The Obligatory Cyber-Bullying Story

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"You know, I can even send email on the internet." 

I am old enough to remember the birth of the internet in people's homes. In the mid-'90s, everyone got a dial-up AOL account. Elementary school kids would go onto nick.com where they would literally look up pictures of their favorite Rugrats characters that took five minutes apiece to load. My screenname was glitterfairy1986, and I went on AOL chat with my friends, some of whom lived a block from me. It was so cool.

As background to this story, it's important to understand that I was profoundly embarrassed about having no experience with boys. Outside of AOL Chat, I couldn't even talk to a boy, so it goes without saying that I had never kissed one. Part of why I was so nervous around boys was that I wanted them to like me, which ended up being a real catch-22, since I was totally unable to speak when one came around, thereby precluding any ability to develop a relationship. I also took messaging from TV and movies pretty seriously. Have you ever noticed how much children's media involves romance? It's kind of messed up. Finally, adult prodding and questioning brought the humiliation to it's height: 'is that your boyfriend?' No, because I don't have a boyfriend. Nobody likes me. I'm a mutant. Thanks for asking!

So, I was sensitive about the total lack of interest from the opposite sex, and year after year it got worse. I think this happened in eighth grade; I would have been fourteen and desperate.

This guy started chatting with me on AOL with a screenname that I didn't have in my contacts. He wouldn't say who he was, so I checked his profile. It didn't have a lot of info, except that he was my age and he liked Dragon Ball Z, which is a nerdy anime show. I only knew one person who was very vocal about his appreciation of Dragon Ball Z, and that was Henry*.

Henry was in my class, and he was weird. He rarely spoke, but he was known as a pervert. He had been sent to the office for drawing boobs in science class.

So I asked this kid if he was Henry, and he was like, 'no guess again, no guess again, okay you got me! It's Henry.' So we chatted back and forth about this and that and then he writes that he 'really likes me.'

I flipped out. On the one hand, this guy is gross. On the other hand, SOMEONE LIKES ME! I think I played it cool at first, and wrote something back like 'oh I didn't know that.' Then, and here's the kicker, I wrote that I liked him too! Why did I do that? I wanted contact with a boy so badly that I was willing to lie about my interest in a total creeper. Then he escalated it and asked if I wanted to go out and I said yes! Whyyyyyyyyy?

I got off AOL and called my parents to ask if I could go on a date with a boy. They said 'yes' with some rules. Then I flopped on my bed and started day-dreaming. A real date! What would I wear? Maybe Henry isn't so bad, at least he's normal-looking, and he LIKES ME. Would we go to the movies? Would he buy me popcorn? It was so exciting.

Not too much time passed before I got a call from my friend who had transferred to a different school district. She told me that her friend from her new school told her to tell me that he wasn't Henry. She sounded grossed out and confused. I was freaked out, too. 'Oh, good' I replied a little too emphatically.

Afterwards I had a lot of feelings. I was relieved that I wasn't actually going out with Henry, sad that I wasn't going on a date, embarrassed to tell my parents that I wasn't going on a date, worried about how much my friend knew, confused about why this boy had hidden done this to me, grateful that the boy who had done it didn't go to my school.

On Monday, I went back into homeroom with Henry and wondered at my own desperation. If he asked me out for real, would I say yes? I couldn't even decide for sure. Luckily, that situation never came. Even more luckily, no one at my school had any idea what had happened. If they had known, that would have killed any shred of self-esteem remaining in my miserable middle-school psyche.

Now, I see how every kid's awkward experiences are being broadcast for the world to see, and I feel so blessed to have been born in the '80s. I was probably in the last generation of teens who could re-invent themselves for college; Facebook became available to the public during my sophomore year at Macalester. That freedom of anonymity, the freedom to have your awkward years forgotten by the people around you, that's gone.

One of the things I love about being Jewish is the Bar/Bat Mitzvah tradition. I love that we take kids at their most uncomfortable, vulnerable time and say 'you know what? We accept you and we love you and we celebrate your existence!' We need more of that type of acceptance and less Instagram filters. Until that day comes though, don't talk to strangers on the internet.

*Name changed, of course.

Marina Gafni

Marina Gafni is a 28-year-old speech pathology student. She lives with her husband in San Jose, CA.

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