When I was a freshman in high school, I had my own type of oblivious that made me a really vulnerable target to bullying. In particular, there was one senior who seemed to delight in humiliating me in front of groups. He asked me at least once that I remember if I had ever seen a penis before—I was only 14 then, and I think this might have happened multiple times—and lied to me for asking “stupid” questions. It got to a point where I left theatre because I couldn’t take it anymore, and the same almost happened with the school band.
My concern is this: At the end of high school, I was diagnosed with autism. I know I wasn’t the only autistic person he targeted in school. I found his LinkedIn today and learned he’s an elementary teacher, and now coordinates his school’s “gifted and talented” program, which likely puts him in proximity to a considerable number of neurodivergent kids, and I’m worried that these students might get some of the same attitude I did.
All of this happened almost eight years ago. This bully is a person who’s left a toxic hometown, gone to multiple colleges, and had a lot of life experience. I know I’ve changed since then, and I assume the same of him, but I definitely was mistreated by teachers for my autism and I hate the idea that anyone else would carry that same hurt. Do I hope that he’s grown up enough to be better? Do I somehow reach out to his school district? Am I insane? I’m kind of worried I’m blowing this whole thing out of proportion and that none of this actually happened.
Thank you for reading about my woes,
Former Teenage Cave Artist
Dear Cave Artist,
You aren’t insane and I’m sure this actually happened. Being bullied as a kid is awful and it sticks with you. I still flush with shame when I remember overhearing a group of girls I thought were my friends saying mean things about me, and no amount of very logical reassurances to myself that this was decades ago and we were all kids can ever quite dislodge it. It coincides with the time when we are the most unsure of ourselves, and the most dependent on those around us to tell us if we are good and worthy or embarrassing and insufficient. It is completely understandable that time and distance and subsequent life experience have not totally erased the sting of what this kid put you through. One of the joys of having an advice column is getting to reassure people that their feelings are justified and legitimate, so I hope I can do that here.
One of the disappointments of having an advice column, though, is having to tell people that there isn’t much to be done about those legitimate feelings, and I’m afraid that’s what I’ll have to do here as well.
The school board is very unlikely to care that one of their teachers was a bully in high school, and I think the best you could hope for out of contacting them is being ignored and telling yourself you tried. At worst, you will only feel powerless in the same way you did years ago, which does nobody any good. It is a beguiling fantasy—to imagine that you could now be the intervening force teenage you never had; to finally stand up to this person who made you miserable; to somehow, years later, bring him to account. It is a fantasy, though, and the reality will almost certainly leave you frustrated and unsatisfied.
I’m not wholly convinced the school board should care about his high school behavior, either. Even worse than remembering the times I was mistreated as a teen who desperately wanted the approval of my peers is remembering the times I was cruel to others in misguided attempts to secure that approval. There are a couple of people out there who would be wholly justified in thinking of me as someone who was unkind, or even a bully. Obviously, I would like to think I’ve bettered myself in the intervening years, and that the thrill of being mean for meanness’s sake was an adolescent mistake. Your instinct that he’s probably changed just as much as you have is a good one.
As is your instinct to want to help autistic kids avoid some of the harm you suffered. I think you should try channeling that energy into the future, rather than the past. Find a local group advocating for neurodivergent kids and volunteer with them. You aren’t the 14-year-old oblivious kid you once were, you’re an adult who wants to make the world an easier place to live in for those who don’t always find it accommodating. That sort of person can do a lot of good.