I should crawl up to bed and sleep because tomorrow I have stuff to do.
But I can’t. My mind is busy thinking about things I haven’t wasted time on in years.
Tonight there was a screening of the documentary BULLY, and I finally took the plunge. I knew it would stir some powerful emotions inside me. I went in prepared for this… as much as I could have, anyway.
If you don’t know about BULLY, the movie profiles several teenagers and preteens and their experiences being bullied. The reason this film first caught my notice was because one of the featured kids is a student at East Middle School in Sioux City, Iowa.
While it’s in a new building now, that’s still the middle school I endured for three years. They took the wooden sign from the old building, the one I would stand in front of with my handful of friends every morning in sixth grade, and stuck it in front of the new one. The sight of that sign was enough to send my heart racing. It may as well have said “WELCOME TO HELL!” for all the joy that place brought to me.
This is why I had to see this movie. I had to know if it was as bad as I remembered it, if it had actually improved, or if, unfortunately for those kids, it had gotten worse. Unsurprisingly, it was just as I remembered it; from the endless torture and taunts of peers to the dismissive administrators. Driving home from the screening I was angry, horrified, sad, and not a little sick to my stomach.
It didn’t start with middle school, mind you, and it didn’t stop there, either. The abuse I endured ranged from simple ostracism (usually the days I counted myself lucky as this meant I went blissfully ignored) to physical removal by my peers from playground games to having to avoid certain hallways because I was tired of being barked at or shoved for having the audacity to exist within eyeshot of other people. From the day I started Kindergarten in Sioux City (I was a mid-year transfer thanks to being a military kid) until the day I graduated high school I had to find ways to avoid or endure.
The first time I gave serious thought to suicide, I was in second grade. Eight. Years. Old.
I was one of the more fortunate ones, however. I knew I was smart. I knew I had talents. I knew the world was bigger than the pit of despair in which I was living. I consoled myself with being grateful that while I might have been poor, had bad skin, braces, a ridiculously awful perm, glasses, and a flair for the weird, at least I wasn’t fat. I had friends that were. It was worse for them. It was even worse for the kids that were poorer than my family was.
That “it could be worse” mentality got me through a lot. My lowest point came in 7th grade when my grades had slipped to mostly B’s, a single A, and * gasp choke * a C. I refer to this year as my Hell Year, and my grades reflected it. I was told if I didn’t pull them up I would be pulled from band and choir, the only things keeping me going at that point. I can say with certainty that had that threat been carried out… well, some things can’t be undone. Choir was the one place they couldn’t touch me, couldn’t say a damn word, because for once I was better than them. That was my element.
One of the few great memories I have of my biological father was him coming up to my room that night, giving me a big hug, and promising me I would keep my music classes. I wonder if he suspected what might’ve happened without them…
The middle school was only two blocks from the house I grew up in. I walked to and from school every day. Mornings were never too bad. It was the afternoon walk I dreaded. I holed up in the bathroom for at least 30 minutes every day. That was usually enough time for the worst of them to clear out. I lived up the street from one guy who occasionally brought a group of friends home from school. These were the days I hated most.
I slipped up one day and only waited 15 minutes before walking home. As I turned the corner, I knew I had made a horrible miscalculation. Half a block ahead of me was this group of boys. I did my best to go slow, hang back, but just as they cleared the top of the hill, one of them ran back, shoved something into my hand and called “Mark wants to know if you’ll go out with him” as he trotted back to the group. I wasn’t stupid enough to think this was anything more than a joke, but I held on to the silver and turquoise ring they thrust upon me. I stupidly recounted the incident to my stupid neighbor to which she said “well duh, it’s a joke. But you know, if you don’t have a boyfriend by now you probably never will”. It seemed I had underestimated her level of stupidity, and I quickly told her how wrong and dumb that statement was. I put the ring in a jewelry box and tried to put it out of my mind.
You would think this would have taught me to better watch my time hiding in the bathroom, but, no. A few months later I made the same damn mistake, with much the same result. This time I didn’t even warrant someone running back. A simple “hey Mark wants to know if he can have his ring back” was shouted from almost a block away. I tried to pretend like I hadn’t heard.
It’s an insipid thing, really. It isn’t the worst thing that ever happened to me, for sure, but it really stuck. And of all the things that have come and gone in my life, that ring still remains.
At first I kept it because I was angry. I had grand ideas of showing up at a class reunion, rich, beautiful, successful, and throwing it back at the lot of them… right before I punched them in their stupid noses.
It’s taken up residence in my new jewelry box, but not for that reason anymore. Now, I keep it to remind myself, from time to time, what one can live through and come out better for it. I keep it because sometimes you have to remember where you’ve been to remember where you’re going.
Not many people know these things about me. Even fewer know that last story. It’s almost as humiliating to tell as it was to live through, mostly because it seems so inconsequential now. When you’re 12, though, it’s those little things, day after day after day, that compound themselves and weigh you down.
I don’t have any solutions to this problem. I don’t know how to keep kids from being so despicable to one another. I can only offer the victims one sliver of hope:
It gets better.
No, really. It WILL get better. Yes, there will always be asshats and people that want to drag you down for no other reason than to see if they can, but you have it within yourself to do better, to BE better. Love yourself. Respect yourself. Offer the same to everyone and it’s amazing what comes to you. You’ll be stronger, wiser. Those scars become badges of honor. I won’t tell you to forgive and forget, not when I can’t do that myself yet, but don’t let it eat you from the inside out. Basically, screw ‘em. It’s a big, big world and there are more amazing people in it than you can meet in fifty lifetimes. The sucky ones aren’t worth wasting your time on, unless you’re the Count of Monte Cristo. Even then it’s a crapshoot.
And for the curious, this is what they were barking at by the time I was 18. All they could remember was the girl I was in 7th grade.
It. Gets. Better.
My gods. I went through the same thing you did with the ring. My bullying wasn’t constant. Mostly because we moved every two years until I hit 7th grade, so I got to start fresh every year. But 5th grade was my worst year. The one torture I remember best was suddenly getting notes passed to me all day long from the guy everyone in class just lurrrrved. He wanted me to go out with him. I knew it was a joke and kept trying to blow him off nicely. He’d dismiss my objections and send me another note. It went on All.Day. I was in knots because I knew the humiliation they were trying to build up to, and I was nauseous thinking about how it would all culminate. All I had to do to end the note passing (which I desperately wanted b/c the teacher also hated me, and if she caught me with a note, there was humiliation there, too) was say yes. But as soon as I did, it would mean months of teasing and taunting. It was awful.
Kids can be horrible, and the staff and administration who allow bullying to go on don’t deserve to be in schools with our kids.
Starla Huchton says
Even worse than the administrators who ignore it are the parents who don’t want to believe Little Johnny or Sweet Susie could ever be capable of such cruelty. Or the ones who simply don’t care. My girls have found out real quick that I do not tolerate either them or other children engaging in this behavior… to the point where even the threat of me coming out to the playground to diffuse some nastiness chased off a “charming” little beast girl in the neighborhood. You don’t mess with a geek’s kids, yo.
Veronica Giguere says
Bullying is awful. I remember my years in parochial school, where the boys would taunt me for my too-quick-developing figure and I’d hide in the bathroom to have the girls tell me that I didn’t have any real friends. Like KL said, administrators who brush off that behavior as “kids being kids” don’t deserve to be in their positions. I had stuff stolen from me, and when I reported it to the principal, she said that kids wouldn’t really do those things at “this school” and that I had likely just lost my things. Right. Because “lost” things like your purse and assignment book just get “found” in the trash. Living in the Lord’s Image indeed…
But you’re right that it gets better. Now, people beg for your lovely voice and your creative work. They respect your talent and your gifts, and they respect who YOU are.
And wow, that picture is gorgeous. Just like you are now, inside and out.
Starla Huchton says
Thank you, V, both for sharing your story and the wonderful compliments. I’m hoping you’ve found a few wonderful friends of your own amongst us. You are such a smart and talented lady I feel privileged to share our creative circle!
Scott Pond says
I’ve got to be honest, Starla… you’ve made me cry. I can feel your pain: the hurt, confusion, and the seeking of a solution to make it stop. I was the fat, shy, poor kid who could say two words due to his stuttering speech impediment. While I’m mentally healthy, happy, respected professionally and artistically, and have a positive outlook now, my childhood up until around my junior year was absolute hell. Kids at that age can be spitefully, mean, and downright rotten, especially to those who are different. And many teachers and administrators back then (and today as well, from what I’ve seen) would rather pretend there’s nothing wrong than to confront the issue and fight the battle. I honestly don’t know how I made it but you are right: it does get better. Thank you so much for sharing and adding your voice of experience to the nameless throngs of those who can’t.
Starla Huchton says
I can’t even imagine how bad things must’ve been for you. I look back and realize how lucky I was that I didn’t have other issues impeding me further. People like you are an inspiration that you CAN overcome hate and negativity. Still, it never quite leaves you, does it? I think that’s what bothers me most any more, that it was not adults, but other kids that taught me how to hate not only myself, but others.
I always said it wasn’t going to school I minded, just the other people in it. :)
I was bullied so frequently in so many different places I thought that’s how life just is. Per my parents, I was bullied because we were Jewish so I just had to toughen up. Here is an example:
In fourth grade the girl who had been my best friend in 3rd grade bullied me and beat me up in front of the class (our teacher had a habit of not coming to school and not telling anyone so we were pretty much alone) during recess to chants of “Hit the Jew!” and “Put down that dirty, Jewish pig!” Oh, did I mention that I was living on an US Army Base in Heidelberg Germany at the time?
It does get better. It gets better when you realize the bullies are only doing this because of something that’s bad for them, not anything you’ve done or are. The little girl who was my friend in 3rd and beat me up in 4th? Her mother decided to divorce her father which is always rough. It’s even rougher when your Christian mother is telling you that your Jewish father is a dirty pig and is saying that you can never trust Jews. That is especially hard when your father has been raising you to be a Jew. Yep – she took it all out on me. Not an excuse, but definitely an explanation.
I’m not ignorant. I know bullying still happens. I see it happen to my son and I make sure that he knows other people’s issues have nothing to do with him, that he is loved unconditionally. I also make sure he sees me stand up to bullies when at all possible – even when the bullies are taller than him and smaller than me. As a parent, standing up to a bully can be as simple as saying “Do you really think that was an appropriate thing to say/do?” with a withering eye. And yes, he is going to have to learn how to stand up to the bullies on his own soon, but hopefully he will be able to rise above it because we teach him how.
Starla Huchton says
You’re providing an excellent example to your son, and I’m quite awed by your ability to be so involved in his school. My girls have asked me to come and have lunch with them on a few occasions, which I have done, but I always feel incredibly uncomfortable around other kids. It’s definitely a PTSD reaction. I had lunch with 2.0 today and I watched as six kids immediately started asking if they could come sit by her. I don’t know if she understands how blessed she is to have that, but I certainly do. She’s such a sweetheart and I dread the day she goes up to middle school/junior high and encounters this type of thing for the first time. I’m doing my best to talk to both the girls about bullying and being bullied, but when your 10-year-old keeps telling you that “it’s so much different now, you don’t even know what it’s like” it’s hard not to get discouraged in that dialogue. I’ll keep at it though. After all, everything starts with one, right?