It breaks my heart to see so many posts and news stories these days about kids (and some painfully YOUNG kids) taking their own lives as a result of enduring incessant bullying. I was bullied often and it made going to school far more difficult than it needed to be; in fact, I thoroughly dreaded going to school. I didn’t talk about it much because I was ashamed, so I really don’t know how much you know about what school was like for me though you were in the very same school at the time.
I get a bit hot under the collar when I hear people responding to these stories with anything less than empathy because they feel bullying just isn’t a big deal and that these kids are “just too sensitive” or they need to “buck up and grow a pair.” The thing is… everyone is different. What is hurtful to one child might not be hurtful to another; we’re all wired differently. But I will say that even today, at age 41, I vividly remember so many instances of ridicule and bullying as though they happened yesterday. Bullying is a far bigger deal than a lot of people seem to be willing to admit.
I was a painfully awkward kid and a far more awkward teenager and I did not make the transition from grade school into junior high school easily. Nearly all of the girls whom I called friends up until the last day of summer following sixth grade somehow settled quite nicely into the “cool crowd” in junior high school. I was brokenhearted as all at once I was alone in a very new and scary place. I tried so embarrassingly hard to fit in; I remember that first Christmas in the seventh grade I handed out cards and candy canes to almost 100 people… just as a nice gesture and to hopefully make some new friends. I watched as a few of the “cool kids” threw the cards away in front of me… or just laughed at me and rolled their eyes. Some accepted them graciously, but most looked annoyed that I had the audacity to come close enough to them to make the delivery. The rejection was devastating and I was humiliated.
I just didn’t dress like everyone else; where the popular look of the day was Guess jeans, Esprit and Benetton… I was more at home shopping at garage sales and thrift stores and coming to school in my dad’s old suits and ties, suspenders and wing tips and grandma’s old broaches. It didn’t go over in a small-town school and I was picked on not only for my appearance but because I was a timid, easy target who didn’t ever stand up for herself. During most of junior and senior high school there was a group of boys, popular boys, who found it appropriate to spit on (or at least AT) me every day when I was forced to pass them to get to my locker. Some days they wouldn’t even let me get to my locker so I’d just show up to class without my book and say that I’d forgotten it.
There was a specific girl that made all my bus rides to and from junior high particularly painful. If I wasn’t seated near her, she’d make sure to find me. The trip would consist of her pulling my hair, spitting on me and spouting off lengthy little speeches about what a horrible and unnecessary person I was. Far more hurtful was that the girl sitting next to her, doing nothing, was a person with whom I’d grown up; we’d been friends since about the age of 2. And she sat back and watched the entire thing play out. Every. Single. Time. She’d pretend as though she didn’t know me all day at school and continued the charade until we got off the bus. Once the bus was out of sight she suddenly knew me again and she’d try and catch up with me shouting, “Hey, wait for me! Let’s walk home together!”
Back in the 9th grade during the first day of science class with Mr. Wood we drew names to determine our seating chart; the person with whom we were to share a table would also be our science partner for the semester. It’s still so clear to me today… standing up in the classroom as Tom drew my name from the hat and shouted in disgust to the class, “What!? I have to sit next to that FREAK?” The entire class laughed along with him. I, the “freak,” stood there in front of them all and fought back the tears not wanting to let on that I was unbelievably embarrassed and hurt.
It’s not as though these were exactly life-threatening situations; but when you take a painfully shy and awkward kid who’s predisposed to depression and who lacks the self-esteem required to stand up for herself against the bullying, you get a recipe for disaster. I was suicidal for years before entering junior high school but the social exile and the daily cruelty only made it harder for me to find reasons to continue to exist; when you’re a fragile and sensitive kid who is searching for her place in the world only to find out you seem to fit in anywhere at all… well, it makes you wonder why you’re even here. The daily taunting and alienation made it hard for me to concentrate in school so at times my grades suffered. I found it difficult to make new friends because I was so self-conscious that people wouldn’t like me so I was less likely to even try and meet new people.
In fact, this self-loathing ran so deep that the summer after tenth grade when a boy seemed to be pursuing me I was hesitant, to say the least. He asked me out again and again and again and I continued to answer with no after no after no because I honestly believed in my heart of hearts that there was no way that he was actually serious about taking me out on a date. I was convinced that it was some cruel joke; I would say yes and he’d be a no-show or something… or any variety of scenarios that would leave me looking the fool and him saying, “You couldn’t possibly think I actually wanted to date you!!” as he and his friends laughed at my expense. But after a few months of that I did finally say yes to a date and we were together for the better part of a year. I’m glad I took that chance, he was a very sweet first boyfriend.
By my senior year I was getting better at letting the ridicule roll off a little bit, though it still hurt terribly and I still was painfully timid. I recall there was to be a school-wide talent show the spring of my 12th grade year. I hadn’t even considered entering; to intentionally put myself on a stage, in the vulnerable position of performing, where everyone in the entire school could possibly be humiliating me with boos and hisses all at the very same time would have been devastating. But the team running the show pursued me for a while and I finally broke down and agreed to participate; I signed up and would be playing piano and singing a song I’d written. The day arrived and I sat there in the front row watching the show unfold. Each performance brought me closer and closer to the time I was to step on the stage and I was nearly suffocating with fear. I can’t tell you the number of times I almost jumped from my chair to either run to the bathroom to throw up or to run home and avoid having to face the crowd. But my time came… I sat up there at the piano and played and sang with my dysfunctional little heart splayed out on the stage for everyone to see. I was terrified. But, to my surprise, the once-rowdy audience became silent and just… listened. Brian, you told me later that the group of boys in front of you were disruptive throughout the entire show but managed complete silence for the duration of my performance and actually applauded and shouted approvingly at the end. (Ironically, these were some of the very same boys that spit on me in the hallway.) I ended up winning the talent show and happily took home the $25 prize and a little bit more self-appreciation than I woke up with that morning.
I still have a very long way to go but over the years I’ve grown a lot, dude. I have learned to set safer boundaries for myself and am getting better at sticking up for myself and worrying less about what others think of me.
All that said, I can’t even imagine how I’d have survived in today’s social media presence in schools when with a single tweet or text or Facebook post the entire school (and beyond) can be belittling someone within a split-second… and all at the very same time. There’s no controlling it once it’s out there and it just needs to stop.
I hope people continue to become more sensitive about the subject of bullying and I desperately hope that parents will take it seriously and act appropriately when they learn from teachers and school administrators that their child is a bully; we need to be teaching children kindness and respect. They certainly don’t have to be everyone’s friend… but they do need to learn that everyone does, at least, deserve to be respected, not humiliated. And not all of the responsibility should fall on the teachers– this needs to start at home.
I’m sorry this letter is a little bit long today but this has been on my mind a lot lately and I just needed to get it out. Thank you for always sticking up for me when others didn’t, dude. It meant the world to me.