As my mother combed my hair before I left for the last day of fifth grade, she told me I needed to be brave. I had no idea what she was talking about, but she seemed pretty concerned. Before the end of the day, I was called out into the hall and told that I, along with five other students, was being transferred to another school for our sixth grade year because the school we were attending was overcrowded. I don’t remember feeling all that upset about it. I had lots of friends at my current school, and I think I just assumed that I would make new friends and things would go on as they had, just at a different place. I had no idea what was ahead of me.
I don’t know how they decided who was going to the new school; the selection seemed very random. Out of the four or five neighborhood kids my age, I and a boy I wasn’t really friends with were assigned to the new school. Another girl was the only one out of her neighborhood to be transferred, and the other three transferees, two girls and a boy, came from yet a third neighborhood. The school district’s policy was that you had to live a mile or more from the school in order to be bused. We were only 7/8 of a mile away, so we walked. I typically met up with the two girls who lived in the same neighborhood and walked to and from school with them. I assumed that since we were all in the same boat, we would, of course, be friends. I was wrong.
It ended up that I was in the same class as the three who lived in the same neighborhood. Because they knew each other fairly well, I was the odd man out to begin with. I think the meanness started pretty much from the first day of sixth grade. It began with little things—walking in front of me so I was left trailing along behind, snide remarks about my undeveloping figure, ignoring me on the playground at recess. Given their treatment of me, I don’t know why I kept trying to be friends with them. But try I did.
As the year went on, meanness developed into full-blown bullying. Things came to a culmination one spring afternoon on our walk home from school. Along the way, the two girls found a plastic bag on the road and decided I should use it to pick up trash along the road. They gave me the bag and, because my hair was in braids that day, each of them took hold of a braid. When we came to a piece of trash, they would pull down on my braids until I picked it up and put it in the bag. This went on for probably about ¾ of a mile, the two of them laughing and thinking this was great fun and me pretending that it didn’t matter. Then came the dead cat. I distinctly remember one of the girls saying, “That’s garbage. You have to pick it up.” And they began pulling on my braids. Finally, finally, I’d had enough. I dropped the bag, ripped my hair out of their hands, and ran, sobbing, the rest of the way home.
It had taken most of the school year, but I finally gave up on trying to be friends with them. I don’t remember if they bothered me anymore or not, but the damage was done. Someone had told me in fifth grade that I was popular. I don’t know if that was true, I just know that I didn’t question whether or not I was accepted by my schoolmates. That all changed. After sixth grade, I was never quite sure of my acceptance by my peers, especially the “in” crowd. Even today, I have a tendency to expect being unwelcome in a new group.
As you might imagine, that experience traumatized me, and I was really angry about it for many years. I blamed it for my reluctance to try new things and meet new people. I blamed it for the self-loathing I felt. In fact, I pretty much blamed all my emotional problems on that incident. Finally, one night I remember saying out loud, “Those girls ruined my life.” Almost before the words were out of my mouth, I knew how absurd that was. Even in the middle of my depression, I recognized that my life was far from destroyed. In fact, I had a really good life. It was then that I realized what was really damaging me was not the actions of a couple of twelve-year-old girls thirty years earlier, but rather my unwillingness to forgive. Yes, I had been wronged, but certainly not ruined. As I looked at that experience from a broader, more mature perspective, I realized that we were kids, and kids do dumb, even sometimes cruel, things. It was time for me to stop living in the past and move on. So, although it wasn’t instantaneous, I forgave them. Or so I thought.
A couple of years ago I got a letter from one of those girls. She acknowledged her wrongdoing and asked if I could possibly forgive her. I wrote back and told her that not only did I forgive her, but also that I had done so years earlier. Additionally, I told her that I was grateful for the opportunity to let her know of my forgiveness. The feelings of love and compassion I felt for her as I wrote that letter were entirely unanticipated. Even more surprising was the sense of sisterhood I felt towards her. In fact, it was a privilege to tell her that she was forgiven; that’s when my forgiveness became complete.
This was a new concept for me, the idea that forgiveness isn’t finished until the wrongdoer knows he or she is forgiven. Also unexpected was the bond forged, not so much by the act of forgiving, but rather by making that forgiveness known. Is this, I wonder, why God is so eager for us to repent, knowing that His forgiving and our knowing that we have been forgiven creates unity of being and shared joy? He is, I believe, more ready and more willing to forgive than we realize and are willing to accept. Fortunately, He is also lovingly long-suffering and waits with perfect patience for us to receive the gift of forgiveness He offers. All I have to do is open my heart and receive. It seems so simple on paper, but, for me at least, it is more difficult in practice. But I’m working on it.
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