I've just been watching a CNN special on bullying. Halfway through it now, I find myself crying. Crying for the grieving parents, whose children just couldn't cope anymore, crying for the kids whose lives are irreparably damaged by the taunts and insults, crying for the kids who've realised the damage they'd been inflicting on others for no reason other than a power trip. Crying for myself.
Because all these years later, it still hurts. Really, really hurts.
In middle school, I was an awkward kid. I was part-cliche: smart and tall, just not smart, tall and pretty. I was overweight, had acne on my upper arms and wore glasses. I had braces, straggly thick hair and basic "brown" colouring--hair, eyes... Oh, and I had a faint line of hair on my upper lip, and I suffered badly from heavy menstrual periods, which often seeped through my clothes. My family couldn't afford much at all then, either, so my clothes bore the scars of the financial struggle, with the discoloured patches and the mismatched buttons. Yes, if ever any child seemed ripe for abuse, it was I.
It began in sixth grade, when I was tracked into an accelerated section, whilst my best friends were tracked into a so-called average section. My 'best friends' grew closer and began to ignore me at lunch. When I tried to sit with them in the cafeteria, they'd move away. I finally asked what was wrong. The next thing I knew, random kids were coming up to me and calling me a wimp for not wanting to be alone. As I struggled to find a friend, another group singled me out because I'd once 'gone with' a boy who'd suffered an accident as a young child and was left with visible damage. They called me horrible names, including 'slut' and 'whore', all because I'd befriended him back then, and as a thank you gesture, he had given me a pair of earrings.
I was baffled by all of this. How could the best of my two best friends, who'd known me since our mothers served together on a PTA committee and who was my neighbour, allow herself to be dragged into it? I'd go home, curl up on the sofa and cry. My mum would sit next to me and hold me, telling me it'd get better. I believed it. I ignored most of what I was hearing in the halls and the whispering that went on when other girls passed me, instead focusing on what I loved the most: playing flute. I practiced, worked on my technique and then practiced more again. Our school band teacher noticed and encouraged me to take private lessons and consider majoring in music at college. I was thrilled.
Until a rumour circulated that I was trying to seduce him.
Oh. My. Gosh! What had I done to them that they felt the need to go on? I couldn't believe they would spread such a thing. Worse still, I was terrified it would get back to him. What would I do then? How would I face certain humiliation?
Events escalated. More girls were roped into their actions. The crowds became a bit bigger. At one point, I was thrown up against a locker and my shirt was torn. I didn't fight back because I didn't want to get in trouble; it was odd, then, that I was the one called into the teacher's room and given a talking to. For the next few days, I kept my head down. I didn't try very hard in band, either, and I stopped talking to my favourite teacher, Mrs. Harman, after class, just in case they decided to go after her next.
All the while, I was battling yet another group of bullies. This one wasn't especially happy that I had moved into their neighbourhood and thus, onto their bus route. The first day I had to ride their bus, the same bus my best friend took, I was subjected to the classics: backpacks put in empty spaces, mean stares and 'yuck' or 'Ew, don't sit here' mutterings as I passed by. I took a seat with another bullied kid and stared at my own backpack the whole ride to school. These things continued until one day, after getting off the bus near my home, I was chased up the street by two girls who were throwing rocks at me and calling me names. They had the audacity to come up onto our front lawn, by which point my mum took out after them and threatened to call the police. They called her horrible, terrible names, called her Fat Mama and bitch and all sorts, before retreating to the one girl's house. The sad part was that one of the two was the daughter of the people who'd bought our old house, the whole reason I was on that bus in the first place.
Mum went to school about it. She lodged a complaint with the principal, though I begged her not to. I knew it'd get worse. The girls were called into a meeting with me and Mum. Of course, they denied everything and were only made apologise to me. Mum hugged me before she left, stroked my hair and told me not to let anyone get to me. Once she was gone, they came out of hiding from behind a short brick wall and called me a little crybaby. "What are you gonna do now, you little crybaby? You gonna run to your mommy?" I hid in the girls' bathroom for much of the rest of the day. I didn't even go to lunch.
As an educator now, I cannot understand how my next responses escaped the attention of any one teacher in that building. For goodness sake, when my grandfather died when I was in third grade, I was pulled into the counsellor's office immediately. If I see one of my students sitting alone, slump-shouldered, I go ask if everything is okay. Yet, no one seemed to be concerned when I stopped showing up for math class and stopped washing my hair. No one wondered why I was always still in the bathroom ten or twenty minutes after class started, or why I was seemingly always at the school nurse. They didn't notice that I wore sweatpants to school for an entire year (this was before the fashion industry bumped all the sizes up a notch; I was by that point too heavy for children's clothes but too small for women's). They didn't notice, either, the utter despair on my face when the guy I had a bad crush on called me Fatty for the first time during English class. Which is why they probably didn't hear him or his cronies do it every day thereafter.
It got so bad during my eighth grade year that I capitalised on a bout of bronchitis I had and stayed off sick much longer than necessary. Soon I also discovered that the gym telephones weren't manned in the morning before first bell, so I began to sneak in there, ring my mum to come pick me up by ten, and then fake her signature on an early dismissal note for an orthodontist/doctor/voice teacher/insert professional here's appointment. All in all, I missed about fifty-two days of that school year before the district sent a letter that stated any future absence, regardless how short, would require a doctor's note. By this time, though, I was so far behind in algebra that the teacher refused to teach me. And it was only because I'm blessed with a good memory that I aced my other classes and passed to ninth grade.
But that passing made me determined that, come hell or high water, there was absolutely no way I was going to high school with any of them. And that, plus being evicted from our rental home three weeks before the start of the school year, is how I wound up being homeschooled my freshman and sophomore years. And let me tell you, those were some of the best years of my K-12 life.
So I guess what I want to get across is this: It got bad enough so many times that I contemplated suicide more times than I can count. At one point, I went so far as to try, only to chicken out at the last minute. And if my story is a common one, bullying doesn't just end with a few kids or incidents, but becomes progressively pervasive in the victim's life. Given the life I have now, though, and the experiences I've had, I'm so very, very glad I didn't go through with it. That doesn't mean this'll ever go away for me. It doesn't mean that life's successes can erase the pain of daily humiliation and belittling. The scars are permanent. I still buckle when people are pushy with me, I still jump to defend myself at the drop of a hat, and I still get very scared the minute voices start to rise. It has caused me problems in my relationships, in my career, even in my own family. And like I said before, it still really, really hurts.
We will never stop bullying. It's part of human behaviour. That's a sad fact, I know, but one we must face. We can save others who are victims of it, though. Please do it if you can.
Thank you, from one victim to the world.
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