Middle school lessons: You aren’t always the victim


Feature photo by Saly Seye

Saly Seye

Without a doubt, I can assert the worst three years of my life took place in middle school. Seriously. I’ve said I would rather be waterboarded than go through the awkwardness, the physical and emotional changes and the sense of uncertainty that floated through the air and choked us out.
Ages 11 through 14, no matter what, just feel torturous by default. While I maintain that a month at Guantanamo Bay is infinitely more appealing than redoing a week of middle school, the period of seemingly infinite pimples and weight gain beat into me tough life lessons, ones everyone must accept.
I started sixth grade fresh, having gone from a tiny private school with fewer than 100 people to a crowded, barely-navigable building. I didn’t know anyone at all. It definitely frightened me at first, and the fear I’d never make friends taunted me, but I loved the idea of forging new connections. The relentless bullying I faced as a fifth grader left me relieved at the fact that I’d never see my tormentors again.
Memories of anything from girls throwing pebbles at me so they could trick me into thinking a huge flying insect was bumping into me, to having them play Monkey in the Middle with the sparkly pink earmuffs I loved so much, to being slammed in not-so secret diaries scarred my pre adolescent psyche. I wanted to show people who I really was, not the persona I adopted to deal with my bullies.
What I didn’t realize was that, because of what I faced in elementary school, I’d unconsciously grew into a victim mentality. I was so used to being hurt that I perceived any criticism as an attack.
I simultaneously experienced something I now call “preemptive anger,” where I’d be angry with someone because I assumed they disliked me, and I’d act passive-aggressively in order to hurt them before they could hurt me. All of that, plus the notorious cruelty of middle schoolers, created a turbulent experience for me.
In sixth grade, I can’t say I was wrong for constantly suspecting people’s honesty with me. Within a month of school starting, I somehow had drama with a girl I barely knew. She thought I liked her boyfriend, which I definitely did, and grew jealous despite the insignificant amount of time I actually spent around him. The boyfriend, one of my first friends at this new school, told me how she thought I was mean to her because I was jealous of her.
I, being the sensitive person I was, told him something I no longer remember but that definitely angered her. This cycle went on for a while, our talking about each other through one person. I outwardly took out my frustration with her in public, and though I had no idea what started the drama, I knew I needed to get her before she got me. I had to be bold; I had to be willing to stand up for myself to make up for every time I got burned in the past. It was okay for me to give her nasty looks and to trash-talk her because I was tired of the same thing happening to me.
In that situation, while I definitely mishandled it, my actions had some logic to them. After all, she did talk about me; she provoked me. My first two years of middle school looked about the same: I never started drama, but I did regress to the victimized little girl from fifth grade when someone criticized me even slightly. Once, I tried to distance myself from a toxic friend and near cussed her out when she dared to tell me I wasn’t going about it correctly. Another time, I actually did tell my best friend to do something I’d rather not repeat and refused to apologize even when witnesses told me how much I needed to. I didn’t believe I could be in the wrong. I accepted apologies yet never learned how to give one. Things went well like that, too, until I started becoming the instigator of drama.
Toward the end of eighth grade, a friend began to make me uncomfortable. She’d make jokes I disliked and make worrying social media posts. I had a right to be mad. Things reached a boiling point, and we had a massive fight, one where we, with rather unsavory language, told each other how we really felt about each other. She felt as though I bullied her best friend, while I believed she coddled him despite the messed up things he’d say and do to others. I believed he hurt his ex-girlfriend, while she thought he just did what he had to. She felt overlooked and unheard, while I thought she refused to take the constructive criticism the people around her offered, regarding behavior of hers that made us uncomfortable. At the end of our argument we made the mature decision to apologize to each other, though neither of us really knew for what, and to act civilly.
Still, unresolved conflict stuck between us. During the summer, our relationship became rockier. For me, the last straw entailed her talking trash on me to my friends. She hated me and thought I would try ruining her life if I found out. My protective victim shield kicked in immediately. How could she think I would do something so terrible? Why did she hate me so much?
She’s the one who hurt me in the first place, and a lot of people agreed with me so I must’ve been right. I didn’t, not for months, begin to fathom the idea that maybe she had real reasons to dislike me.
Right before New Year’s Day, after weeks of looking back on the root of our seemingly permanent tension, I decided this couldn’t be the end of our relationship. I couldn’t lose the the friend who knew my problems before most adults did. I’d never paid attention to what she said to me while we argued: I was too busy looking at ways to be the victim to save our friendship. I started listening to her, long after she stopped talking to me.
From her perspective, one I turned a blind eye to, I was just as toxic to her as she was to me. I hated her best friend without even giving him a chance. I treated him like trash for no reason. I never intentionally got people to gang up on her, but my friends did take my side through the conflict. Neither of us were right or wrong here, but I definitely had months worth of apologizing to do.  
Hard pill: I was wrong.
Harder pill: I needed to apologize.
Hardest pill: I wasn’t being persecuted, not here. I was the villain in this story, even if only a little bit.
But three months into freshman year, I swallowed all those pills, along with my pride. I texted the friend I regretted losing more than anything, and typed out the heartfelt apology she deserved. I’d accepted the harsh reality: the only time anyone’s a victim 100 percent of the time is in fairy tales, and my name sure wasn’t Cinderella. For months, I navigated life without a friend who only ever made me cry with her jokes. I went without the first person I came out to, the one who knew about my deepest secrets. A victim mentality enabled me to think that, even though I consciously knew I’d messed up, there were excuses for what I did and said to hurt the friendship we had.
There never are excuses. I didn’t get to dictate whether or not I’d hurt someone, but I absolutely got to choose how I handled it going forward.
Dropping perpetual victim-hood changed every aspect of my life even without any friend drama in it. I started recognizing when someone actually mistreated me, what that looked like and how to handle it like a mature person. I started actually doing classwork even in my least favorite courses; it wouldn’t be a teacher’s fault if I failed. Most importantly, it made me more honest.
Recently, I found myself in the middle of drama between two ex-best friends. I never took sides, though it tempted me to cut both of them off. It was difficult seeing that I knew both of them from early middle school. I listened to one of them, in particular, tell me how awful the girl she once called a sister was for months.
For a while, I quietly ignored my growing frustration. However, I snapped once she told me how the other person, who happened to be my close friend, ruined her life. I found it alarming how little respect she could have for someone to unilaterally blame them for her needing therapy. I knew she wasn’t an angel. God, I knew neither of them were in the right. She didn’t get to paint herself as sinless when texts and emails she sent showed the role she played in the destruction of this friendship.
She didn’t get to play victim, and I told her exactly that. I never would’ve had the mere thought of doing so had I not applied an accountability mentality to myself.
Once I stopped seeing myself as unfairly persecuted, I recognized the immature mindset everywhere I went. It became so much easier to spot a problem once I freed myself from the shackles of it. That’s important, too.
Realizing what a good person looks like makes it easier to call a friend out for not acting like one. I want the people around me to succeed. I want to apply the lessons I’ve learned for good; I hope I can keep the ones I care about from making my mistakes.
Middle school drama makes me cringe. I feel physically ill when I remember the unnecessary negativity we spewed at each other. All of that said, there’s nothing about it I’d do over. It allowed me to escape a severely unhealthy way of thinking when I didn’t know I needed help.