The news that keeps hitting me in the face is not who Gloria Allred is backing, what Brett Favre texted, Snooki’s latest antics, will Lindsey go to jail or stay in rehab or whether or not Britney had her lips done. No. The news that you and I have all read and heard about is bullying, brought to the forefront by the six gay teens that committed suicide as a result.
Tragedy. That’s what it is.
We have a culture of bullying, whether it’s our politics or our television. The schools, at least the schools my children attend, all have zero tolerance for bullying that strictly forbids it from occurring. Yet it does.
Just last week, Kalina came to me with concern written all over her face. Her friend hadn’t been in school all week, and the reason, Kalina said, was because the older kids were bullying her.
I’ve never met this friend, so I was unaware of what would have drawn taunts to a small girl in kindergarten just learning the ropes of what school is all about.
I asked, “Does she look different than other people?”
“Is she heavy or lighter?”
“No, just normal.” (Meaning average in 5-year-old speak.)
“Does she walk different or have something different about her that draws attention to her?”
“No. She’s just normal with white [light-blonde] hair like my cousin.”
“Is she pretty?”
“Yes, she’s pretty.” [Kalina thinks everyone is pretty, but she assured me that this friend was a very pretty friend.]
So what it came down to is this little girl, a prettier-than-average individual, was being bullied for her good looks — a situation that I know happens just as often as it does the girls that may be perceived as less attractive.
I was upset. Kalina informed me that her friend said she might have to be homeschooled because the mean kids were getting worse.
And then the friend stopped showing up to school, which caused distress, and rightfully so.
So I decided I’d speak to the teacher. Only the next day, the friend showed up again. The bullying stopped. Plans for being homeschooled put on hold.
And Kalina was thrilled to have her best friend back in school.
I don’t know what happened, and maybe I never will. What I do know that the world is if my 5-year-old is fully aware of bullying and its consequences, no one is safe.
Bullying affects us all, from the 5-year-old pretty girl in kindergarten, to the different-than-you adult down the road.
Different doesn’t equal bad. Different doesn’t equal wrong. Different is just different. And different is okay.
I had a bully when I was in third grade. I don’t remember the girl’s name, but I remember her long hair and the way I hated how she wore it.
Where we lived at the time, the kids were bused wherever the district deemed they needed to go. The school I went to was across town and completely away from my home, so the bus would drop me and the other kids, the kids all coming from different schools, off a short distance from our homes. As a child it felt like it was a mile away, though I’m sure it was only three blocks or so away from my house.
Sometime during the half year I went there, before we moved to an entirely new town, a girl in the grade ahead of me from a different school but that rode the same bus decided I had said something about her or something was wrong with me or she didn’t like me or hated my shoes. Whatever she claims to be the reason, it wasn’t valid and it wasn’t true. I don’t remember her name, but I remember that much.
So she decided she was going to kick my butt.
I wasn’t a fighter.
I was a big pansy that was afraid of the conflict, afraid of the pain. So everyday for a couple of weeks, I’d get off the school bus and I’d run… run for my life to get home where she wouldn’t be able to catch me and the echoing taunts of her friends that trailed after her wouldn’t be heard, and I’d be safe for another day.
It was agony going through this. I hated the girl with a passion, but I didn’t know what I could do. I kept the situation from my mom. No one knew of my plight. I was afraid of what would happen if my mom confronted the girl and her family. So I kept the secret. And I’d run home like a sprinter every day to avoid it.
Until one day I decided the running wasn’t worth it. I was mid-run when I realized I was tired. I had had enough. I couldn’t keep running. And I likely couldn’t beat her in a fight. But I’d be done with it. Let her kill me if she had to, I decided.
I stopped and turned around to face her. Her surprise turned into a twisted grin as she approached me.
I don’t remember what she said or what I said or what happened. All I remember is a tangle of hair, my hands in hers and hers in mine, and wrestling on the hard cement of the ground while others around us shouted.
No one won. And no one was really hurt.
But I stood up to her. Finally.
And after that day, she never acknowledged my existence or chased me ever again.
And I was grateful.
I’ve also been a bully.
In sixth grade my crush/wannabe boyfriend moved away. He was lanky with tousled brown hair, glasses and buck teeth.
Ah, young love.
I craved to be popular and liked and had had my share of problems in school.
One girl accused me of stealing something from her. I didn’t. But it was a brilliant move on her part because it was moderately believable to others that didn’t know.
Another girl, jealous for some reason of my friendships with other girls, spread a rumor, starting it right in front of me, that the reason I wore my hair down all the time was because I had lice. LICE! [I’m 33 years old, and, knock on wood, I’ve never had lice!] I just preferred my messy mop down.
Never was it to hide the nits and eggs in the fullness of wavy craziness.
There was a boy in our class named Eric Gold*. He was thin. He always had messy hair and old clothes on. His family drove a very old station wagon. They were, quite obvious to my sixth-grade eye, poor. Very, very poor.
Eric was kind, if not a little strange. He wanted to be liked. People taunted him and teased him. He was quiet. Likely downtrodden.
I never took part of the teasing. I felt bad because I knew what it felt like. Also, I couldn’t live with the guilt.
And then Eric got a crush on me.
He had a huge, crazy crush on me.
And suddenly I had all this negative attention focused on me, and I was like a caged animal. I remember the “ewwwww” comments, and I, sadly, took part in the ewwing and the grossing out about Eric Gold being SO over-the-top crushed on me.
So my friends and I hatched a plan.
I would tell Eric that I liked him and pretend to be his girlfriend for a week. And then one day I would write him a note and tell him to meet me on the top of the jungle gym in the play yard, the most advantageous spot for all of sixth grade to witness. I would meet him there, and I would promise him a kiss on the cheek. Only, before I kissed him, I’d sneak in at the last moment and slap him, humiliate him and tell him I’d NEVER like a boy like him.
The day came.
He climbed to the top to meet me, anxiously. I climbed to the top, fueled by my friends and their encouragement. Had I been strong enough, I would have resisted. In my heart of hearts, I knew it was wrong. But it was me or him. Kill or be killed.
So up to the top I went. The entire sixth-grade class crowded around the jungle gym, all waiting for a kiss/slap.
Up to Eric I went. In a loud voice I told him I’d kiss him. And then, right before the kiss, I reached up and I slapped him. It wasn’t hard. It wasn’t physically bruising. But it was crushing. It was soul crushing and cruel. And it had been done at my hands.
Eric quickly covered by saying, “Oh, I know. I figured you wouldn’t.” And then he faded away into the shadows as the kids laughed and cheered.
Only the cruel truth is that I really did like Eric. He was incredibly kind. And for a moment, I had been his real girlfriend (as real as a sixth-grade girlfriend can be in those days), but I was too insecure to admit it.
And in seventh and eighth grade, I was a miserable person, as most people in junior high are. I hated myself. My old friends had moved on, caught up in their own Darwinian adventure.
No one wanted to be caught with the chubby girl.
I spent a lot of days in the guidance counselor’s office reading. Those years are a blur, truly. I had a group of friends, but they were there more for the protection of fading into the background and being a part of a group and not standing out, more than anything else. They were desperately in love with New Kids On the Block. I had a more “meh” attitude about them. But they were a group and it worked for me.
But my plans of staying out of the limelight came to a standstill then the gossip started. Eric Gold went to the same junior high. He still was lanky and shabby. He had a best friend now though, and he told his best friend I had been his girlfriend, and his best friend told everyone.
Word got out and back to me, and I remember standing in the hall when someone walked up and asked me, in disgust, “Is it true you went out with Eric Gold?” She spat out the words as if just saying his name was distasteful.
I was outraged and declared loudly that that was a complete falsehood.
And then I went straight to Eric. I told him he needed to tell everyone that it was a lie, that we had not been girlfriend and boyfriend. I told him he HAD to.
And he obliged. He told everyone it wasn’t true, that he had just liked me, but I had never been his girlfriend.
And I went on with my life, not understanding fully what I had done.
I had dismissed another human being, sacrificed his reputation for mine, when he never really even cared for reputations and liked me because of who I was.
As an adult, I think about this sometimes. I’ve even tried to look him up. It was low what I did. Low. It’s one of the times I realize I was an awful, horrible person. And I wonder about him. I may have already blogged about him even.
I hope he has forgotten how mean I was to him. I hope he has become disgustingly successful and happy. I hope he made it and realizes what little jerks we all were to him. I was a kid, scared for myself. I didn’t always look out for myself, but in this instance I did. And I still feel awful.
As an adult, I can see where I went wrong. I should have stood up to the girl. I should have told my mom. I should have been strong and done my part. I didn’t.
I can see where I should have been compassionate with Eric. I should have not worried so much about something that is fleeting, like a sixth-grade reputation. I should have not listened to friends that were just as insecure as I was. I should have stood up for what was right.
In both I bear the responsibility. In both I didn’t thoroughly know any better until hindsight granted me that knowledge.
I think some of the best work we can do in regard to this epidemic situation is to educate our kids and let them know they are NOT alone, ever, in anything. There is always a solution. Always. We need to do the right thing when we see someone else being victimized — empower the victim to help his or herself and stop the bully in their tracks by giving voice to their actions, confronting them in whatever form that may take place.
Empower and inform. Educate and strengthen.
We owe it to our kids. We owe it to ourselves.
*Name changed to protect the innocent.