Nicknames stick. Sometimes it’s a good thing, sometimes not. For the girl I knew as “Ramona” from fifth grade well into adulthood, it was traumatizing.
She was new to the neighborhood and got pinned with the moniker her first day of school. An observant student noticed the resemblance she bore to a fictional character with whom all fifth-graders were acquainted at that time: Ramona of Beverly Cleary’s famed book “Ramona the Brave.” That’s all it took.
Her real name never caught on the way Ramona did. That’s why my brow furrowed with confusion when I discovered a private Facebook message from her so many years later. When I got to reading, though, I knew exactly who she was.
That happened three years ago, but a documentary that opened in Vegas this weekend has me revisiting everything that led to that moment. It’s called “Bully” and parents are urged to see it with their children. The film captures the cruel reality of bullying, from the perspective of five kids. Not the most uplifting subject matter, but the most important lessons rarely are. Just be advised: The previews alone are hard to watch. Then again, getting a message as an adult from a girl you and your friends tormented is hard to read.
I remember calling her Ramona. I remember hearing about other, much worse offenses. And I remember seeing a few of them. Not partaking in them, but not doing anything to stop them, either.
It’s the kind of stuff you don’t think about until maturity crystallizes the error of your ways. For my friends and I, that wasn’t until our late teens. We sat in a diner devouring greasy plates of breakfast one night, when in walked the girl we knew as Ramona, the embodiment of our childhood misdeeds. Shame has a fine way of killing an appetite.
We glanced over as casually as possible to get a look at the young woman she turned into. She volleyed our glances back.
The three of us picked at eggs and french toast, remembering the days we picked on our vulnerable peer. The magnitude hit us hardest when we couldn’t remember her real name.
One friend, the meanest recovering mean girl, worried aloud that “The Jenny Jones Show” would call her one day for a “confront your bully” episode. She wasn’t cracking a joke; she was making a confession. She would accept such an invitation, she said, even if it meant publicly humiliating herself. She would do it to finally amputate the monkey from her back.
We tossed around the idea of walking across the diner and getting it over with right then, but in typical bully fashion, lacked the courage. All that talk of regrets and we managed to add one more to the list before leaving.
At least my own bully got her chance at making amends.
Lisa had 20 pounds and three years on me and the kind of mouth that could comfortably fit a bar of soap. She wore a Levi jacket decorated with hair-band logos and loved nothing more than using my friend and I as verbal punching bags as we walked home from school. But she taught me just as much as she taunted me. I mean that twofold.
I learned to finally defend myself, but sometimes that meant shouting back to her, “I have too had my cherry popped!,” rushing home to ask my big sister what it meant and then contemplating a retraction.
Years later I bumped into Lisa in the halls of my community college. She greeted me by name, finally proving she knew I had one, and made small talk, finally proving she knew more than just curse words. It made me wonder if she forgot all about those days when she’d get so close to my face I could count her freckles. Of course she didn’t forget, which is why she stopped me in the hall that day.
A good decade later, I found myself reading that private Facebook message from a woman named Jennifer. She had something she wanted to get off her chest and I was only too happy to help her do it. I replied, told her how often I’d thought about her and offered my most sincere sorries. She accepted - the apology and my friend request.
After a few years of Facebook friendship, I know much more about her. She’s a wife and mother with a beautiful singing voice who frequently expresses her appreciation for her loved ones.
It took guts for her to send that message to me and a few of the other girls with whom we grew up. She waited a long time to confront us and finally did: Jennifer the Brave.
Contact columnist Xazmin Garza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0477.
Follow her on Twitter @startswithanx.