Disclaimer: high school wasn’t easy for me.
I’m not trying to get people to feel sorry for me. The truth is, I was never bullied en masse; no one ever came after me and told me I was stupid. No one shoved me down stairs. But I was (and still am), the quiet, nerdy kid who preferred books over sports, and at a school where almost everyone went into STEM and popularity was tied to athleticism, that didn’t get me any brownie points. People ignored me a lot, and the rare moment when someone talked to me was usually because they wanted help with a project or a good mark. In grade nine, I had nine good friends. When I left, I had four—three old friends, and one new one. And the first time I had been invited to a party was two months into university.
Here’s the thing: for the most part, the popular kids at my high school had also been the popular kids at my elementary school. By the time I graduated, I had been going to school with them for eight years. We knew each other, at least a little. But you wouldn’t know it.
A long time ago, I developed the habit of smiling at people when I make eye contact with them. Not a big smile or anything, but a small, friendly smile. I was too shy to say hi, so I smiled instead. Over my entire high school career, I might have gotten about three smiles back from people I wasn’t already friends or acquaintances. Instead, it was mostly blank faces—no expression, no acknowledgment, nothing—or, instead, glares. This is something I would expect from walking down the street with strangers. Not so much people I had known for almost half my life.
If I said this doesn’t still affect me I would be lying. I say sorry a lot, mostly because when I bumped into people in the halls they would glare at me and I would apologize instinctively, even if it wasn’t my fault. When people I don’t know compliment me, my first thought is what do they want?
I’m trying to stop doing these things now. At university, it was easier because I spent eight months away from them. Sure, a lot of them go to the same school as me, but I lived in a dorm vs the house I grew up in and being in completely different faculties than them certainly helped. Since September, I’ve seen five of them in person—only once or twice each—and even that was fleeting.
I was dreading moving back home, because that meant moving back to the petty place where I’d run into people I wanted to put behind me. And it happened about three days after, when I went shopping with my mom. The salesperson she asked for help was one of my old classmates. Later, when we walked past each other and made eye contact, I smiled, trying to be friendly. Her face stayed flat.
When she turned the next aisle, I laughed. Her behavior suddenly seemed so ridiculous—intentional or not—that my instinctive reaction was to laugh. And it felt good.
I’ve changed over the past year. They probably have, too. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that people aren’t just one thing. Very rarely is anyone completely good or completely bad, but it’s tempting to think that people who treat you bad are evil. But that’s just not true. They can be the girl who spent most of her time in class complaining, but got a tattoo of her late mother’s laugh. The boy who made you feel small and worthless, but who donated his hair to cancer charities. The girl who bullied you in fifth grade and was sexually assaulted in tenth. One thing does not subtract from or cancel out the other. Good people can do bad things; bad people can do good things. Bad people can also have bad things done to them. Both can exist at the same time.
Wanting to dislike someone because they’ve mistreated you is completely normal. But just like they shouldn’t judge you because of whatever idea they hold of you, you shouldn’t disregard them completely based on one part of them. I’m not saying people who do bad things should be forgiven. But seeing a person as just one thing is ignoring the complexities of life.
Humans are messy. We grow and we change and that’s okay. It’s normal.