Every morning I wake up to the same headline; some variation on how another young person committed suicide because of bullying. Every morning I read the same posts, watch as people gasp and murmur, “This never happened in our day” and “We’ve never had bullying problems before, kids used to be so good” and “Some kids just can’t take a little teasing, when did that become a crime?” and of course, “My child would never be a bully like that.”
What no one says is that bullying has long been a problem, we just never talked about it. When we did talk about it the blame was on the victim, and sadly that’s still the case. Maybe if the victim tried harder to fit in, maybe if the victim wasn’t such a tattle tale, maybe if the victim just avoided the bullies, maybe then this wouldn’t have happened. The onus is on the victim to stop the behavior, not the bullies.
I got off the bus from my first day of kindergarten with a large bruise on the side of my face. The boy sitting next to me in class punched me for some reason I can’t remember. My mom took one look at me and called the principal. My seat was changed, and that was the end of that.
Except it wasn’t.
In kindergarten a boy spit on me because I was “weird”. A fifth grader burped in my face while I was on the bus, much to the amusement of his friends. A sixth grader sprayed water in my face while I was on the bus because it was funny. A third grader taunted me every day while riding the bus, calling me names and swearing. Each time my mother called the school. Each time the student in question was spoken to, and each time I figured out that I had little recourse. Even if an individual student was discouraged from harassing me, that still left a student body of 1300 who had yet to get the memo.
Every year after followed a similar pattern. Name-calling on the bus, pushing on the playground, and exclusion from group activities. In first grade a student tried to pull my skirt down while we were on the playground. I yelled at him to stop, and he told the teacher. I was chastised for yelling; I should have asked nicely.
I should have asked nicely. That’s the message I received when I tried to defend myself.
I had horrendous teeth growing up, and even now I don’t possess a Hollywood smile. My teeth are large and prior to wearing braces they were so crooked I could eat corn on the cob through a picket fence. I became known as “Buck Tooth Beaver Girl” on the playground. Kids didn’t know my name, but they knew I looked funny. It was a laugh, let me tell you,.
By sixth grade I was completely socially isolated. I had no one to eat lunch with, and no one to play with at recess. Kids who previously tolerated me no longer acknowledged my presence. Kids who previously tormented me upped the ante. The insult du jour was anything and everything pertaining to my (perceived) sexuality. You’re a dyke! They would whisper in my ears while we stood on line or sat together in class.
The usual question at this point is why didn’t I do something? Why didn’t I tell anyone? Surely teachers and administrators would have made it stop. I reported kids and sometimes they were reprimanded. Sometimes it made the bullying stop. Sometimes. What’s worse is that sometimes the teachers bullied me, so how I could I expect help?
I’ll preface this by saying most teachers are good people. Most teachers do not bully their students or take joy in their failures. Unfortunately, some do. The most egregious example for me was in sixth grade science. I attended a pull out Gifted and Talented Class, and sometimes I missed science lessons including experiments. I had to go to school early and make up the experiments with my science teacher’s supervision. He rarely came and instead another science took pity on me. She was always at school early, and she allowed me to use her classroom and supplies. I would complete my work and turn it into my teacher for grading.
Towards the end of the year my teacher confronted me about missing lab work. He accused me of not making up my work and refusing to come in early to meet with him. I stammered that I did come in early, that he wasn’t there, and that Mrs. So-and-so let me make up the work in her room. I always gave him the lab booklets afterward. The arguing escalated, and I honestly don’t remember what he said. I do know that I panicked and ran into the girls’ bathroom across the hall from his classroom. He stood at the doorway screaming, “You can’t hide in there forever! You have to come out!”.
My math teacher that year was a tiny, elderly woman with nerves of steel. She had been teaching since the 1960s and was unflappable. I heard her voice outside the bathroom, “You get away from that door. You have no business near the girls’ bathroom!” She came into the bathroom with a box of tissues and let me compose myself before escorting me to her classroom. After school I told my mother what happened, and she called the school immediately. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her that angry, before or since. The teacher was disciplined, and I never heard about the “missing” work again.
If you’re wondering, he still has his job. I was not the first student to file a complaint against him, nor was I the last. How can we expect to keep students from bullying each other when the people in power fail to set an example?
Middle school was worse. Now I had to contend not only with the kids from my elementary school but kids from three other elementary schools as well. I was still called a dyke and other variations on a regular basis. I had a teacher who took great joy in making me cry every. single. day. His goal was to desensitize me so I would stop crying by the end of the year while he made fun of me in front of the class. It was brutal. It was awful. It was going into the lion’s den day in, day out with no end in sight. I went to his class, sat in the back row, and cried while he tormented me because it was “for my own good.”
I didn’t tell my mother because by then I think even she was tired of hearing about it. My parents knew I had no friends. My parents knew I was teased and bullied, but they didn’t know what to do. The older I got, the worse it got. It didn’t matter who said what or did what, it continued. It’s a beautiful example of learned helplessness.
There was a particular group of boys who targeted me on a regular basis. Like me, they were in advanced classes and so I couldn’t avoid them. One of them, the cruelest one, sat behind me whispering insults, things I can’t bear to repeat. I would go to the bathroom and cry every day. At one point he paid another one of the boys to ask me on a date. They wanted to see what I would do, and it was going to be hysterical! When So-and-So asked me on the date, I stared at him with my mouth open. I didn’t like him, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. I told him I would think about it.
Another person in our class was kind enough to let me know that So-and-So never wanted a date; he wanted to humiliate me.
These boys also accused one of our teachers of being a lesbian, and that the teacher and I were “being lesbians together”. You have to love the terminology of thirteen year old boys. I was terrified. I didn’t want to get in trouble, and I didn’t want my teacher to get in trouble. I liked her a lot more than I liked my peers. I told the teacher even though the torment could be worse as a result. She was horrified, and we went to the assistant principal’s office. The boys were disciplined, and for a while the bullying abated.
High school was slightly better in that I had more freedom. There more students, more places to hide, and I packed my schedule so tightly that there was no time for lunch. These same boys attended high school with me, and they continued to harass me. One day they waited for me outside of class and asked, “If Mrs. So-and-So was a man would you suck her dick? Huh? Would you?”.
I went to the assistant principal and reported what happened. She said it was very serious and considered sexual harassment. HALLELUJAH, maybe now there would be an end. The boys would be asked to read packets about sexual harassment and sign statements swearing they would never do it again. That was it. That was all. I tried to explain that this was a pattern of behavior dating back to elementary school. Ah, it didn’t matter what they did in our previous schools. That was irrelevant.
That moment solidified what I already knew. No one with the power to help me was going to help me.
These are just the high-lights of how I was bullied in school. I won’t even get into the cyber-bullying, the fake screen names, and the fake Myspace page dedicated solely to making fun of me. There are other stories, more stories, and some that I still can’t talk about. Even as an adult I’ve been the subject of whispered conversations and laughed at in class. I’ve been left out of group activities. I’ve been isolated. The difference is that now I know I am not the problem.
People try to find wisdom and meaning in their suffering, but sometimes there isn’t any. I wasn’t tormented to learn a lesson. I was tormented because I was different. I am not a stronger person because of the bullying. I am a strong person in spite of it.
One of the things that made me angriest in school was when adults would tell me “It gets better”. It doesn’t. There are bullies at school, at college, in the work place, there are bullies everywhere you go. It will not get better unless you make it better.
This is still my problem. This is your problem, too. You can’t feign ignorance anymore. The body count is too high. The mental health effects are too prevalent. No twelve year old should be driven to throw herself from a building. No fourteen year old should be driven to shoot himself in the head. It’s enough. We’ve had enough.
If you see something, say something. Say it loudly. If you are silent while your children bully others or while your classmates bully others or while your coworkers bully others, you are complicit. For every child who dies there are countless others who are still struggling to live. There’s hope for them, if we can change.