Jennifer was bullied daily until someone unexpected stepped in and changed her world
This story is part of the My Unsung Hero series, from the Hidden Brain team, about people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else.
Middle school is a rough period of life for many of us. And it can feel like the end of the world if you're the target of the school's mean girls.
Jennifer knew this feeling all too well. We're withholding her last name at her request, to protect her privacy. When she was in middle school, she was often ridiculed by other kids. Her classmates made fun of her social awkwardness and unfashionable clothes. Then the bullying escalated to a whole new level in seventh grade when three girls started targeting Jennifer almost every day.
"They would wait for me in the hallway at the end of class so that they could start picking on me right away," Jennifer said. "And they would corner me in this area of the school called 'the draw off' where they would kind of form a ring around me and insult me."
Jennifer didn't know what to do to defend herself. So, she'd just repeat back what the girls said to her.
"So they would say, 'You're stupid.' And I'd say, 'No, you're stupid.' And then they'd say, 'You're ugly.' And I'd say, 'No, you're ugly,'" Jennifer recalled.
The rest of the school year went on like this. Jennifer's grades suffered. She would cry on the bus most days on the way home from school, trying to get herself together so that her mother wouldn't know what was happening. During the summer between seventh and eighth grade, the ringleader of the group that had targeted her was tragically killed in a car accident.
"Although I had never wished anything like that on any of them, I really just had wanted them to stop picking on me, I did hold out some hope that this might mean that eighth grade could be different," Jennifer said.
That hope lasted just a few days into the new school year when Jennifer discovered that the group had a new ringleader, a girl who had just moved to Jennifer's school. The bullying quickly resumed, and it seemed like eighth grade would be much like seventh.
But about six weeks into the school year, something happened. Jennifer was in the locker room, and she was by herself because she had waited for everyone else to leave so she could change in private. Just then, she heard a voice. It was the new ringleader.
"I was terrified. I'd never spoken to her before," Jennifer recalled.
Jennifer tried to hold it together, to not show any weakness. Then the ringleader said something that cut Jennifer to her core.
"She said, 'My girls tell me that you've been insulting them,'" Jennifer remembered. "And I was just so surprised, and the injustice of it shocked me so thoroughly that it knocked the pins right out from under me."
Jennifer began to cry. The girl responded harshly, asking, "what are you crying about?"
That pushed Jennifer over the edge. The whole story tumbled out of her mouth.
"I talked to her about how these girls had tormented me all the way through seventh grade and how no insult I had ever thrown at them was anything they hadn't said to me 10 seconds before," Jennifer said.
A long silence followed Jennifer's confession. She waited for the ringleader to say something cruel.
"And then I hear her say, 'I'm sorry, I didn't know that. I'll tell them to stop,'" Jennifer recalled. "And when I looked up, she was gone, and those girls never spoke to me again."
After that moment in the locker room, Jennifer's whole experience of school changed. She was able to concentrate and get better grades. She made friends. Her future felt promising.
"I don't know what it takes, what kind of strength of character it must take to do the right thing in middle school when nobody does the right thing, but she did," Jennifer said.
Jennifer feels like that moment helped change her perspective on the world. She began to give people the benefit of the doubt and to trust others more often than she would have.
"All things that I did because my unsung hero gave me a view of humanity I had never had before," she said. "And if I could tell her about that today, I would tell her that she didn't just change my life, though she did. She changed the whole world."
My Unsung Hero is also a podcast — new episodes are released every Tuesday. To share the story of your unsung hero with the Hidden Brain team, record a voice memo on your phone and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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