The day my childhood bully re-entered my life I felt all the old emotions: Fear, embarrassment, but mostly indignation.
All while looking at a computer.
I was catching up with old friends on Facebook when I got the friend request.
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Are you kidding me? I thought.
I was a kid again, my ears burning, my shoulders tense.
Matt Gabriel was not my worst tormentor. We were once even pals. Then he started hanging around with older kids who bullied me as a group.
Tripping, pushing, names, fights, alienation. I felt then like I was walking around with a label on my forehead.
He kept sending friend requests. Each time I rejected him with a click and felt a nasty glee exacting a righteous revenge.
Finally he wrote: “Dear Sean: I keep asking for your friendship on Facebook and keeping getting denied — which is understandable. I am not looking for you to be able to forgive me for picking on you in public school a lot — but maybe just to give you some perspective. My mother was dying a terrible and painful death from cancer and I acted out quite a bit.”
And then he apologized.
I wrote back. I apologized too. I thought I’d moved on, but I’d been carrying around resentment. I looked at my own behaviour back then. Most of us kids at the bottom of the social order weren’t any kinder to each other than Matt and his cronies. Only thing was, Matt was man enough to reach out to people (not just me) to make amends.
Turns out the older kids that picked on us were getting beat up by even older kids.
“We were scared, but then we would go into school and do the same thing,” he recalls.
Matt was physically bigger and began studying martial arts. Rather than be a victim he tried to
intimidate others before they could go after him.
He realized in his 20s, while working as a bouncer, he didn’t like where things were going. He’d just become a father and he didn’t want to hurt people.
“I guess it was a process of maturing,” he said. “Hurting people is wrong. And helping people is so easy. There’s no negative emotions afterward.”
He works in telecommunications now. He became a union shop steward, he says, because he wanted to help and he found he was good at it.
Did he know as a kid he was doing something wrong?
“I don’t know that you have that well-developed a sense of right and wrong when you’re young,” he says.
It sounds like a cop out, but I know Matt is right. It was easy for me to see when I was being wronged, but when I got into fights I always felt I was right.
“There were mixed messages coming at us, even from our teachers and parents,” Matt says.
I have to agree again. There were mixed messages: corporal punishment, religion, movies — all had a good guy fighting and punishing a bad guy.
Matt says he struggled with his mother’s illness from kindergarten until Grade 8 when she died. He didn’t get counselling and his father was often away working, trying to make ends meet.
“It’s not an excuse, but it helps explain things,” Matt says.
Matt and I continue to be friends on Facebook. And we may all get together (him and his brothers) for a beer now that my ears don’t burn every time I think of him.