Her name was Marie. We were in first grade at a Catholic School in a small Midwestern town.
It doesn’t matter where we were or how old we were. My classmates and I were bullies. We weren’t just mean we were cruel. I wasn’t friends with Marie, but I’ve never forgotten her. She had red hair and freckles, that’s what I remember most clearly about her. Why she was our target, I have no idea. But every day as we stood in one line or another, if we didn’t cross our fingers in time, we’d catch Marie Mason’s* cooties.
I’d started first grade two weeks late after a cross country move. I was at a loss, a very young six and nothing much made sense to me at the time. Somehow I had to catch up and fit in and keep pace with all these other six-year-olds who knew what was what and who was who while I hadn’t a clue.
I desperately wanted to fit in and make friends, I suppose. I wasn’t a confident child. Not one with a lot of self-esteem. Not a leader by any means. When I look back now I feel like I was standing still while everything whirled around me. It isn’t an excuse to say I just didn’t get it, but that’s how it felt.
I knew I was being mean to Marie, of course. I knew we all were. “Marie Mason’s cooties.” To the best of my recollection she was the only girl in class who had cooties. It was the kiss of death if any of us contracted them. It was beyond stupid. Who comes up with this stuff? Why did we pick on her? I don’t have any answers. I wish I could undo the damage our behavior surely did to Marie, but I can’t.
I wish I’d been braver at age six. I wish I’d had some self-confidence. I wish I hadn’t been afraid. I wish I’d understood that “popularity” is meaningless. I wish I’d had someone at home I could have asked about it, someone who had explained it to me or told me what to do.
When you’re six and you feel like you’re out there in the world on your own, you do the best you can because you don’t know how to do any better. It isn’t that you don’t know any better. I knew. But I was scared.
I can analyze and justify my behavior now but there is no excuse or justification for the way I behaved then.
Does an apology fifty years after the fact mean anything? I doubt it. But I’ve found Marie’s address and I want her to know I’m sorry I went along with the crowd. I’m sorry I didn’t stand up for her. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
*not her real last name
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Don’t be a bully and don’t raise a bully.