My high school bully became a successful filmmaker. Then he died.
Vasco Nunes had a prolific film career until his life was cut short in a motor vehicle accident in 2016. He was my bully in high school. Although he was a senior and I was a freshman, he had plenty of opportunities to harass and torment me during rehearsals of a musical we did together. I dreaded the days that I had to rehearse scenes with him.
Fast forward into adulthood, I became an acupuncturist and he became a filmmaker — a really good one. Seventeen years after I knew him, he co-produced We Live in Public a documentary about the dark aspects of how the internet can change human behavior. That film is part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art. His projects have purpose and cover a wide range of topics from exposing the abuse of a radical fringe cult to shedding light on a global community united through break dancing. When I knew Vasco, his most monumental achievement was assaulting our entire drama department with his body odor. (More on that below)
I just learned about his death after I wrote about another high school classmate and his wife, Kelly Tshibaka, who is Donald Trump’s pick in the race against Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski for her seat in the US Senate. It brought up some pretty bad memories. I have been scrolling down high school trauma lane ever since.
Vasco was one of a dozen bullies that I encountered during my three-year stint at an international school in Spain. In 1990 my family relocated overseas from Washington DC. My father worked for the State Department in a drab office at the American Embassy in Madrid. Embassy kids like me went to The American School of Madrid alongside the offspring of global elites: world leaders, international corporate executives, and celebrities that most Americans have never heard of.
It was a tiny school with tight cliques. I didn’t fit in anywhere and that made me the subject of abuse. I could tell plenty of stories about the people who found me worthy of their negative attention. I am writing about Vasco because his death gives me an opportunity for some closure on a rough chapter of my life. I never processed any of this because I felt shame for so long. I thought I deserved the way I was treated by Vasco and others for being too talkative, too annoying, “too extra”. Finally, I realize that being annoying is not a justification for terrorizing a 15-year-old girl.
Over six semesters I endured a steady rotation of verbal abuse and harassment from teens of diverse backgrounds. My aggressors were subject to change per semester. Year number two, my freshman year, was the shittiest. I had an art class bully and a gym class bully. A trio of sophomore jackasses taunted me in the hallway in between classes. Something about the way they said “Hi Beth” in unison made me shudder. Anonymous bullies crank-called me at home and drew vaginas on my locker and my composition notebooks. They would have been more effective had they taken art class, but they got their point across. Instead, they were probably taking French classes so they could be trilingual by graduation. A bunch of pussies, whoever they were. World-class pussies with a sense of culture.
A girl group in my class made a point to exclude me from sleepovers and other hangouts. Social exclusion is another form of bullying. My friend Laura pointed me to a fascinating study showing the area of the brain that processes physical pain is the same area of the brain that processes social rejection. In that study, MRIs proved that volunteers who took acetaminophen every day for three weeks showed less activity in the pain-related regions of their brain when excluded from a group activity. Warning: DO NOT TAKE ACETAMINOPHEN TO COPE WITH SOCIAL EXCLUSION. You could harm yourself. (Go to your local Community Acupuncture clinic for a treatment instead.)
I found a positive outlet in theater. My bullies did, too. In the Spring of 1992, our theatre department did a production of CATS. Go ahead and laugh. It wasn’t my first choice, either. This is where I ended up in Vasco’s crosshairs. We were cast opposite each other as sword-fighting pirate cats in Growltiger’s Last Stand. Vasco’s body was long and sleek. During rehearsal breaks, he would arch over me hissing and growling insults and accusations. We struggled with the timing of our combat choreography which, he insisted, was my fault. Maybe it was, but his attitude didn’t help. I don’t remember exactly what he said. I remember how it felt. Like stings and burns from bites and scratches. To make things worse, this happened in front of other cast members who did and said nothing.
Other than CATS, Vasco and I never interacted. He was a senior and I was a freshman. We had no classes together and we weren’t on the same bus route. Other than one rather forgettable occasion during the summer before school started, our paths never crossed. I was hired to babysit the daughters of another American Embassy family. The girls asked me to take them to the swimming pool in their apartment complex. Not long after we rolled out our beach towels and enjoyed our first swim, Vasco arrived with a few of his friends. I recognized them from school, but I didn’t know any of them. I didn’t say hello because they seemed too cool and I felt too shy.
Vasco and his pals grabbed spots on the opposite side of the pool. He jumped into the pool. Then he jumped back out of the pool and headed in my direction. I froze, nervous about what he was going to do to me. He leaned right over me and shook his head like a wet dog spraying me with the water that dripped from his mop of curly hair. Then he turned around and walked back to his friends who were laughing at what he had just done to me. I quickly forgot about Vasco’s prank after it happened. I didn’t know that next semester I would become a target for his vitriol.
The week before Vasco died, he took photos on a bus tour with actor Mark Ruffalo educating members of the film industry about the impacts of fracking and oil extraction in Los Angeles. I can’t believe that this is the same guy from CATS who walked around shirtless; arms in the air, hands behind his head airing out his armpits and polluting the backstage with his pheromonal pit stank. No nostrils were spared from his rank adolescent smelliness. At our school’s theater awards night, our drama director presented Vasco with the “Thorn in My Side” award — issued every year to the cast member who got under her skin. When CATS ended, Vasco and I parted ways, but other bullies were waiting in the wings for their next scene in my psychodrama. On the last day of school that year, an ensemble of dipshits from my freshman class leaned out of a second-story classroom window and yelled “HEY ROPP, FUCK YOU!”
My first thought when I learned about Vasco’s death was “rest in peace, asshole.”
Then I felt guilty. He had a kid. Now his kid does not have him. I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel. I asked the internet how I should feel. I found plenty of articles when I searched “my bully died.” I fell down rabbit holes on Reddit and Quora. Processing the death of a bully looks different for everybody. Some throw parties. Some grieve the loss of life. Some feel relief. Others feel justice. None of that worked for me.
In my early thirties, I worked with a counselor who used guided visualizations in her practice. I would close my eyes and she would guide me through stages that lead to an imaginary campfire. I could have a fireside chat with anyone, dead or alive, that I needed to reconnect with. So just last week, I decided to try this technique on my own with Vasco.
I sat cross-legged on my couch, closed my eyes, and I met with Vasco by a campfire. I pictured his smirk and his mop of curls. I asked him “Why did you treat me so badly?” His smirk softened. And then he just shrugged his shoulders and let out an apologetic sigh. He offered no words or excuses. This felt right to me.
In reality, Vasco was the only bully who I confronted directly about why he was such a dick to me. All of our cast meetings took place in one of the kindergarten classrooms. Picture forty high school kids sitting in tiny chairs around tables and sitting cross-legged on the story-time carpet. I sat down at a round table about two feet high. Vasco grabbed a child-size chair across from me at a literal kids' table. His legs were so long that his knees were nearly level with his shoulders. True to form, he wasted no time extending his claws and batting me with more insults.
“What did I do to you? Why are you so upset with me?” I asked shouting above his insults.
One of his fellow seniors happened to be sitting next to me. She took my side and echoed my questions to Vasco. It was a rare moment when someone finally had my back. Thank you, Maria Elena.
Vasco reminded me of the pool incident that I had forgotten about. He said, “YOU INVADED SEBASTIAN’S POOL!”
Eighteen-year-old Vasco had not emotionally progressed past the age of five. He was practically telling me to get out of his sandbox. Or maybe it’s true. Maybe Sebastian’s family owned the apartments, and the pool, where I was babysitting that summer day. I wouldn’t be surprised.
The campfire exercise gave me the resolve I was looking for. I released Vasco back to the Heaviside Lair. I summoned more bullies to the imaginary campfire. Most didn’t know why they bullied me. Some admitted that it was because everyone else was doing it. Others said I was an easy target. One of the mean girls said she excluded me because she found me annoying. She found everybody annoying. I hope she hasn’t been going through her life (and traveling the world) being annoyed by every person she encounters. That would be sad.
I’ve read numerous articles about the negative impacts of bullying. A line from an article on Thought Catalogue resonates with me: You were the person that made me afraid to be myself. That statement perfectly sums up what bullies do. Buddhist meditation teacher and author Sharon Saltzberg explains that a brain filled with shame cannot learn. I spent three years at an academically rigorous private school where I could not learn. My grades were fine until I lived in Spain. Many of my classmates went on to attend Ivy League Schools. I enrolled at a college that would take me.
I’ve cried a lot in the process of writing this piece, the way you do when a loved one dies. I did not cry for Vasco. I cried for myself. I cried for the critical three years that can’t have back and wish had never happened. I cried for feeling broken for so long. This year, as a part of my old school’s 60th anniversary, they created a nostalgic video entitled “Do you remember?” Yes, I do. How could I ever forget?
The consolation to my story is I ended up exactly where I need to be in Manchester, New Hampshire. My city has been considered Ground Zero for the opioid epidemic. Donald Trump (another bully) referred to my state as a “drug-infested den.” I have volunteered for the last four years at a recovery clubhouse, doing ear acupuncture in a group setting to support people in recovery. I happen to like hanging out with former IV drug users and recovering alcoholics. They appreciate me sharing my acupuncture skills to support their recovery. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship that helps piece me back together. I find solidarity with people who have also lost chunks of their lives because they needed to find an escape from physical and emotional pain.
My weekly ear acupuncture sessions got the attention of Harvard scholar, Eana Meng, who drove up to Manchester to observe our group. That meeting changed the course of her research when she went on to pursue her Master’s Degree at Cambridge. I am a part of her video blog series about the unexpected connections of auricular acupuncture as a tool for Substance Use Disorder and Behavioral Health.
My old high school doesn’t organize reunions. This means I will not get other opportunities for closure. It also keeps me safe from interactions that might be too painful. A few years ago, however, a telephone bully tracked me down. His apology delayed by twenty-five years over an instant message gave me a little bit of closure and that is better than none at all. True apologies are rare and precious.
I want to hear from my high school. I want to know if ASM feels any responsibility for fostering what was a toxic environment for me. They’ve asked former students for our stories as part of their 60th-anniversary celebration. This is my story. I put a lot of time and energy into this writing assignment. I hope ASM will read this and finally give me a grade that I deserve: an A for Apology.
As for Vasco, if we happen to cross paths in another life, next time I hope he won’t be such a grumpy cat.
Thank you to my husband, Eric, who was willing to serve as my sounding board and editor on this project.