Kat was a bully. She was a liar. She was a backstabber. And she was good at it.
She’d stalk the halls of Shaw Middle School, wielding rumors like a weapon.She spread lies about who had STDs, who was a slut, who was having sex in thebathroom. A girl was sick for a week? Kat got everyone to believe she waspregnant. A girl’s breasts had grown bigger? Kat spread the word the girl’s mombought her implants.
“I was really good at twisting facts and making up stories,” says Kat. Shedoesn’t want to use her full name – it’s been a few years since her bullyingdays, but some of the stuff she’s discussing is still raw. “I could get anybody tobelieve anything about a person.”
Spread enough inflammatory lies, and lives go up in flames. “Once you tellsomebody that they’re a whore and tell everybody else that they’re a whore —they lose like 85 percent of their friends,” Kat says. “Everybody kind of hatedme.”
It’d be easy to label Kat a villain. Maybe, that year, she was. If everything she had done had been known, you could picture her as the target of condemnation, you could see her suspended and expelled, held up as an example of all that is wrong with kids these days.
Yet, there’s an inherent danger in assigning adolescents roles of victims and villains. They switch. Their past, their own psychology and pain, never justifies what they do, but can go a long way to explaining it.
A year earlier, at Chase Middle School, Kat was a different actor playing a different part. Instead of a wardrobe of nice outfits, she’d wear the one brand name thing she had for days in a row, an ill-fitting Abercrombie and Fitch shirt covered with holes. She had a friend, tall and pretty, who she told all her secrets. Kat told her she taking pills for depression, her parents had gone through a divorce, and that her mother was an alcoholic. Kat would run away a lot, spend nights sleeping on the street.
“My mom was a very violent drunk,” Kat says. “She was abusive, mentally and physically.”
But then her friend turned on her. All she’d shared in confidence became ammunition for constant humiliation. Kat became a target for mean jokes. “In the middle of class, she would be like, oh, did you forget to take your antidepressants today?” Kat says. “Are you going to kill yourself?’”
She heard the same thing at home. “My mom said ‘You should kill yourself because [your] dad would be happier if [you were] gone,” Kat says. She tried. She tried seven times.
School had previously been a sanctuary for her, a way to escape the hell at home. But when her friend turned on her, school stopped feeling safe. She started skipping class. Instead, she would pick up anything she could find and go on long walks.
Finally, she moved in with her dad. She went to Shaw instead of Chase. And bullying gave her a way to channel all that anger and depression. It didn’t make her happier or more confident, but it gave her some slice of control. Depressed and lonely with power was better than depressed and lonely without. “I became that girl that I hated for so long,” Kat said. “Everything that girl had done to me. I mirrored to other people.”
Fortunately, her story didn’t end there. She reinvented herself again at Rogers high school, began to get really into academics. It didn’t fix everything – she still got in trouble. She still got suspended.
She started talking with a counselor at Rogers about what she’d been through and how other kids had been hit with similar struggles. It inspired her to start the NOISE club at Rogers, a place where kids could freely talk about all the difficult stuff they were going through. “Whoa, I’m not the only person who went through a hard past,” Kat realized.
When the “See it, Say it” group came to Rogers, the NOISE club turned into the school’s reactor club, fighting against bullies. Tommy Williams, head of a local nonprofit managing Spokane’s anti-bullying program, says he’s going to hire her to be a district-wide program coordinator.
As we talk at the Atticus coffee shop, she says she just got back from Sweden. She wants to become an English teacher in Cambodia.
“This is the issue of bullying. It’s not for the schools to handle,” Kat says. “It’s not a problem with the school — it’s a problem with the parents.”
Broken families, abusive parents, poverty, addiction – they all can make a bully. And those bullies, in turn, can create new bullies.