Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones have started the facebook group
YA Authors Against Bullying in response to Phoebe Prince’s suicide after being bullied by classmates, and as a result various writers have started sharing their bullying experiences.
For me, bullying was about the day-in, day-out business of my school days being filled with teasing and name-calling inside and hair-pulling and rocks being thrown at me outside, pretty much from kindergarten on. The name-calling hurt more than the rocks, but I suspect it was the rock-throwing that got administration to notice, and to allow me, by fifth grade, my last year of elementary school, to sit in the office after lunch reading instead of having to go out on the schoolyard every day, which was a huge relief. Better still was when our school’s lunch lady, Lucy, befriended me, and invited me to help her clean up in the kitchen after lunch, which was actually a highly coveted job in my elementary school.
It’s easy to think that adults have little power when it comes to bullying, yet in so many ways it was the kindnesses of adults that helped save me. Because my elementary school actually didn’t ignore the problem, and did try to do something about it: I always knew the principal, Mr. Mangipane, was on my side, too, talking to the other kids over and over again, telling them this wasn’t right. I don’t know that it changed them, but it meant something to me.
And then there was my mom, reminding me over and over again of two important things: first, that the problem wasn’t me, it was them, and second that things really, truly, would get better one day. Maybe I’d have blown this off if I heard it only once or twice, but I heard it constantly, throughout my childhood, and somehow with all that repetition I managed, in some deep way, to believe it. Having a sense of story–from books, and from imaginary play that was just beginning to shape itself into words–helped, too. Because in stories, things got better, and downtrodden characters triumphed in the end, and these things were not at all trivial. They helped me through, too.
It was my mom who asked to have me changed to a different school for junior high, where I’d be among a different group of kids. That should have helped–but by then, well, I took every joke, every insult, as deadly serious and personal, and burst into tears. Within three days of starting at my knew school everyone knew me, once again, as that kid–you know, the one who seems to be in every school, the one who everyone picks on, the one who it’s sort of safe to pick on, even expected, who even if you’re otherwise think of yourself as a “nice” kid you don’t dare to be friends with for fear it might make you look bad among your “real” friends, the one who you tell yourself it doesn’t quite count to be mean to, at least while others around and can see. That kid.
The other kids still didn’t stick to words, and by then, neither did I–I lashed out and fought to the death when taunted. Sixth grade was horrible, pretty much the worst year of my life. (To this day, if I’m having a hard time, I’ll remind myself that at least it’s not as bad as sixth grade.) My teachers wondered why in my classes I’d start crying for no reason. When one of my tormenters kicked me, I kicked back, broke her finger, and got suspended. I stabbed a couple kids with pencils, too, and got good at digging fingernails into skin. Even now, I can’t remember any of those incidents without also remembering the pain I felt behind them. All I really wanted, by then, was to be left alone.
I probably would have been expelled, if I were in school now, with all our zero-tolerance policies. As it was, this school was larger and less supportive than my elementary school; I entered junior high school with a note on file telling my teachers that I was dangerous. (My Mom found out. The note was removed. That’s a whole story of its own.)
Looking back at sixth grade–that should have been the year that broke me. I don’t fully understand why it didn’t. By seventh grade I was writing regularly in notebooks–that must have had something to do with it. I knew how stories went. In my notebooks, I knew that I, too, would somehow triumph in the end, and–yes–turn all that had happened into more stories in turn.
What happened in seventh grade was: I stopped caring. I don’t know exactly how I got there. But by seventh grade, I didn’t care what other people thought of me anymore. I wanted friends, but I knew I would give up no part of myself, of who I was, to have them–those friends would just have to take me or leave me, as I was.
Halfway through seventh grade, the kids at the unpopular kids’ lunch table I’d been sitting at came to me, and asked me, please, could I stop sitting with them? Their lives were so hard already, they said, and I was only making things harder for them, by being seen with them. I think they expected me to understand, to have sympathy for their plight. What I understood was this: I was free. I didn’t have to pretend to be sort-of with them in order to have a place in the cafeteria, didn’t have to pretend to be sort-of friends, when we all knew better. I got to sit alone, and it turned out that was better than trying to find someone to sit with. There was some bullying still, milk squirted at me by some troublemaking boys, that sort of thing, but that was small stuff by then. I could handle sitting alone better than I could handle pretending to be someone I wasn’t, even in small ways.
Being alone isn’t so bad, and I mean that honestly. I’d always enjoyed spending some time alone, and I’ve always craved alone time in my life, and get on edge and unbalanced if I don’t have it. I didn’t want to be alone all the time, exactly, but I’d done it for long enough by then (during school hours, at least) that I could handle it. I sometimes wonder how many of the self-damaging decisions people make are made because they fear being alone too much, more than the things they choose instead of that, which are often far more frightening.
Anyway, by eight grade, ninth grade–slowly, quietly–things began getting better. I made a few friends–real friends, keeper friends–for the first time in my life, and finding a few people I could really connect with made a huge difference.
I have one more particularly vivid bullying memory, right before high school (which began in tenth grade for me), at the town pool. A group of girls, maybe a year younger than me, had ganged up on me, and as I kicked and pulled hair and attacked with my fingernails and mostly just tried to get away from them, one of them said something like, “You think you’re escaping. You think you’re going to go to high school and things will get better, but we own this town.”
They were wrong. I did get away and things did get better, just like the adults around me and the stories I read had told me they would. High school wasn’t perfect–people still whispered my name unkindly in the halls, stray comments still reached my ears–but it was pretty good, actually–I did have a circle of friends by then, and the teasing was in the background, not something that defined me or my school experience anymore.
And in college, one day as I walked through the dorm halls, I realized the whispers had gone away entirely, and that no one was thinking of me as that kid anymore.
Writing that last paragraph made me tear up, even now, which I entirely wasn’t expecting. Had to stop a moment before going on. But by college, I was finding people who understood me, and who I understood, and those things were huge, and it was years before I took them for granted.
I was lucky. I found a way through, with the help of books and stories and supportive adults and who knows what-else other luck and stubborness and magic.
Not everyone is lucky. And no one should have to be that kid. This has to stop.
Whether you’re an adult with teens and kids in your life (offering reassurances that it’ll get better–or making clear that being one of the tormentors is not acceptable), or a teen or kid yourself (who’s maybe uncertain whether you dare to talk to or show kindness to or tell your other friends to knock off tormenting that classmate who everyone knows it’s safe to make fun of and you fear it’s not-so-safe to befriend), you have some role to play in stopping it. We all do.
And if you’re that kid, and reading this: it gets better, I promise. I can’t promise when. But I can promise that it will.
(ETA: All of the above isn’t intended as a call for pity, at all–it’s intended as one bit of anecdotal evidence of the fact that one can get make it through and out the other side. If you find yourself wanting to pity the child-that-I-was, don’t waste it on me–I’m here, after all, and whole, and where I wanted to be all those years ago. Put that energy into doing something, somehow, to help those who are there now instead, dealing with this thing that still happens too often and does too much damage–those who are not yet safely on the other side where they can look back and wonder at how it all worked out in the end.)