I remember walking home from school in first grade. The school was about five blocks from my house & for a good portion of the year, I spent most of those five blocks with my head down, my eyes counting the spaces between the concrete squares of the side walk, my fingers twisting the brown wooden toggle clasp of my favorite sweater, sometimes with its hood pulled up over my head, for extra protection.
My primary goal was not just to get home, but to get home without attracting the attention of the 6th grade bully. She was an equal opportunity harrasser; if you were younger than her by at least 2 grades, you were fair game. I was fortunate that our route was a popular one and she couldn't get to all of us in one day--sometimes it was just once a week that she singled me out and taunted me, called me ugly or maked fun of my clothes (which were super 80's-ified, but it was the 80's, so I had an excuse). She called the little boys "fags," even though I'm willing to bet she had no idea what she meant when she said that and I know I certainly didn't--I just knew from then on it was an ugly, malicious word, intended to hurt. And when it was a really bad day, she threw rocks at us or chased us with a thorny branch she'd rip off a rose bush in someone's front yard.
None of us stood up for each other; we never banded together to try to stave off her verbal or physical attacks--I feel badly about that now. But at the time, it was such sweet relief to know I could walk those five blocks without enduring her bullying, I was perfectly fine letting someone else bare the brunt of her for that particular day. It might be me tomorrow. And I wouldn't be able to expect anyone to come to my rescue.
But those walks home, silently enduring the bullying on the days she deemed me worthy of her attention, or ignoring what was going on when she chose to taunt someone else, impacted me to the core; as years went on, I felt compelled to try to stick up for kids who were being bullied when I saw it. In 3rd grade, I got into an actual physical scuffle at recess with a boy who was being mean to another classmate on the play ground. I remember pushing him out of the way of the other kid and then feeling the palm of his hand shoving my face away and pulling my hairs as I told him to knock it off. The teacher made us both stand by the trash dumpster for the rest of recess and later I ended up in Sr Joan's office, explaining myself instead of listening to a classmate explain her diorama of Little House on the Prairie during our book report (I remember this working out for me really well because I hadn't *quite* finished my diorama yet, so it bought me another night of homework time & the teacher never knew I wasn't prepared for class that day. Karma WIN!)
In my junior year of high school (an all-girl high school, mind you), I found myself on the receiving end of several months of taunting and humiliating girl-style bullying after sticking up for a girl in my circle of friends; she'd shared a secret with another girl in the group and as soon as she wasnt' around, that secret was dished out to everyone around, along with a slew of trash talk and nasty judgements. The little girl in me, who had walked home watching her fellow first graders getting stones thrown at them and never said anything, never found her voice and yelled, 'STOP!' to that giant 6th grader beast of a bully, compelled me to say something like, "hey, that's not really fair," and later I broke the cardinal rule of girl-groups and told the owner of the secret what had happened, so she could defend herself against the crap her friends had been saying about her. I should have realized, but didn't at the time, that I had just thrown myself under the bus so that this girl could have a voice against bullies she didn't even know she had.
I spent the next six months averting my eyes in the hallways, looking away from those six or seven girls who had been my social circle for 2.5 years. Classes, which had always been so great because of their small size and because they were populated mostly by my friends (my graduating class was 44 girls; classes usually contained about 10-12 girls) because oxygen-less fish bowls, always with at least 3-4 of my former friends sitting behind me, huddled in a little coven of mean, whispering about me loudly enough so that I could hear, passing notes under my nose that said things like "you are a bitch" and "ugly." When I had the good 1988-sense to frost my dark hair, I heard the word "skunk" whispered after me in the hallways and in class rooms. It was not a happy time. Rifle through any of my old journals from that time and you will find some serious teen angst. I counted the days until summer vacation, laid in bed each morning, mentally scanning for pain or illness that would free me from a day of dealing with the mean-girl antics at school.
Years later, as a teacher, I witnessed and intervened in countless examples of bullying. I sat in a classroom of freshmen the morning after Columbine and all we did that day was talk. About bullying. Kids who had been bullied talked about how it felt--the dread of getting out of bed each day to endure another 8 hours of fear, and self-loathing, and wondering why they couldn't just. fit. in. Kids who had bullied were momentarily silenced, whether they were humbled or terrified by what bullying could drive another student to do, I don't know; but they shut it for awhile. Columbine redefined, for a small portion of a generation of kids, the price of bullying.
Now I'm a mother. Of a sweet, amazing, emotionally effusive little boy. The idea of him being bullied strikes absolute terror into my heart. The fear of him being a bully? Is just as bad.
In the past several weeks, a number of teenaged boys have taken their own lives after having been mercilessly bullied by their peers. In the cases of these high profile stories, the boys have been part of the GLBT community, and the bullying has revolved around their sexuality. Obviously I have no idea what my child's sexuality is going to be as he grows up, and very honestly, aside from the very real fear of how he would be received by his peers were he to be gay, it doesn't matter to me either way. My child is my child and I will love and accept him regardless of who he chooses to love as he grows to adulthood.
But as is made clear in the article linked in the last paragraph, that's not enough. Something has to be done to stop the bullying. Teachers have to be more vigilant in seeing it, and stopping it. Schools AND parents have to play a role in educating their children about the negative power of bullying, and the positive power of tolerance and acceptance. In my opinion, in a perfect world, those who refuse to join the 21st century and show tolerance towards someone "different" from them are the ones who should the the pariahs. Parents have to be louder and more aggressive advocates for their children. They need to teach their children how to advocate for themselves, and not to go inside to a place of self-loathing when they hear the words that cut to their heart.
And something has to be done to ensure that teens struggling to make peace with and embrace their identity know that it does get better. Middle school and high school feel like forever; like the end all, be all of life, when you're in them. What your peers think of you at 16 seems like the only thing that matters. What they say to you, the hurtful words they use to define you, feel like the only way to identify yourself.
It seems that the old saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me," is way off. When you're a teenager struggling with a part of yourself that makes you "different," words seem to carry the weight of your self-worth wrapped up inside of them.
I'm so glad to see prominent members of the gay community using their words to try to reassure young teens suffering bullying from the hands and mouths of their uneducated, intolerant peers that it does get better, and that there is so much to live for beyond the walls of high school.
I am so hopeful that these images and words, and others like them, will help change the world my child and his friends are growing up in. I am raising my child to be tolerant and accepting of everyone, except the intolerant. It is my hope that others are doing the same in their families, and that by the time our children are old enough to have a sense of their own, or another person's sexuality, this type of bullying and taunting will be a shameful episode of our past, and not a part of their present or future.