I’ve been following the Phoebe Prince story – the story of the 15-year-old girl who recently committed suicide after being bullied at school. Over the past week, I’ve found myself reading excerpts from various articles and books like Barbara Coloroso’s “The Bully, The Bullied and The Bystander” trying to wrap my head around the nature of bullying and trying to discern the path these authors/lecturers took to become advocates for the bullied. I guess some part of me feels like I could help by speaking to my experience, but that kernel of doubt creeps in and I find I’m both 12-years-old and helpless again. You see, I was bullied and despite that experience, I’m not sure that I emerged at the other end as a better or even stronger person – I’m not sure I’m the best choice to evangelize about the experience. What I can say is that I’m alive and other people seem to get a small modicum of enjoyment out of that, which I suppose is something, but there are moments in my life that I have never stopped living (and reliving) – like my 7th grade year or talking to my mother seconds before she died – those moments define me.
When my world began tumbling down hill:
We moved back to Dallas after my Mom spent a year out of work attending graduate school. When we left, she was about to lose the house, she couldn’t find a job and our only option was living with her mother. We arrived in the middle of a lovely Texas summer where the only real relief from the heat came from the noisy attic fan endlessly clunking along. Most of the windows in the house were painted shut, but there was a sole window unit in my grandmother’s bedroom. We’d occasionally escape into her room for little hits of cool. Life at “home” was far from perfect, but really who has that life? Both my mother and grandmother chain smoked in this closed-up house, I began coughing up small bits of esophageal tissue and didn’t stop for years. My grandmother was also an alcoholic and not one of those occasional polite drinkers – this was an every night affair that always ended with her spewing out the nastiest bile that had been stored up in her brain – things she clearly thought, but waited for the alcohol to settle in so she could feel more comfortable slurring them out. Some people wonder what a particular family member thought of them. I know exactly what my grandmother thought of me. She wasn’t shy about sharing when she had a drink in hand. Still, this isn’t about her – this is to give you some idea of my shaky support network.
The first day of school, I went to the bus stop with all the unfamiliar kids and set my viola case down. As I waited, watching for the bus to roll up, a group of boys began punching me repeatedly in the back. They’d come running up and then WHAM another punch landed. I just stood there taking the blows, because I was taught not to fight back. When I did go home to tell my mother about the incident, I was told “you must have done something to irritate them – people don’t just randomly hit other people.” I learned from that exchange that it was my fault for the abuse and I understood from that moment forward that what I did to irritate people was be born “ugly” and have “four eyes.” I not only deserved the abuse, but invited it for reasons outside of my control. I became deeply ashamed and embarrassed for my perceived flaws.
The abuse escalated to where I’d walk down the hall and people would start barking at me – strangers – kids I didn’t know at all. You see, I was a “dog”. My nickname at that time was “Frenchy”. The abuse then spread to the elementary school which was across from my bus stop and kids from 1st to 5th grade joined-in. So in addition to being hit and insulted at the bus stop, I got to enjoy little kids skipping off to their elementary school classes barking at me as they passed by – again, calling me “Frenchy”. If I complained, my Mother reminded me that it was my fault. In Mom’s defense, she was a popular girl in school and the daughter of a socialite who had been president of her sorority – I might as well have been a little three-headed alien with antennae in their midst, because this whole idea of bullying was completely foreign to them. My Mother apologized to me 20 years later after watching an episode of Oprah that dealt with bullying. She felt horrible, because it was only then that she realized that bullies don’t always need provocation.
On one particularly bad day, I was informed that if I rode the bus again I’d be killed. The very next day I walked several miles to school trying to figure out how being so very ugly would make someone want to kill me over it. (To this day I still deal with being “ugly” and I still deal with the anger of what happened and how it still reaches through time to hurt me.) I became fixated with dying and wrote about it frequently in a diary. I suppose I was fortunate – my grandmother was always at home, her garage was so cluttered no cars sat in there, I was highly pain adverse and I had just made a new friend who had nothing better to do than beat up other kids, especially kids that bothered me. I also figured out that for some people “quiet” equated “scary,” and I learned to leverage it along with a newly found colorful and highly offensive vocabulary (I still cling to today as my vulgar security blanket).
I wish I could say that the bullying ended when we returned to Austin at the end of 7th grade, it didn’t. I spent the next two years being knocked down, chased, threatened, stalked and repeatedly hit on the head with stacks of books. All my fault. The day it stopped, it was 9th grade and I had just been slammed in the head again while walking down the math hallway. I turned around, confronted the girl and in the lowest audible voice I could manage, I growled, “if you touch me again, I will kill you”. I was convincing enough that she never touched me again.
In my case, telling wasn’t really an option. When I told, I learned I was to blame. If I was to blame, then there wasn’t much point in escalating the same issue to teachers or other officials since clearly they would say I was antagonizing the kids with my existence. Also, any bullied kid knows that you’re never alone in being bullied and you would see that when other harassed kids finally told, they’d pay for it dearly – either the bully would ramp up the abuse or, on the off-chance you could get them suspended, their friends would willingly pick up the slack. A friend’s sister was once pushed down a flight of stairs, the school officials were notified and they did nothing and the abuse continued. Why would I tell?
However, there were two major things that helped me get through these years. The first was orchestra where I was accepted completely and I was one of the top players in both Dallas and Austin. I wasn’t odd or weird or strange, I was gifted – someone to look up to – I was cool. The second thing – my friends. If you look at my very closest friends, the one thing they have in common is they are “protectors”. They’re the kinds of people who don’t abide injustice. The kind who if you’re talking to me, then you’re talking to them and you probably don’t want to be talking to them no matter how badly you want to take a swing at me. I’ve never been sure what I offer in return, but I’m glad it’s something – there’s nothing worse than just dangling out there alone like bully bait. It also didn’t hurt that I moved back to Austin and back to a group of kids where many of them had been friends since 2nd grade and it didn’t hurt that I chose to live with a parent who didn’t believe I was to blame. When I got hit in the face with a volleyball on our High School’s volleyball court, my Dad, my champion was all over the school and all over the gym teacher who passively watched it happen.
I’m not really sure what can be done about bullies who rely on fear and the inaction of peers and adults to thrive. I personally think it starts with the kids – kids like a friend of mine who in Jr. High stood between a group of kids throwing basketballs at another and their victim. Once he made his stand and because he was well liked, the other kids backed down. I don’t believe he’s the only kid capable of knowing right from wrong or the only one capable of doing the right thing in the right moment. Kids should be encouraged and given positive incentives to stand up and do the right thing instead of passively watching. I think there needs to be support for these victimized kids in the school since not all kids get the right kind of support at home – a place outside of counseling where they can feel safe. I fortunately had orchestra.
Bullies aren’t always children; it’s important to remember that. They don’t always use threats of violence as their weapons of choice – they can do tremendous damage with words and the tacit approval of bystanders alone and they do thrive on your fear and self-loathing. Because of that, I’m fairly particular about who I choose to have in my life. One of the great epiphanies I’ve had as an adult is that I don’t have to put up with a lot of extraneous bullshit from people whose opinions I don’t care about. That’s a huge step for me, realizing I don’t need approval from assholes. I also don’t always owe it to everyone to be polite, especially if they’re abusive, and I definitely don’t have to suck it up anymore. I felt a great deal of relief the day I pitched my diary – the one that chronicled all of the negative things I experienced and all the horrible things I felt were true about myself – those awful words that glared back at me through my tormentor’s loathing eyes – they sit in a landfill exactly where they should be. I am mostly free, yet I still very much live in those moments. I’ve just added another defensive protector to my rolls – me.
Thank you to all my champions who keep me here.
… and that’s enough of the serious – enough “real” – I just happen to be inspired by a counselor who encouraged people who were bullied to talk about their experiences.