also because looking back, I'm like: “Fuck. We would have made such a hot couple, if we'd known each other now.”
I grew up outside of a pretty small town. Like, 45 kilometres away. So when I was younger, I didn't get socialized. I couldn't go play with the neighbourhood kids, because there were no neighbourhood kids. By the time I got to kindergarten, everyone knew each other. They'd all played together, but I didn't know anybody. All throughout elementary school and middle school, people would be doing things—going to the corner store—and I couldn't. I lived so far out of town, I had to leave immediately to catch a ride home. I always felt really isolated, and very angry—especially by the time I was a teenager.
By the time I was in high school, the clique that I was the most involved with, I wasn't as tight with everybody else. I had to miss out on the things that teenagers do together. For example, the first drinking party they ever had, I didn't even know it happened. I started getting a lot of resentment toward other people. And while this was going on, I was starting to be seen as a bully. In my mind, I wasn't anything like that. I knew I was angry. But I didn't realize I had the ability to come off as intimidating.
I think a lot of it came from being an outcast. And thinking that this was just how “superior” people treated those below them. I'd been bullied myself when I was younger, and I assumed that the people who bullied me could do it because they actually were superior to me. Then as I got older, and developed a sense of humour, and boys started taking notice of me, and I got confident and found myself socially, I thought. OK. Well, now I'm the superior one. And this is how you treat people who aren't as cool as you.
For example, I was at a girl's house once, and she was sleeping with her mouth open, and I remember scooping up a handful of dead bugs and spiders from the windowsill, and dumping them into her mouth. I was also really, really mean to people behind their backs. I used to start a lot of really bad rumours. I remember when I was in Grade 9, telling people that the same girl—god, this is terrible—was in a sexual relationship with her cat. And people believed me.
There was this guy who used to, I guess, have a crush on me, and I went around telling everyone he was a psycho, he was creepy, blah blah blah. And he was nothing of the kind. He was just trying to be my friend. The people in my circle would always go: “Oh, how's your stalker?” And I wanted to be a part of that thing. To his face, I was fine. But then behind his back, I would be like: “Oh, what a creepy weirdo.” And one day, he came up to me while I was with a bunch of people, and I just said all this horrible shit to his face—all the stuff I'd been saying behind his back. To him, it must have come out of nowhere. I remember having this surge of ego. Confidence. “I'm going to show people how cool I am by putting this pleb in his place.” I just didn't think. I knew the things I was doing weren't nice, but I also thought they really weren't a big deal.
I was probably the biggest bully to my mom. I was horrible to her, to the point where she didn't even want to come home. One time, she'd broken her ankle, and when she fell asleep on this bed in the living room—she couldn't get up the stairs—I took her crutches, and I locked them in the bathroom. And then I woke her up just to to tell her what a piece of shit she was, and how she was a failure as a mother. And my mom is the most loving, accommodating, supportive person anyone could ever ask for. But I was dealing with so much rage inside me, I had no idea where to put it. I just saw her as nothing more than an easy target. I would treat my mom like that, and then get so angry with myself, and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I'd go to school, and be like: “Well, I'm a shitty person. I may as well treat everybody like shit.”
And it carried on into my young adult life. I actually went down a very dark path. I dropped out of high school when I was 16. I became a pretty violent person. I was charged with assault numerous times. I loved punching people in the face. To be honest, I don't know what I was thinking. I had such easy access to rage. Then, one day, I was sitting in my apartment, and I had this epiphany. It's like my empathy suddenly switched on. And I just started crying. I was like: “Oh, my God. My actions affect people.” From that point on, I became extremely sensitive. I'm still very sensitive. I even have a hard time watching movies where people are being cruel to each other. I think I just filled my quota for meanness.
It's so weird. Looking back on it now, I'm such a different person. And looking at my mindset at the time, it was just completely different. I did things then that I would never, ever do now. Never. I look back and go: “What was I thinking?” But I had this idea that nothing I did actually had the power to hurt people.
Honestly, I think I'd have a really hard time trying to go back and connect with any of the people I've hurt. I've thought about it. I've wondered who I might contact. Lay it out there and apologize. But I don't even know who I would contact. It was so much a part of how I walked through the world. It was never targeted. I was just a mean fucking person. Anyone who came into contact with me, unless I was intimidated by them, was not going to have a good time.
In some ways, it all came around. For instance, there was a girl who bullied me in middle school, and after I dropped out, and went back at 20, my middle school bully was my teacher. And she was still bullying me, in front of all these kids.