Confessions of a Teenage Word-Bully

It is 1986. We are 13- and 14-year-olds, rank-smelling in unwashed teenager jeans, unsupervised and latch-keyed after school, huddled around the face of the future: The screen of a first-generation Apple Macintosh personal computer. Within the machine's non-dairy creamer-colored casing is a malleable visual playground unlike anything we had seen before: Manic fonts, brick-wall patterns summoned with a mouse-click and distorted at will, spray-paint lines of variable size and density.

The potential for visual chaos inspires something within us, and we recognize for the first time within that machine the power of the written word arranged just so on a page. So we put our hands to the keyboard, and we craft our message: "Jenni Greenwald, please commit suicide." It never occurs to us that she will listen.

We called it Ramming Speed. I don't remember why. But the name had a violent, self-destructive ring that seemed to fit our mood at the time. Ramming Speed was a 10-page "underground newspaper" that I produced—anonymously, I had initially hoped—with two friends in 1986. Proudly indecent, it viciously attacked our teachers and peers in the sort of terms one might expect from 13-year-old boys. After we sold 80 copies at $1 a piece over the course of one day at Francis C. Hammond Junior High School, we were ferreted out and each suspended for a week.

Ramming Speed was a brief cause célèbre in our tiny junior-high world, a jaw-dropping feat of anti-authoritarianism that earned us the admiration of many students and even a few teachers, who marveled at our precocious ingenuity and entrepreneurialism even if they loathed the product. It was the sort of thing I would deploy in later years in bar conversations as a self-deprecating (and simultaneously self-aggrandizing) tale of misspent youth. "Oh, you got caught skipping school once? Well, let me tell you about my first newspaper assignment."

Here's what I never said in those bar conversations: Ramming Speed was filled with gutter racism, written by me, that turns my stomach to think of today. It directed at two young girls the same sort of highly public, humiliating sexual slander and innuendo that helped drive 15-year-old Phoebe Prince to kill herself in 2010 in Massachusetts, and it literally called on one of those girls to commit suicide. As much as it was an act of defiance against a school administration we perceived as wanting, it was an act of brutal and indefensible bullying against children we knew to be vulnerable. It was wanton adolescent cruelty of the sort that routinely makes headlines today. It was pre-digital, ink-and-paper cyberbullying.

Over the years, as I read about case after case in which cruel words helped drive teens to acts of self-harm—Prince, Amanda Todd, Erin Gallagher—whatever hazy sense of outlaw pride I had over that episode curdled into shame. So I recently set out to figure out why we did it, and to apologize to the people we did it to.

Confessions of a Teenage Word-Bully

I was 13 years old, an 8th-grader in Alexandria, Va., a stultifying (to my eyes) suburb of Washington, D.C. I was small, pudgy, and freckled. To this day I do not understand why, but I wore a bandana, "doo-rag" style, over my tangled reddish curls. I had an Army surplus jacket upon which I had carefully applied, in permanent black marker, the names of the bands I thought were cool. The Clash. The Cure. R.E.M.

Confessions of a Teenage Word-Bully

Steve and Dustin were a year older than me. Steve was anarchic and smooth. He reminds me now of Christian Slater's character in Heathers—a wildly unpredictable and malevolent black heart beating beneath a polished and polite exterior. Dustin was a lovable loser, handsome and physical. There was breakdancing in his past. To continue the seminal-teen-movie-of-the-1980s identity scheme, Dustin was a slightly less dark version of Judd Nelson.

Steve and Dustin were cool. I was not. They had access to girls. I did not. They were friendly with a clique of pretty, powerful 8th-graders that called themselves—as only pretty, powerful, 8th-grade girls can—the Seven Dwarves. I don't remember why, but in 1986, Steve and Dustin began pulling me into their social circle—not to hang out with the Seven Dwarves, but to act as a sidekick of sorts for teen pursuits that the older girls couldn't be convinced to take up.

So we drank vodka and Kool-Aid at Dustin's apartment and painted the sidewalks of Alexandria bright red with our vomit. We broke into the apartment complex next to Steve's house and launched bottle-rockets down the long, straight hallways. Armed with a BB gun, we shot at moving cars like snipers from the roof of my house, running like mad when the drivers pulled over. And then Steve's dad brought home a new computer.

Confessions of a Teenage Word-Bully

"I remember really just fucking around with the paint program on that Mac and thinking it was really cool," Dustin tells me today. I hadn't talked to him in at least a decade, maybe more. "As far as why we decided to rip everyone we knew or, peripherally knew, to shreds and then publish and sell it? I can't even really remember the genesis. I think it came from a typical angst-ridden, middle-finger-up teenage place."

Ramming Speed flawlessly captures a very specific brand of adolescent cluelessness that flowers in the early teenage years—the intersection of a feverish and all-encompassing desire to appear worldly and an absolute lack of worldliness. And, crucially, the failure to perceive the distance between the two. Dustin, Steve, and I had taken some trips into Georgetown, picking up t-shirts at touristy punk shops and sampling the free papers we'd find there. So when we made our own, we naturally advertised it as covering the "club scene," "local bands," and the "drug scene." We called for submissions relating to "good drug buys" and "club info." None of us had stepped foot into a "club." Even though it was purportedly anonymous, we published a locker number for people to drop off those drug buy tips.

Confessions of a Teenage Word-Bully

"We caN sAy what wE feel LikE!" we announced on the front page. "Why are we doing this? Because we feel the social awareness of this school is going down the fuckin' drain. we want to promote psychedelically wicked coolness in this school. We also want to introduce new shit to the general public." Elsewhere, an unsigned piece calls for the establishment of a "rebel faction to tell everyone not to fuck with us." Salted throughout are maudlin song quotes ("you left me standing in the rain"), sexual appraisals of classmates ("Dawn's got tits"), and general witticisms ("Do the world a favor and hit a geek today—preferably Mike").

It is unspeakably mortifying to read 26 years later, as I recently did for the first time. There is poetry. There is a sex advice column ("when having SEX you must feel the urge to get in the doggie-style position"). And then there was the piece on Jenni Greenwald.

Jenni (not her real name) was Steve and Dustin's age. She was an outsider of sorts at Hammond. Tall and a little gawky, she dressed like Molly Ringwald. She had been hit by a van when she was six years old, and suffered through periodic surgeries and a sizable scar on her leg that loomed much larger in her adolescent mind.

She was the subject of a piece headlined "Great New Gossip From the Land of Oral Encounters," which told in lurid detail the story of a "Certs encounter" between Jenni and Gerald, another student: "On a bright sunny day sometime last summer, the insatiable dick-sucking desire of Jenni mustered one more prick to deep throat." That was the general tenor. The "story," which was false, was that Jenni and Gerald were prevented from a routine sexual encounter by Jenni's menstrual cycle, at which point Gerald received a "SALIVA-SOAKED BLOW JOB!"

I didn't write it. I barely understood sex at that point. It's unclear who did: My recollection was that Steve was behind the Jenni animus, but Dustin thinks he may have written it up. Whoever was responsible, there was an unambiguous malevolence directed at Jenni throughout the paper. In addition to the previously mentioned suicide request, which was inserted randomly at the bottom of a survey of "cool" bands that I had written, there was an unaccompanied floating headline—"This is a Subliminal Message: Kill Jenni Greenwald"—at the bottom of page three.

"These were just the super riveting stories that were going around the school," Steve says today when I ask him why we went after Jenni. "Someone would say, 'Gerald got a blowjob—they were going to have sex but she was on her period!' When you're in junior high, that's just like awesome gossip. In some ways, we were making an outlet for gossip just like a trashy tabloid." He doesn't recall a personal grudge against her—in fact, Steve and Dustin would both eventually go on to date her. Dustin told me that our hatred was wrapped up in arcane clique politics. Jenni had represented some sort of threat to the Seven Dwarves, and so we sought to punish her.

Confessions of a Teenage Word-Bully

When I called her, Jenni was surprisingly serene about the whole affair. She remembered it vividly, but regarded it as one small part of a campaign of false gossip she had to contend with. "The thing you've got to understand, John," she told me, "is that I was not as promiscuous as I was rumored to be when I was in junior high. I didn't even have sex when I was in junior high school. And I heard about conversations that guys were having about the sex they were having with me. So when I read that, it was just more of the same shit. You guys just moved forward with a set of rumors that had already been established."

Not that it didn't hurt. "You guys were totally just douchenozzles. Mean Girls. That's what this was. But you guys took it to a level of crudeness—it was just mean. It was like you were trying to emulate that Mean Girls persona, but just went completely off the wall with it."

These days, Jenni has children and a job of responsibility within the federal bureaucracy. She's very happy with the way her life has turned out, and a crucial part of that path was a decision, taken around the time we were busy savaging her, to exile herself somewhat from the social life at Hammond and throw herself into the late '80s and early '90s punk scene across the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. Looking back, she views Ramming Speed and the other gossip attacks she suffered almost as character-building. "It kind of opened me up to the idea that I didn't have to live according to standards," she told me. "Maybe had those rumors not happened, I would have stayed the geek that I was. And I probably would not have been that brave, had I not gotten to the point where I realized that it didn't matter what I do because people are going to say whatever they're going to say no matter what I did. And that gave me the courage and the freedom to just go be a little crazy."

She even confessed to a small amount of pride at having been selected as a target in the first place: "The truth of the matter is that when you're a girl, and you have a flaw that makes you ugly in your own eyes, the fact that guys are interested, the fact that guys are talking about you, the fact that guys are spreading rumors that they're fucking you—honestly it's a little bit of an ego boost. As much as I was pissed off that people were lying about me, I was honestly pleased that I was getting attention."

Confessions of a Teenage Word-Bully

Holly Winslow (not her real name) wasn't pleased at all. She was in Steve and Dustin's grade. Steve had dated her for a while. I don't remember much about Holly other than that she was older, and quiet, and smart. She had a knowing sensibility and seemed to exist above the frenzied adolescent jostling for status that occupied so many of us. She struck me as self-assured. One night Steve and I were picked up by the Alexandria Police Department at 3 a.m. after sneaking out and walking to her house. Eventually she and Steve broke up. Here's what he wrote about her ("Daniel R." is not a real name):

Holly's First

Well, it took almost a year finally sort out [sic] all the rumours but, we've finally done it! It would seem our poor innocent Holly W. brought home her love Daniel R. and during the daylight hours in her bed he "persued" [sic] her to let him give a gift if you know what we mean. It would seem that when he did, she poped [sic] like a baloon [sic]. Blood all over the place.

Who cleaned the sheets !!!???!!!

Today, Steve says he was motivated simply by jealousy. He'd dated Holly, chastely. When he heard that she'd begun sleeping with another guy, he was angry. "I definitely felt badly about Holly," he says. "It even bothered me a little bit at the time. I do remember having sort of like second thoughts. But it was such juicy gossip."

When I reached out to Holly, who now lives in rural Virginia and has two children, she was wary. The episode was part of a calamitous year for her. Her relationship with Daniel became "dysfunctional," she told me, and culminated in a deeply troubling event that she didn't feel comfortable discussing, even 25 years later. Our little newspaper story was one of that event's catalysts.

Confessions of a Teenage Word-Bully

"I walked into English class amid whispers from classmates huddled in a corner of the room," Holly told me via email. "Someone apparently had a copy of the paper in hand. There were stares and giggles. It really was like a scene you'd imagine in a movie chronicling adolescent struggles. I wasn't informed of the content until later in the day. Fortunately, it was a friend who broke the news. She ushered me into the restroom and gave me a big hug before handing a copy of the paper to me."

Holly described the embarrassment she felt as unbearable. She asked her mother if she could move in with an aunt who lived in another state. "I was immediately humiliated, fearful, confused. Humiliated that this intrusive look into a difficult and complicated episode in my personal life had been made public property in such a vulgar way. Fearful that I would be insulted, ridiculed, or shunned by classmates. Confused by the realization that the story was written by individuals I once considered friends, one of whom happened to be my first real 'crush.' I was kind of fascinated (and even a little intimidated) by you and Steve, to be honest. In my eyes, you were bold, quick-witted, and adventuresome—all things that I didn't see in myself. Somehow, the knowledge that the two of you were responsible for the story made it an even harder pill to swallow."

It had never occurred to me as I was giggling over Mac Paint that I might be causing that kind of pain. Holly told me that, although she doesn't regard what we did to her as of a piece with the sort of bullying that was visited on Prince et. al., "it did have an impact on my confidence, my ability to trust, and even my behavior for a few years thereafter." Oddly enough, just like Jenni, Holly eventually developed a lasting friendship with Dustin. She doesn't ever recall discussing Ramming Speed with him.

Confessions of a Teenage Word-Bully

As troubling as the attacks on Jenni and Holly are to me now, I can take some comfort in the fact that I was only an accessory. Not so with the racism. Hammond was a minority white school. It wasn't exactly a hotbed of racial discord, but it had a certain amount of ambient tension. I was a small white kid. I got hassled.

I wrote something called "Racism at Hammond." It is bad. Very bad. I referred to my classmates as "niggers." I adopted a victimized pose and claimed to be a target of reverse racism. I mouthed the stupidest, most hateful sentiments, the sort of ideas that disgust me when I confront them in others today. I asked why there is no White History Month, a question that serves for me today as a sort of short-hand for mindless racism. Here's a sample:

I have been aware of racism in Hammond for quite a while now, and this is the first time I've ever really said my mind on the subject, other than to friends. I have often been called a racist, merely because I used that dreaded term—ugh, nigger, to describe Go-Gos ["Go-Go" is regional music form in D.C., akin to hip-hop, popular with the black community. Its use here is something similar to "hip-hoppers."]. The difference between black people and niggers (Go-Gos) is that niggers go around with their bumpin' styles beating the crap out of white boys who step on their Filas. It really pisses me off that people talk about white prejudism, while nigger prejudism reigns at Hammond.

The rest of the piece was a sustained attack on Colette Landrum, my 7th grade history teacher. Mrs. Landrum was African-American, and she insisted, in a quiet but forceful way, on teaching the black experience. There was no period of American history in her class that didn't include a sustained look at the circumstances and achievements of black Americans, from Crispus Attucks to George Washington Carver to the Tuskegee Airmen. Compared to the whitewash most of my schoolmates were getting, it probably seemed like an African American history course. As an adult, I have frequently looked back at Mrs. Landrum's efforts and been grateful to have received something that many of my peers didn't—a constant reminder that nonwhite people were always an integral part of our nation's history. That what had happened to them mattered as much as what had happened to everybody else.

Confessions of a Teenage Word-Bully

At the time, I hated it. And so I railed against Mrs. Landrum and her "NIGGER 9th grade boyfriends"—former students—who would visit her during class. I dismissed her curriculum as an "advertisement for black people to get attention." I complained that "all we ever studied were BLACK war heroes and BLACK scientists."

Mercifully, Mrs. Landrum—who has since retired and goes by her married name of Colette Brown—had only the dimmest memory of Ramming Speed when I called her to ask about it. Sadly, the reason is that there were just too many racist incidents to keep track of in any detail. "That was unfortunately not my first or last encounter with that kind of reaction and resentment," she said. "There are people who aren't receptive to that part of our history. I got it from students, parents, even other teachers. I'm sure at the time I wasn't happy about it—these kinds of things are hurtful. But you still have to be adult about it and be professional."

She kindly accepted my apology, and I thanked her for what I now recognize as a first-class education. She wanted to know where I live in New York, and we talked about her growing up in Queens. Her grace and class made me feel like more of an asshole.

Confessions of a Teenage Word-Bully

I honestly don't know what to make of the racism. My racism. My immediate reaction upon reading it was to simply dismiss it as the mind of a different person. That's not me, it's a stupid kid. I don't believe in the Tooth Fairy any more, either. But in the same paper there is evidence of traits that I regard as central to my identity even today. I wrote a dumb thing about Hüsker Dü. I remember, vividly, when I first began listening to them, and in my internal mythology, it was an awakening. The 13-year-old kid who was turned on to Hüsker Dü by a camp counselor who felt bad that the other kids were mocking him for wanting to get a mohawk? That kid is still me. What about the 13-year-old kid who wants a White History Month? Even that little Hüsker Dü blurb recommended them because "they don't agree at all with the nazi punk killkill views." And yet there I am shouting "nigger" at people. I don't remember ever feeling that way, or thinking it's OK to address people in those terms. Nor do I remember outgrowing, or renouncing, those views. I had black friends at the time. I can't imagine how I faced them.

Confessions of a Teenage Word-Bully

They caught us right away. For some reason, I suspected that the print shop we used to run off 80 copies had ratted us out. That's laughable, considering we were the ones selling the thing, and we had included one of our locker numbers as a drop-off point of "submissions" for future issues. We had elaborately planned out a "deny everything" strategy in the event we were caught, but we caved fairly quickly after our principal, Dr. James Wilson, split us up and began making threats about libel suits and "pornography charges." They were taking it more seriously than we imagined.

We were suspended for a week each. Dustin and I didn't get to stay home, though. We had to serve our terms at an administrative center with other problem kids (for reasons we never understood, Steve got to stay home for a week). Dustin recalls being in a room with a kid who said he was suspended for going to a teacher's home and threatening to kill her. We made up violent offenses—trying to firebomb the principal's car—so we wouldn't have to tell people we were in for writing a newspaper.

According to my mother, the suspension was part of a larger deal she struck with administrators—I wouldn't be expelled if she sent me to a child psychiatrist who worked across the street from the school. I'm dubious of this, since neither Dustin nor Steve were forced into treatment. But my mother certainly did send me to that doctor, and the referral certainly came from the school.

It was clear to us that we didn't get in trouble for violating Jenni and Holly, or for racist rants, or for the various other attacks on teachers (I wrote one piece mocking my math teacher, Nancy Hylton, for wearing precisely two polyester dresses, which she alternated daily). Our offense was simply using foul language and writing about sex. Though my mother forced me to write apologies to some of the teachers we mentioned (though not Mrs. Landrum), no one asked us to apologize to Jenni and Holly. And both of them told me that no one from the school ever reached out to them to talk about the attacks. No one ever tried to make me acknowledge the gravity of what we had done to them. No one dressed me down for calling my classmates niggers.

Confessions of a Teenage Word-Bully

To the contrary: Some of our teachers viewed the enterprise as a promising effort. "I remember sitting in the principal's office and waiting for my parents to get there," Steve says. "And an algebra teacher did a doubletake when she saw me and said 'What are you doing here?' And I said, 'Oh I got in trouble for writing this paper.' And she said, 'Oh, you did that Ramming Speed thing? Let me know when you make your first million.'" After my suspension was over, I still had to attend detention after school for a few weeks. One day I was the only student there, and the teacher monitoring me told me, "Someone had to say something about Nancy Hylton's outfits."

Confessions of a Teenage Word-Bully

When I first talked to Jenni about Ramming Speed, she hadn't read it since she was 14 years old. After our conversation, she asked if I would send her a copy. After warning her profusely about its vulgarity—in the hopes that she'd just wave it off—I agreed.

Later that night, she sent me an email:

I had forgotten all the requests for my death. I am curious though (now that it has come up and we're talking about it) why was there such a desire within the 3 of you to have me dead? Curious, how did you all feel once the attempt to end me actually occurred? I am not angry, just curious. As I told you I firmly believe that the events of jr high and high school gave me the freedom and strength to become who I am and I had a hell of a good time getting here. I'm just really curious what it was that I did in the less than 2 years that any of you had known me that was so worthy of the hate….

Were you all really so insecure with your manhood? Were you being beaten at home? Was someone beating you up in the parking lot after school? Is your dick really small? Did you think some how this would give you fame or notoriety? Were you all just so intimidated by the people around you that something like this made you feel big? You said you weren't big or strong enough to be a physical bully — why did you feel the need to bully at all?

I hadn't known that Jenni tried to kill herself. It wasn't directly in response to what we wrote about her, but the knowledge that we had cavalierly and publicly taunted someone who was actually hurting enough to want to harm themselves nearly knocked me over.

As for her questions: I felt deeply insecure about my manhood. I wasn't being beaten at home. I got beaten up a few times in the parking lot after school. My dick is not huge. I thought it would give me fame and notoriety. I was very intimidated, and desperately wanted to feel big.

Why the need to bully at all? I still don't know. Teens gang up on each other. They identify enemies. They are terrified of sexuality and fascinated by it. Teen boys brutally enforce rules of sexual conduct that they desperately want girls to violate. Jenni was different. She had a scar. She was operating at the periphery of a powerful clique. And her name was whispered in connection with this sex stuff. Same with Holly. They were acting out sexually (or at least we thought they were), and needed to be punished and celebrated for it.

Back then, in order to punish them, we created a 10-page document with sidebars, diagrams, charts, and thousands of words of text, printed it out, took it to a printer, came up with the money to run off 80 copies, and sold them at school, an act that immediately foreclosed the possibility of a repeat offense. I shudder to think what we would have done if we'd had access to Facebook or Tumblr or Twitter or any of the other convenient ways to punish people we don't like. And I shudder to think how banal what we did to Jenni and Holly and Mrs. Landrum must seem to similarly situated people today, who probably have to deal with it on an hourly basis.

And I'm sorry.