I see you bullying a friend of yours in fourth grade. Your target is wearing white sneakers, and she doesn’t want to get them dirty in the mud. You laugh at her because they’re so glowing white they’re ridiculous against the cut of her not-cool jeans and her squared-off K-Mart t-shirt.
This girl you’re trying to demolish, she’s in special ed. Her bangs are too thick against her forehead. You are examining her, flushed with power, trying to find all her cracks.
I see you. I know you. I know you because you are me.
Her name is Alisa. When she earns popcorn parties for whatever it is they do in special ed, she invites you and some of your other friends to join her. You like the popcorn. You feel entitled to it, even as you feel ashamed for your contempt. You are in all the advanced classes, “special” on the end that is acceptable, and so you know you have power, that your brain, at least, is a place where you can feel safe.
You’re only nine, but you know what you’re doing is wrong. You don’t quite understand why wrongness feels so powerful. Why do you enjoy the look on Alisa’s face as you show contempt to her at the parallel bars, with three other girls watching? Why does the dismay that blooms on Alisa’s face fill you with exhilaration?
You expect her to answer back, to cut you down to size. Instead, she looks down. For a moment, you wish she’d defend herself.
Not long ago, some other girls did this same thing to you. You were standing by the swing, hoping to join in their laughter. You’d been invited to sleepovers at several of the girls’ houses, and then, you weren’t. You can tell it’s dangerous, standing so close with your desire visible, and you’re right. Suddenly one of them turns to you and says, her face cutting your heart, We don’t want you.
Maybe it feels good to hurt Alisa because it’s a kind of initiation. You are learning that this is the way the world works. It’s a kind of dance, each person with a knife. You see this dance stretching out to the horizon, full of power and symmetry, and you see yourself wild as any dancer, covered in blood.
At least if other people are going to cut you, you can take someone down with you. You can take down Alisa, a girl who has shown you hospitality, who smiles hopefully when you include her in your play.
I see you, dear child I was, and I know you are part of me. The part that is afraid of people, and afraid of yourself. Afraid of being left alone. Afraid of the silence in your house since your sister left. Trying to find solace in something—in power over other people, in intelligence, in payback. Sure that unless you show you’re more than other people you will be trampled in the dance.
It’s cliché, dear girl, but your mother took you to therapy about then. You met with your counselor in a big room stacked high on one side with bean bag chairs, and you climbed to the top of the primary-color mountain. And you told your new counselor, hesitantly, about making fun of Alisa.
And your counselor looked at you steadily, and asked, How did that make you feel?
You noticed the shifting of all those millions of grains of plastic holding you up, and you considered her question.
How did it feel to savage your friend and crush her hope?
And you realized, with a start, that it felt awful. It felt like power, yes, but like the kind of power that incinerates your insides. You realized you felt small, and ashamed, and that was not the kind of person you want to be.
You realized, in that moment, that there’s a different kind of power available: choosing to change. Choosing to apologize to Alisa, like you did the next day. Choosing to lay down the knife you were clutching in your hand.
In the years to come, you’ll notice when you pick up new knives, bigger and sharper for every year you age. You’ll notice their heft in your hand, how they cut your heart every time you use them on other people. Choosing, with a shudder, to lay them down, much as you ache for the safety they promise.
Choosing to trust that disarming yourself is the only kind of safety worth having.