“But now they laugh at me, men who are younger than I….And now I have become their song; I am a byword to them. They abhor me; they keep aloof from me; they do not hesitate to spit at the sight of me” (Job 30:1, 9-10).
As I read those words I had a visceral reaction. I felt panicked and closed in. My face grew hot, hands shaking. Bile rose in my throat. As I studied this chapter in the book of Job, I was transported back to a time of pain and shame, instinctively knowing what Job felt to have people turn on him. I know what it’s like to be a byword. To be abhorred.
How do I know? My senior year of high school was a nightmare.
I could not walk down the hallway to my locker or to class without peers making rude and loud gagging noises at me and calling me a b****.
I was sexually harassed, frequently.
I came home from cheerleading at an away basketball game to my egged car. The eggs were frozen solid and covered nearly every inch of my car. I lived 30 minutes from the school. I went to high school before everyone had cell phones. My parents had no way to know or help.
I came out of the home of a friend to find a sack waiting for me at my car. I thought maybe someone had left me a gift. In a way, they had. It was a large, dead bird.
In the case of the hallway, nothing happened. It continued all year.
In the case of the sexual harassment, a guy or two were supposed to miss an entire half of play during a basketball game. The coach let them play after sitting out for five minutes. I was a cheerleader. I saw it happen. I felt worthless, sick and ashamed, knowing my plight wasn’t as important as a basketball game.
In the case of my egged car, my cheerleading coach called the police. The officer helped me get it to a car wash. That was it. To my knowledge, my school administration did nothing even though it happened on school property.
In the case of the dead bird, I’m not sure I ever told anyone. It’s still mortifying and disgusting. Thinking about it makes me want to vomit. I’m not sure I’ll ever forget the weight of that sack and what awaited me inside. The body keeps the score, after all.
It took me years after I graduated to realize that my increased blood pressure and panic when I drove through the town on the way to my parents’ farm was actually a result of post traumatic stress. Sound severe? Let me assure you, my body’s reaction was very real.
In all the instances, the bullying was excused. The bullies were doing it because “they were jealous.” They were doing it because “I was too pretty.” They were doing it because “I was so good at sports.” And on, and on.
Perhaps those were the reasons. But do you see what happened? Instead of placing the blame squarely on the bullies, it was turned around and put on my shoulders.
If I weren’t so pretty, the kids wouldn’t feel the need to be mean to me or harass me. I still don’t like to be noticed for my looks.
If I weren’t so smart, they wouldn’t be jealous and the bullying would stop.
If I weren’t athletic, they’d have no reason to act out.
When it was all said and done, not only did the bullying continue, I was left at the center of the problem. I was left to pretend I was OK–because that’s the advice kids who are being bullied get–just ignore it. Pretend it doesn’t bother you. Don’t retaliate, it will make it worse.
I understand the motive behind that method, but I don’t agree.
Not doing anything didn’t stop the bullying. It also made me feel even more like a victim. There has to be another way! Kids shouldn’t have to feel like the only option is to suffer in silence.
I think one key is to shut bullying down early. When meanness starts showing itself as a kindergarten problem, it needs addressed and stopped right away. I know tattling gets a bad rap, but not everything is tattling. If the early signs of bullying aren’t stopped when small, the problem grows to an upper-elementary problem, then a middle school one, and then a high school one–each time growing in intensity and consequence. And this isn’t just an issue for schools to deal with.
As parents, we’ve got to address the concerns and complaints at home, too. Sometimes love and concern about our children comes in the form of difficult things to hear–of rebuke. Not only do I want to know if my kids are being bullied, I want to know if they are doing the bullying. I want a chance to intervene, even if the issue is difficult. I know of other parents who feel the same, and I am thankful for that, but it seems like we’re a minority.
Another way to address the problem is for former mean kids to step up and speak up. One woman did that on a Facebook post I recently posed where I asked for advice to give my child who has recently been on the receiving end of “mean girls” in elementary school. Hearing this woman’s courageous admission and honesty was refreshing. It gave me hope!
My voice is one of many formerly-bullied voices speaking out against the problem. I believe we desperately need more former-mean-kid voices also speaking up, challenging kids to do better.
We must do better.
The stories I heard in private messages from other parents after I posed my question–stories about what their own children have experienced and are experiencing at various levels of school–were disheartening to downright infuriating. Lives are being changed, and not for the better.
We’ve got to do something, because relentless bullying has severe, and sometimes devastating, consequences.
Malinda Just has been writing Lipstick & Pearls for the Free Press since 2008. To read more of her writing, visit her blog, www.malindajust.com.