For so long I feared her. Insults spouted from her mean vein as naturally as sweat seeped from her pores. She surged in power each time she put me down. The whole class seemed to be on her team, ready to tackle me at a moment’s notice. Without protective gear to cushion my emotions, I was defenseless. My formative years were spent shielding myself from playground taunts, staying away from school dances, cleaning up our toilet paper-decorated front lawn after Friday night targeting, refusing the rare slumber party invitation out of fear I would wake up yet again to a chorus of giggles and then finding my underwear in the freezer. Once she and a few of her most loyal pre-teen followers placed a soiled maxi pad on a toilet seat in the girls’ bathroom and told everyone it was mine. When the embarrassment passed and the tears dried, I decided anyone that mean had to be crazy.
“You’re smart and beautiful, honey,” my mom soothed. “The others are just jealous. We’ll talk to the principal and have the kids talked to,” Mom assured. Though my parents tried to intervene, school administration was no help. Principals breezed in and out annually as if the office required a revolving door. And since this mean girl’s mother was a teacher at my small school and was herself the queen bee of the staff clique, the score was always against me. If anything, talking to the kids just made the punishment worse.
And so I endured her. Throughout elementary and junior high school I thought she was in charge, that her posse was always right. Until my family moved away so that my high school years might be better, she instigated my personal daily torture. The outer anguish finally stopped, but the inner turmoil went on for years. Her negative words left their imprint on my brain and led to my deflated self-esteem. “I am stupid. I am fat. I am worthless.”
At my new school, the formerly self-assured and extroverted me morphed into a tentative version, withdrawing to let others take charge and answer questions in class. I decided it was better to hide my talents, stay quiet, and just blend in. That camouflage personality masked my real abilities and feelings. Fortunately, by finding true friends and real confidence in my uniqueness, I eventually learned to love myself unconditionally and be at ease in the world.
But I thank her. I don’t excuse her behavior or the lack of help adults should have provided. But I recognize that in a way, she helped me. She helped me find my own voice and become the resilient yet sensitive teacher, mentor, parent, wife, and social justice advocate I am proud to be today.
Over the years she has lingered in my mind. As the painful memories’ edges soften with age, I have often wondered where life led her, who she is today. I recently discovered the answer. Where is she? She’s dead. She got caught up in a party lifestyle, couldn’t hold a job, spent much of her adult years in and out of group homes, struggled with drug addiction. And she battled bipolar disorder. Instead of the relief I might have felt, knowing that she can’t harm me or anyone else anymore, I simply feel sadness. None of us is immune to life’s struggles. I’m glad her illness won’t torment her anymore, but my complicated feelings still linger. Decades after she induced a childhood of tears on me, now I cry for her.
October is bully prevention month. I started this post intending to share a list of resources, but I realized what I had to share most were the personal reasons I’m motivated to stop bullying in all forms. But it goes beyond that. Conquering my own childhood bullying demons is one thing, but now that I’m a mom it’s imperative to me to find ways to conquer bullying, for my son and for all children.
In this supposedly sophisticated era of cyber-bullying and mass shootings, I believe that the first steps in teaching kids to combat bullying are to teach them these essential skills:
-to be confident in who they are
-to know how to protect and defend themselves appropriately if someone mistreats them in any way
-where to go to get help if they need it
-empathy and kindness
I implore all of us to find ways to explicitly teach compassion, effective and respectful communication, appreciation of diversity and inclusion both in the classroom and in our daily lives.
Even though my child is still a toddler, I have taught and modeled for him already how to use his words to tell another child he doesn’t like to be called something or it’s not okay to hit. He knows he can choose to walk away and ask for help from me or another trusted adult if he needs it. I don’t want him to become a victim of bullying.
Of course, I don’t want him to become a bully, either. Therefore, I also teach him empathy, through books and real life experiences. We talk about our feelings and our actions and how they affect others, on both sides of the court. We talk in simple ways at this age. And it’s already working. If someone is hurt at the playground my child will go try to do something to help and to make them feel better. I practically burst with pride a few weeks ago when my son grabbed his favorite cuddly stuffed animal and offered it to a baby we were babysitting who was crying. It was amazing to hear him suggest, “It might make him feel better like when it makes me feel better.”
Like all mothers, I will still worry that my child may have to grapple with bullies someday, but I can rest a lot easier knowing I’m arming him with tools to be a confident, gentle, humane person.
There are some great online resources to help you build your anti-bullying toolkit. There are also good lists of books to read with your child about bullying. I suggest starting with this very comprehensive site: http://www.stopbullying.gov/resources
Let’s Stop Bullying