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Karen O'Keefe of "On Second Glance"

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Karen O’Keefe has been a freelance writer in Atlanta, GA and Montgomery County, MD, since 1984. Prior to that time, she worked for a committee in the U.S. House, a public relations firm and as a Congressional press secretary. Since 2003, O’Keefe has been a regular news reporter and columnist... Read more

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Yellow school bus

Death of a Bully

Word came yesterday, through my virtual portal, that she was gone.

A woman called “Jillian,” whom I never knew, died in a city where I once lived.

We went to school together and maybe had two conversations – or exchanges – over those years. We had no classes together – I was “advanced” and she was not. Homerooms were alphabetical and she was in different letters.

After school ended — and for over 40 years — there was nothing between us but miles.

But, always, some part of her was with me.

Back in school, Jillian had been a bully.

(Maybe she wasn’t a bully later.)

I was a new kid.  I rode a bus.  The kids on the bus seemed to know each other. (When you are bullied, everyone else seems to know each other.)

However, I am convinced she saw something in me – in addition to my nervous newness – something that not everyone else saw. Possibly, she was looking for it.

I think she saw fear. She saw a person uncomfortable with herself.

On some level, she may have been one of those people herself.

(But, at the time, I was too young to understand any of the psychology of bullying.)

I thought I just wanted to make friends.  I wanted my acne to clear up, large breasts, long hair and a boyfriend. I wanted to be Homecoming Queen, and I wanted to be allowed to watch TV on school nights. I wanted to be able to go out at night and talk on the phone at will.

However, at the same time, I wanted to read 24 hours a day. I was bored in school. I wanted to be right all the time. I was interested in politics.  Sometimes, I disdained talking to people. I thought women should be allowed to be priests, I liked sewing my own clothes, and on some days, I wanted to be a nun.

Deep down, I wanted to be a nerd when I felt like it.

I was afraid to fail and afraid to succeed.

I was a kid.

Looking back, I’m not certain I would have wanted me as a friend.

However, I know that it was not okay to bully me.

I recall the exhilaration of being better than a bully — of facing down a pack of six and seven-year-old gnomes, each armed with a bamboo rake, who were preparing to harass a defenseless six-year-old boy named “Ricky.”

Ricky stood alone on a tiny hillock in my side yard. I stepped between Ricky (who was two years younger than me – and a head taller than everybody)  and ordered the misguided gnomes away.

“Leave Ricky alone.”  My heart pounded staccato joy as I watched them hesitate and then back away in a slow-motion scramble like bewildered hermit crabs dragged down on one side by the rakes they carried (which took the place of the one-sided oversized claws hermit crabs carry in nature.)

That felt good.

“Ricky” was the type of victim cinematic directors like.  Tall, big, and seemingly not in tune with what was happening around him. Although probably the same age as his tormentors — his size made him appear older.

I hated that I understood why they tormented him – on some level, I felt the same darkling pull at times — but I rejected it.

Imagine my shock when I moved to another state and the bullies went after me. Wasn’t I a savior of the bullied, after all? Certainly I was not one of them…

Jillian bullied me more than once, but the first time is etched in my mind by the bold lines of absolute, self-righteous memory — enhanced by suffering.  In other words, I think I remember what happened, more or less – but maybe not.

I got on the school bus.  Most seats were taken, so I scanned the aisle, noticing as I did that most of the students avoided eye contact. My stomach started to hurt a bit. The school bus had not been an easy place on any morning.

Finally, spotting a girl who looked like she might not mind a seatmate, I sat.

I turned toward the back of the bus when a loud voice called my name.


“Jillian?” I responded. (A faint hope flickered that she wanted to say something nice.)

She stood and pointed at my face. “Did your mother kiss you goodbye this morning?”

I could not remember, but thought it likely.

“No!” I said.

Sadly, I made a tactical error at the same time. I began rubbing at my face, hoping to erase the telltale lipstick “smooch” I knew to be there. As torrents of blood rushed to my face, I remember the heat of my blushing skin on my fingertips.

If a student on that bus failed to laugh, I missed it through my tear-filled eyes.

Everyone laughed.

Especially Jillian. It was a school bus chortle – full-bodied, uproarious.

Later somebody told me there was never any lipstick on my cheek in the first place. I had done a victim swan dive – stiff-necked and public – and, for me, although the incident faded – I carried it with me always.

That day, I wished Jillian would die.

Forty-odd years later, she did. Briefly, when I got the news, I wondered whether meanness might have had something to do with her death.

I was relieved that I had nothing to do with it. Nobody can wish for something, have it take 40 years to come down, and then think they had some impact.

Even with my fine layer of scar tissue –  I am sad to hear of Jillian’s premature death. I hope her life was filled with meaning and joy.

At her death, Jillian had probably been a very different woman than the girl I had known. Bullies learn what they are taught, I am told.

People find new teachers and people change.

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Karen O'Keefe

About Karen O'Keefe

Karen O’Keefe has been a freelance writer in Atlanta, GA and Montgomery County, MD, since 1984. Prior to that time, she worked for a committee in the U.S. House, a public relations firm and as a Congressional press secretary. Since 2003, O’Keefe has been a regular news reporter and columnist for The Town Courier, an independent biweekly newspaper based in Gaithersburg. Her blog, “On Second Glance,” explores everyday life and current events with insight, grace and humor.


5 Responses to “Death of a Bully”

  1. Avatar
    On November 2, 2012 at 9:59 am responded with... #

    One of your best yet!! I am sitting at my computer with tears in my eyes. Oh, how I can relate to your story! Beautifully expressed. Loved it.

  2. Avatar
    On November 2, 2012 at 12:05 pm responded with... #


    • Avatar
      On November 2, 2012 at 12:09 pm responded with... #

      Thanks for sharing you recollections and your forthright way of dealing with bullying. At that time in your life you did not know the implications of “kidding” on a young mind…today we do understand.

  3. Avatar
    On November 3, 2012 at 1:54 pm responded with... #

    I can remember being a bully in 3rd grade by humiliating a classmate who had a crush on me. I’ve never forgotten it. When it has come to mind, I pray that he has forgiven me.

    • Karen O'Keefe
      On November 3, 2012 at 8:25 pm responded with... #

      Thanks Judy for your honesty. I know , somewhere along the line, I grew from the experience

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