My grade school tormenter reached me through Facebook. Actually, he located me on Facebook via some site called Classmates. I don’t remember registering on Classmates but who knows? I might have hit the wrong button at some point. The bottom line is: he found me.
“Hi Nikki,” his e-mail read (he’d also asked to “friend” me). “Remember me? P—? I went to Richards School; I was two years ahead of you.”
I barely remember anyone from grade school; I have enough trouble recalling high school. Still, I thought: What would be the harm in friending him? Yet something made me hesitate. I couldn’t recognize him from his picture, obviously; nor could I place him by name. He still apparently lived in the small suburb where I grew up; he may or may not have gone to college. Nothing else gave me any indication as to how he had once fit into my life.
I e-mailed: “Hey P—another ghost from the past. How are you? What have you been up to?” I was hoping those innocuous couple of sentences would prod him into opening up; most people love to talk about themselves.
Instead, he wrote, “Congratulations on all your successes. It sounds as if you’re doing really well in life.” And then, changing the subject abruptly: “I really had a hard time tracking you down, you know, because you changed your name.” He continued. “When did you do that? I’m just curious. Why did you do that?”
Now I was puzzled. I didn’t change my name when I got married. As much as I loved my husband, the idea of becoming Nikki Potorti somehow didn’t work for me (“It sounds like the name of a small-time mobster,” I remarked to my patient fiance as we were standing in line to get our marriage license in Manhattan. Thankfully, he agreed).
What I had done is adopted the name “Nikki” (albeit with a different spelling)right after eighth grade graduation because I liked the Haley Mills character in “The Moon-Spinners” It became my legal name when I turned twenty-one.
No one had ever questioned me about it and honestly, I never thought about it. Who was this person from grade school who was inquiring about my name, or rather, my identity?
Instead of answering him directly, I wrote back, “What year did you graduate?” I needed more information.
“You don’t remember me, do you? Tall, thin, brown eyes?”
I didn’t remember…and then I did: P–was briefly my childhood tormenter.
The year I started fourth grade, P–walked home from school when I did and taunted me. He sang out vaguely scatological rhymes that involved my name and a body part. Sometimes he’d make comments about how I thought I was so smart; then he’d go back to making fun of my name again. This went on nearly every day for several months, and while I wasn’t really afraid for my safety, his words hurt more than any stick or brick ever could.
I was a timid nine; afraid of loud noises, dark shadows and confrontation. Yet I didn’t want to tell my parents or my big brother, even though I knew they’d rush to my defense in ways appropriate to a respected lawyer or a pugilistic teenager. There was nothing in place at my school or in my community to help victims of bullying; no support groups or services to which the picked-on could turn. I could have gone to the principal but that would have involved a call to my parents and some sort of notation in my permanent file and I didn’t want either. I briefly considered recruiting my friend’s brother, our local juvenile delinquent, who would have enjoyed administering a beating, I suspect. But I didn’t want him to get in trouble either. I suffered in silence.
One day, P—was across the street as I walked home, teasing and taunting as usual. I’d had a bad day at school and suddenly, I’d had it. I stopped right where I was and yelled out, “You know what, P–? You’re a stupid little ninny! That’s all you are; that’s all you’ll ever be! Leave me alone, you stupid ninny, you stupid little…twit!” I practically spat out that last word.
I’m not sure how I came up with “ninny” and “twit”; maybe I was having a Julie Andrews moment. But the words had their desired effect.
P—stopped walking and stood rooted to his spot, staring at me. I stared back at him for a minute, my heart racing wildly. Then I tossed my head in my best princess imitation and walked home. He never bothered me again.
Fifty years later, here he was, my tormentor; the mean little boy who nearly ruined my autumn that year. Here was my opportunity. I could admit I remembered him and I could make sure he understood how miserable he made my nine-year-old self. I wondered fleetingly if he even remembered; maybe he did and maybe he didn’t.
I realized I didn’t care. My nine-year-old self had taken care of my tormenter long before MySpace and Facebook and texting, true; but also before anti-bullying laws and YouTube messages of support, and awareness groups. I had confronted my bully then and I hadn’t thought about him since. No need for a rematch, a reckoning, or a reconciliation.
“Sorry,” I wrote back. “I don’t remember you.”