The nightmares started about a week ago.
There was the one where I couldn’t get my locker open no matter how many times I tried.
And the one where I couldn’t find my classroom.
There was the classic where I showed up to school in my underwear.
And, there was my personal favorite … the one in which I was one test away from graduating, but when I showed up to take the final exam, I realized I hadn’t been to class all semester and had no idea what would be on the test.
I am 25 years removed from high school and — like many of you, I’m guessing — I still have nightmares about the place. The closer it gets to school starting at the end of summer, the more those dreams tend to intensify in both frequency and lucidity.
The good news is, those nightmares end when I wake up in the morning. I can brush them aside in my mind just as quickly as I toss off my blanket when I get out of bed. I don’t mind those nightmares at all.
There are other nightmares, however.
Ones that have not gone away many years later.
I still have nightmares about school. They are the ones that happen when I’m awake. They are the ones that have left deep grooves in my soul that — some 30 years later — I still have trouble coming to grips with. They are the ones I can never forget and the ones from which I can never possibly stop running.
I was bullied off and on through school — not an uncommon occurrence, from what I understand — but never worse than I was in the seventh grade. I was unceremoniously dumped from a small, insular parochial school into a large, public junior high school — basically a bubbling cauldron of hormones and insecurity.
I was small, nerdy and devoid of even a scrap of athletic ability. Also, my distinct ethnic background made it pretty much impossible to fade quietly into the background.
Needless to say, it didn’t take the bullies long to find me. They tend to have a keen sense of smell when preying on the weak.
What followed was the nine most horrible months of my entire life. I was picked on nearly every day at school. There was verbal taunting most every day. Threats of physical violence were often issued … and sometimes carried out. Racist or bigoted remarks and comments — whether overtly stated or simply implied — were frequent.
I was picked on, pushed around and put down.
In addition to being bullied, some other things started to happen to me that year that had never happened before. For starters, my grades went in the toilet. I went from never receiving anything other than A’s in elementary school to becoming a mostly C student in the seventh grade. I also became withdrawn from family and friends. I would lose most all of the friends I had in elementary school — and wouldn’t really find true friends again until midway through high school. I didn’t trust anyone. I had zero self-confidence. I didn’t like myself very much.
I also became hateful and mean-spirited. I actually found the handful of kids who were smaller and weaker than me (there weren’t many, but I found them … bullies always find a victim) and I bullied them. I was lashing out. I was transferring my pain and humiliation onto someone else. I am ashamed of this and if they so happen to be reading this, I sincerely apologize. I was an awful person.
Eventually, though, the skies would clear a little bit for me. I would hit a growth spurt, which helped a little. I made two best friends who, to this day, I consider like brothers. They helped me find my way through high school, which was never easy — but still a far cry from the horrors of junior high. When I went away to college, I became an entirely new person.
But I never forgot. I still have to shudder sometimes when I think about junior high school in a futile attempt to shake off the painful memories. What happened to me affected my life for many years and still, to a lesser degree, haunts me to this day.
Which is why, with another school year about to start, I’m asking kids going back to school to please do one thing.
This was the same message I had for kids going back to school last year, but I feel it bears repeating — particularly given the recent events in our country, at a time when people don’t seem particularly intent on being nice to one another.
Ignore hatred. Embrace your differences. Of all the things you can accomplish in your scholastic career, being nice to your fellow students is one of the most rewarding. I promise you, many years from now nobody will care if you were the star quarterback, the class valedictorian or the lead in the school play.
They are going to care about how you treated them.
Reach David Fong at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter @thefong