As I announced last week, I will be running posts related to bullying all this week, as part of National Bullying Prevention Month. Today, I invite you to read my own bullying story, which to this point has been shared with very few people. I hope that you find it interesting, and maybe even illuminating.
I was bullied in school throughout my childhood. From about 3rd grade to 7th grade, I was teased because of my weight. Although no one who has met me recently ever believes it, I was in fact the fat kid in my class. In 7th grade, I topped out at about 5’ 2” and 152 pounds. In hindsight, that doesn’t even seem that fat to me, and yet, my classmates were merciless.
Around that time, I hit a growth spurt, shooting up 5 inches while also losing 25 pounds. When I returned to school for 8th grade at a svelte 127 pounds, I figured the bullying would be over. I was wrong.
While my classmates were (now) generally kind to me, and I had a fair number of friends, I still had older kids to contend with. Growing up in an extremely rural area, my school was consolidated, and all 12 grades were under one roof. That meant I had to see high schoolers in the halls on occasion, and they would shred me.
I was too eccentric and flamboyant for the surrounding rural farming community. When I came back from a family vacation to New York with my hair dyed bright yellow, the first comment I got on it was, “Nice hair, fag!” Taken aback, the only thing I could think to do was say, “thank you,” and continue to class. My brother was in high school at the same time, but not even his relative popularity could save me from being skewered.
Before starting high school, I transferred to a neighboring district. It was entirely for academic reasons — the larger school had more funding and therefore better college prep programs — but still I was hopeful for a fresh start.
And, for a while, I got one. I made some new friends and went on about the usual high school business of combating acne and awkwardly trying to make girls laugh. That strategy worked just fine for about two years.
After sophomore year, I left for summer camp, as I had done just about every summer since I was 7. I had just turned 16, was dating a cheerleader and looked forward to getting my driver’s license as soon as I got home. Life was good.
Upon my return from camp, my girlfriend picked me up at the airport. On the ride home, she told me that there was a rumor going around about how I had engaged in some sexual acts with one of my male friends while drunk at a party. I laughed it off and told her it wasn’t true –- and indeed, it wasn’t –- but the damage was done.
Now, homosexuality is a totally natural and OK thing in my book. But, as any gay teenage boy will tell you – and as we learned from the movie Easy A – there are few creatures more cruel than a bully locked onto a homosexual target. I’m not gay, but the perception was reality enough.
From then on, I was constantly uncomfortable and always on my guard. I felt like everyone was looking at me funny. Kids whom I had considered my friends, or at least friendly acquaintances, turned on me. Some just shunned me, while others insulted me openly. My girlfriend broke up with me, although in her defense, that probably had way more to do with us being sixteen and foolish than with any possible discrimination on her part. Still, it didn’t help.
One day I was early to English class, so I waited in the hall for the dismissal bell. When it rang, a senior football player to whom I had never spoken charged out, giving me a straight arm shove as he turned past. I had the audacity to run for junior class president, and watched as seniors tore down my campaign flyers just moments after I put them up. Even underclassmen taunted me, such was my station within the high school pecking order.
It became clear to me that I was fighting a battle every day, whether I wanted to or not. So, I prepared myself. I retreated inside myself, ignoring every barb and jibe that came my way. The hallways and classrooms became my battleground, my personality honed into sword and shield. I consolidated power by deepening my existing friendships and took on every ally I could. I took every quirky, witty, silly, cocky and clever bit of my character, pieced it together and wore it like armor. I carried it around and brandished it openly. It was the only defense I had.
I did not win every battle. I wasn’t bulletproof. I had good days and bad days. Some days I couldn’t ignore them anymore, like the day I shoved a freshman halfway across the hall on my way to biology class. Some days I hurried to my car for fear that those glares I got at the door would escalate into physicality. And some days I felt so broken down that I thought I might fall apart altogether.
I don’t purport to make myself a victim here. I don’t have any delusions that my life as a student was some sort of living Hell. I know it wasn’t. Nobody ever beat me up. Nobody shoved me in a locker, or stole my lunch money, or jumped me in the bathroom, or any of those other cliché after school movie bully tactics. Nobody planned and carried out an elaborate ruse at my expense like Whitney Kropp.
My experience is not extreme or atypical…and that’s the point. This is routine stuff, people. Thousands of kids wake up every morning afraid to go to school. And many of them get it much worse than I did. These are kids for whom school life is a living Hell, who would give anything to have it as easy as the experience I just described. They are scared, traumatized and abused every day.
Those kids need our help…your help. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about some of the lasting effects of bullying and how parents, teachers and caregivers can join the effort to stop bullying.
Were you bullied in your youth (or as an adult, for that matter)? Please share some of your experiences below.
(Image credit: trix0r’s flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.)