Okay... I've seen a few different blogs about bullying in the last week. Like this one at Parenting in Progress, and this one at Single Dad Laughing. Some of this, I'm sure, is in response to the suicide of Tyler Clementi, a young and talented Rutgers student, who jumped off of the George Washington Bridge after his roommate outed him as a homosexual on YouTube.
Earlier this year, Phoebe Prince, a young lady from South Hadley, MA - not too far from where I grew up, committed suicide after being viciously bullied by some of her classmates. With bullying being such a predominant theme in the news and the blogosphere lately, it's my turn. This is tough for me to share - but if I can help anyone out there to avoid the fate of Tyler and Phoebe and so many others, it's worth it.
My bullying story started in Kindergarten. I was walking home from school (back then we walked to Kindergarten. It was only a block away and it was a pretty safe block), when I spotted some pretty red berries on a bush. I picked a few and squashed them between my fingers. Pretty normal behavior for a 5-year-old, wouldn't you say? (Thankfully, I knew better than to eat them.) As I was enjoying the feel of these berries between my fingers, two of my classmates came up behind me and saw me. "Katie, those berries are giving you cooties! You have the cooties!" From that day until the end of my high school career, I was known as "Katie Cootie." I kid you not - when I was a SENIOR, someone called me that. I don't remember who, but I DO remember who the two boys were that gave me that moniker. And no, we are not Facebook friends.
Now, "Katie Cootie" may sound silly to you. But let me reassure you, there was nothing silly about going to school and hearing the kids call me that every. single. day. It was difficult for me to make friends, no one wanted to associate with me for fear of the social repercussions. All through elementary school, I looked forward to Junior High, because that meant a bigger school, with kids who didn't know me, and a chance to make some friends. Oh, how naive I was. Not only was Junior High not any better, it was much, much worse. Instead of having more kids to befriend, there were more kids to pick on me. The popular girls would pretend to be interested in me, and ask me questions, then make fun of me when I answered them. The cute boys would ask me out, then laugh at my dumbfounded expression (I was not so naive as to think they were sincere).
I did manage to make a couple of friends in Junior High, but one of them - my best friend - told me that she could no longer associate with me in public because the other kids were picking on her for hanging out with me during lunch. That was about a month before the end of seventh grade, and it broke my heart. Even now, remembering that pain, tears are welling up.
I was physically bullied as well. One girl used to beat me up on a regular basis, starting around the 4th grade, I think. I remember quitting Girl Scouts so I could have one day a week when she wouldn't pick on me, because she would be in Girl Scouts, and I could walk home safely. One day after school in 5th or 6th grade, she got hold of me and pulled my pants down. I was humiliated beyond words. Ironically, my mother had some "spider sense" or something that day, because as I was getting up, I saw her drive by, looking for me to give me a ride home - but she didn't see me. We were behind some bushes. In 7th grade, the same girl beat me so badly that she almost broke my arm. I had to wear a sling for a week, and my parents finally had had enough. They took her to court, and she was forbidden to touch me again. So at least that one thing was taken care of, but I was still socially and emotionally bullied by many others. I begged, cried, and pleaded with my parents not to go back to school. But there was nothing they could do. They did not have the means to send me to private school, and home schooling hadn't really gained any momentum yet. I didn't even know that was an option, and I don't think they did either.
There were times that I thought about ending it all. Never really seriously, but I would be lying if I said that the thought of suicide never crossed my mind. I know now that it would have ruined my parents, and many others in my family. I am thankful for their love. Certainly my family life was not perfect, but I knew that my parents loved me. And my grandparents. Oh I thank God for my grandmother. Her house was a sanctuary. No fighting, no harsh words, no meanness or cruelty, just an air of love, acceptance, and peace.
Although those two years in Junior High were the worst years of my life, things got slightly better in High School. My fellow students started to grow up a little, and the upperclassmen just didn't have time for that kind of garbage. I joined the soccer team and I got involved with the yearbook committee. I made a few more friends. Slowly, slowly, the misery abated... and I am here to tell you that I came out of it. I survived. By God's grace and the skin of my teeth, but I am here and I am happy... now.
What does this have to do with you?
Well... a lot. Are you in high school or junior high? Say a kind word to the kids who are picked on. One person saying one nice thing to them can be the highlight of their day. That sounds trite, but I am telling you from experience that it is ABSOLUTELY true.
Are you a parent? Tell your kid(s) that you love them, every single day. Don't settle for one-word answers when you ask how their day was. Ask specifically how their friends are, how the other kids treat them, and if anyone said anything mean to them today. Make sure you know what's REALLY going on with your kids.
Are you a community member? Consider getting involved in youth ministry, or an organization such as "Big Brothers, Big Sisters." If you are friends with any teenagers (or parents of teenagers), make a point to get to know them better. Ask their parents if you can take them on a special outing. Sometimes, teens need an adult perspective from someone who is not their parent.
Bullying is an epidemic. It is mean, harsh, unnecessary, and in some cases, deadly. And it is preventable. What will you do to help it come to an end?