I've been gone longer than usual this time, but last week was Spring Break and so I was busy smushing my toes into the powdered sugar sand of our beautiful Gulf, busy never missing a sunset, busy hanging with some great friends and busy watching my darling girls, halfway now to adulthood, as they venture a little farther from me with each vacation. They had their own friends, their own fun, wandering back to us for shared dinners or a few moments of their hallowed presence on the beach. My three lovelies, just like the tides, pulling away, only to come back in measured time. It was a splendid week on a splendid stretch of sand. I have traveled to many a beach in my day, but there is nothing like the Gulf of Mexico. Its azure waters hold magic, of this I am convinced.
But now I'm back and for today, I'm going to put away the silliness for once.
Today, I'm going to tell you a little something about myself, Internet. Something I've never shared before.
It's something that resides deep in the recesses of my heart, a bruised scrap of my soul that never heals, no matter how far and wide my life's journey. It is always there, this whisper that makes me feel a little less, no matter how hard I try to pretend it is not there.
Because it is. There.
And when I remember, when it rises to the surface, it pains me just as it did that first time.
The first time I was called a "tard." The first time I was slighted with cruel taunts. The first time whispers behind hands were not whispers at all, but mean tightfisted verbal hurls, meant to sting. The first time I was tripped. The first time I had a chair pulled out from under me.
Yes, I was one of those kids—a graceless, scrawny bullseye for a pack of bullies. My only crime—being a shy, quiet kid who didn't have the wherewithal to escape their cruelty. And in those days, bullying was just a fact of life for the unlucky ones, the kids like me.
But now, the world is finally speaking out—a message long overdue—that bullying should never be tolerated.
Bullying is NOT a normal part of childhood. It is NOT an awful rite of passage some kids have the misfortune to endure. It should NEVER be dismissed with lame excuses meant to render the bullying harmless. It is NOT kids just being kids. It is NEVER just innocent kidding.
It is words, horrible words meant to slice open tenuous, fragile hearts and psyches. Words that can't be taken back. Words that are always there, permanently engrained in a young victim's heart. It is rumors spread, reputations lost that can never be resurrected. It is taunting and humiliation. And sadly, it is sometimes fists and weapons, causing as much physical damage as emotional harm. And it can be delivered these days in an unlimited amount of ways, ways to inflict as much devastation as possible through phone calls, texting, Facebook, Twitter. These days, bullies have a potent weapon in the world of cyberspace.
I thank God I'm not a child in this day and age, because honestly, I don't know if I would ever recover.
Up to the age of eight, I lived in Illinois. Life from a little girl's perspective was simple and good, full of friends and dandelions.
And then we moved to a very small town in the South, a town that was known for it's cattle farms, where dandelions did not grow. My parents signed us up for the only Catholic school in town and I was eager to start fourth grade. Always a good student, I loved school.
I remember coming home after being in school for a few days and confessing to my dad that I'd had a tough time making friends, that the kids wouldn't talk to me, that in fact, I was starting to think they might be a little mean, a concept I really wasn't familiar with yet in my tender, young heart.
My dad reassured me that it was just a matter of time. It was simple, the kids just hadn't warmed up to my fabulosity yet.
But it wasn't simple. It was far from that.
I had the misfortune of ending up in a class of kids who'd been together in this small, parochial environment for all their primary years. Kids who didn't take well to new faces, especially if that new face was gawky, with thin hair that always ended up in tangles, teeth too big for her small face and skin so pale, it stuck out like a ghost in this place of sun and tanned skins. I was assigned to a mean-spiritited, badly-behaved class, the one all the teachers dreaded. In fact, years later I met up with one of my old teachers who told me that certain batch of kids was the worst she'd ever had in all her 30 years of teaching.
Not all of the kids were mean, mind you. But there was a core of bullies who cleaved together, unified in their cruelty.
The next four years were misery for me.
I was teased. I was called terrible names. My hair, my scrawniness, my flat chest, my clothes, my lunch, my lack of athleticism, the glasses I got in the 6th grade, my name, even my good grades were all fodder for the bullies. I was always picked last for everything. I was a constant mark for prank phone calls, usually from slumber parties. And speaking of parties, I wasn't invited and the few times I was, I knew some parent had insisted, against their child's protests, that every child had to be invited.
I never went to those parties. Instead, I read my precious books or played with my neighborhood playmates. Kids I didn't have to fear. Kids who never wore me down with their malevolent derision.
Once, my mom insisted that I attend one of the rare slumber parties I'd been invited to. I didn't want to go, but it never occurred to me to tell my parents why.
I don't know if it was because I was the fourth child of seven and it was an inherent part of my DNA, to never be a bother. I don't know if I thought it was just my lot in life. I don't know if it was too painful to confess. I just knew better than to complain.
And so I didn't. I didn't tell and I went to that party, my stomach in knots.
I wasn't at the party long, when I wandered into the bathroom where the girls were all goofing around with makeup and hair. The room went silent when I walked in, a few girls tittering guiltily.The girl hosting said quite clearly for the whole party's benefit, "My mom made me invite her." Not knowing what to do with my 11-year-old self, I spun around and left the room. But as I scurried away, someone sang out, "I can't wait for certain people to fall asleep tonight!"
I sat in the corner all night, determined to stay awake, so that they could not inflict their torture upon me.
When the girl's mother burst into our party well after midnight, angry and sputtering about quieting down or she'd call everyone's parents to pick them up, I could only pray, "Please, please call our parents."
I left the party the next day, exhausted but unscathed—at least physically.
My sharpest memory from those days was an incident in the sixth grade. We had a Christmas gift exchange where we bought a five buck gift for the person whose name we pulled out of the box. I drew my name and returned to my seat, excited for a bit of Christmas fun.
The girl who sat behind me, a she-devil in a Catholic schoolgirl skirt turned to the boy next to her and said, (I'll never forget it), "You want to switch names. I'll take anyone else but this retardo."
The boy took a look at the name on her white slip of paper and told her no way.
In my zeal and perpetual pursuit of approval, I told her I would switch with her. She sneered at me and said nothing. The boy burst out with, "She has your name, Stupid. No one wants to buy you a present."
The girl spoke to the boy, but stared at me, her lip curled up menacingly and said, "I'll make my mom buy it, so I won't even have to think about her ugly face."
I didn't want to believe it as I turned back around, stung, but on the exchange day, when she handed me a festively wrapped present with a hard glint in her eye, I didn't even open it. I went home and gave it to my sisters. It was a big package of Storybook Lifesavers. I've never been able to look at one of those again, without thinking of that day, that memory a sharp splinter I've never been able to remove.
I am truly not trying to make a pity party out of my past. It is the way it is. I went on to public school after the 8th grade and found my way. A late bloomer, I grew into my lanky self a little later than most, shedding my gawky skin and acquiring just a pinch of comeliness and grace. (I've never quite outgrown my complete dorkiness and it shows, especially when I'm trying to sing along to rap.)
High school was nothing like those awful years. It was glorious, with an abundance of friends and boys and memories that always put a smile on my face. Those formative, tough years marked me, but they did not break me. I have a beautiful life now with a good man and three treasured children. I am proud of my life and how I've lived these years in between those days and now. I can only hope the same for the bullies who felt the need to torture me relentlessly, so long ago.
That same girl who gave me the Lifesavers ended up getting expelled in our final year for vandalism. She'd put liquid soap in our new textbooks. And when I think about her, I try to remember that something more painful that what she could ever do to me, must have been happening in her life, to make her lash out in such destructive ways.
Bullying needs to end. For everyone's sake.
There is a documentary coming out called "Bully," that finally gives a voice to this awful abuse. It should be required viewing in every school. The problem is, the documentary has received an R rating for its profanity—profanity used by the bullies on their victims. The R rating will successfully prevent most middle school and high school children from seeing it. It's rather ironic that in trying to protect our children, the Motion Picture Association is actually impeding the process.
Katy Butler, a Michigan teenager and a victim herself of bullies, has started a petition, garnering national attention for her campaign. She wants to change the rating on this documentary, so that this film can open the eyes to those who need to see it the most.