How I Survived Bullying
Public School of Hard Knocks
When you look back on your years of school, what sort of memories do they evoke? Were you in the popular crowd or were you one of the kids who got stuffed into a locker? Did you enjoy your classes or dread being called upon? Upon graduation, were you thinking “see you all at the reunion” or “thank God it’s over?”
For those of you who identified more with each choice #2 above, let me introduce myself as one of you. Hello, nice to meet you all.
I was one of those kids who never quite “fit in” with everyone else. As early as first grade I knew that something was different about me. I would see other children playing and socializing and seemingly having the time of their lives. Attempting to join in with them never crossed my mind. Their activities made no sense to me. The notions of “best friends,” birthday parties, Scouts and play dates were all foreign concepts. Everyone my own age seemed too loud, too impulsive and not interested enough in doing their homework. I thought that academic learning was all school was for.
If I sound judgmental, I apologize. I think I was just downright afraid because I was facing situations I couldn’t understand. I grew up with both of my parents and one brother who is 12 years my senior and left home for college when I was five, so I might as well have been an only child. I felt more mature than the other kids my age in some respects and less mature in others. I was severely anxious about being separated from my mother for many years, which was probably largely responsible for my avoidance of many social activities other kids thrived on. However, I always turned my homework in on time and got very good grades, at least academically. With every report card the comments about my social skills were always the same: “does not work or play well with others” and “needs to participate more in class.”
As the years passed, another comment came up a lot: “frequent absences and tardies.” My classmates, noticing that I was the “shy one,” took advantage of my timidity by teasing and bullying me almost every day. I was verbally harassed every time I was outside the classroom (I learned to stay in the library during lunch and recess), picked last for teams during physical education periods and usually ate lunch alone. The stress of the social isolation and ostracization took its toll on me physically. I felt sick to my stomach nearly every morning, sometimes to the point of throwing up. Whenever that happened, I stayed home from school. By the fourth grade my mother was getting calls from the truant officer threatening to put HER in jail for my “unauthorized” absences if something didn’t change. Psychosomatic or not, I wasn’t faking. A long letter from my pediatrician put a stop to the legal threats but then the school authorities insisted I see a therapist. Why is it that the kids who are being harassed are deemed to be “troubled” while the bullies are said to be acting “normal?”
Fourth grade was probably my worst year. One girl and a group of her friends loudly accused me of stealing her retainer during recess. When the teachers were finally brought into the situation, I was interrogated and searched to determine that I really hadn’t done it. To add insult to injury, she was not made to apologize (not that it would have been genuine). Someone else threw my backpack in the garbage. I switched classrooms that year and things improved a little, but the bullies still seemed to be everywhere. My therapist engaged in play therapy which never went anywhere. In short, life was a living hell, at least at school.
Home, thankfully, was a different story. My mom knew there was actually nothing wrong with me and spent most of her time fighting with the school authorities, demanding that they do something to protect me. She said she’d pull me out of school and teach me at home if necessary. Their response was to attempt to ban her from the school grounds. Legally, they couldn’t. It was just their way of saying “we don’t care.” Looking back, I think one of the main reasons for this was economical. Public school or not, in my town there were the “haves” and the “have-nots,” which was determined by the area of town in which you lived. Since my family was not in the “rich” part, my suffering meant nothing, and the rich kids who bullied me got away with murder because their parents drove fancy cars and made big contributions to the PTA Fund.
All that enabled me to survive was her encouragement. I know how lucky I am for that. My boyfriend and his brother went through a lot of the same kind of harassment at school while they were growing up, but their parents were less than sympathetic. Like the authorities at my school, their parents chose to believe that their sons had the problems and needed to learn how to “get along” with the other kids. They’ve since apologized, but the damage has been done.
In fifth grade, I found another ally. My teacher was an old-fashioned type who’d been teaching for decades and believed that children should behave themselves and do their work. She put up with no nonsense, regarded everyone else in the class as “brats” and treated them as such. She knew what some of them had done, and still did, to me, and interceded on my behalf. They all hated and feared her, but I had the best school year of my entire life thanks to her. She retired about five years ago. I regret never going back to say goodbye. If you’re reading this, and know who you are, I am still grateful for everything. Thank you.
Middle school was a transitional period. My first experience with going to different classrooms for different subjects proved to be a positive one, once I learned my way around the campus. I was no longer stuck with a single group of people, and I met students from other grade schools who were much nicer. In addition, the teachers expected us to at least start acting like adults. Bullying and childish behavior was much less tolerated. I met some really great people there. For the first time in my life, I joined a school organization—the newspaper. The bulk of my contributions consisted of poetry, one interview with a French teacher and designs for the front page. Never once was I ridiculed for anything.
In my 8th grade humanities (English/History combined, at my school) class, the teacher showed us a film called “The Wave.” While most films you see in school aren’t that memorable, this one was. I remember it to this day. It taught me the importance of individuality and expressing who you are, even if doing so is unpopular.
While high school is usually the worst for most people (so I’ve heard), for me it was the best. No, I wasn’t “popular,” but the harassment had ended. I had a few friends and was ignored by everyone else, which was just the way I wanted it. I had time to do my work (I graduated with a 3.8 GPA), socialize when I wanted to and be left alone by would-be bullies. Those who had tormented me before now had their own problems to deal with, such as divorcing parents and failing grades.
High school was relatively peaceful, but by 12th grade I couldn’t wait to get out of there. Between enforced pep rallies, the need to get a “readmittance slip” after being absent and never enough time to eat lunch, the atmosphere was getting oppressive. I was sick and tired of being treated like a child. I knew there was a real world out there and I wanted to find out what it was like.
Finally: graduation day. (I came thisclose to blowing off the entire ceremony, but for my parents’ sake I put on the cap and gown.) The ceremony was held in an outdoor arena. Graduates sat on the stage, and when their name was called they would walk over a makeshift “bridge” placed over a depression filled with water for the occasion to symbolize passing into adulthood. The principal handed each student their diploma (or, rather, the cover—the real one was mailed home a week later), and most gave her a hug. Not me. In my four years there, I barely got to know the woman, so anything more than a handshake seemed inappropriate. My “rebelling” didn’t stop there, though. When going back to the seating area, I walked in the wrong direction and ended up on the other side of the group of graduates. I wish I could say I did that on purpose, but I didn’t. My sense of direction has never been very good. J One of my friends asked me afterwards if I was making a statement when I did that. Perhaps I was on a subconscious level.
I found freedom in community college, university and now graduate school. People expect you to take responsibility for your own learning, your own socializing and your own life. I attract others of like mind now, including my boyfriend. Those who don’t like me, for whatever reasons, simply stay away. While the world of college academia isn’t entirely the “real world,” it’s a lot closer than public school where you’re sheltered in some respects and exposed to cruelties of the worst kind in others.
No, I’m not saying that everything is “perfect.” I still encounter people who are mean, thoughtless and sometimes downright stupid. However, the difference is that now, I can handle it. I can walk away and laugh to myself about their ignorance. If anyone tried to physically assault me (no one has), I could have him or her arrested. In the adult world, there are consequences for being a bully.
I could have been homeschooled through 8th grade and done just fine academically. My mother is a very intelligent woman who knew more than most of my teachers up to that point. (In high school, I attended classes in Chemistry, Physics and advanced math, all of which she admits she could not teach me.) However, my mom did me a huge favor keeping me in public school and helping me to cope with the bullying. I developed what some might call a “thick skin.” Unfounded criticism does not affect me. I know who I am, warts and all, and I’m not overly self-conscious about most things. The real world can be a harsh place. It could be said that public school is a microcosm of the worst of what you’ll encounter as an adult. If you survive K-12, you can probably survive anything.
I recently met a young woman who was homeschooled her entire life. She is very ill-equipped for dealing with the real world. She has a job and a driver’s license, two things I currently lack, but everyday things still seem to frighten her. The harshness of the world is sometimes too much for her to take. She still lives at home, with her very large family, and spends most of her time off from work either hiding in her room or going to church services. I am very grateful to have taken the hard road earlier in life in order to make things easier for me now. I thank my mother, some of my teachers and even some of the bullies themselves for everything I experienced in my early years. (Note: this does NOT mean that I condone bullying! I think there is absolutely no excuse for it. All I am saying is that I am grateful for the mental and emotional strength I developed as a result of those difficult experiences.) Now, if I encounter adult bullies or other general forms of unpleasantness, I am strong enough to handle them. I am true to myself, and change for no one.
To every parent who reads this, I urge you to stay involved in your kids’ lives. If you suspect they are being bullied, please take action on their behalf and don’t allow yourselves to be bullied by school authorities or other parents, either. No child deserves to suffer this abuse. If they know that you are on their side and in their corner, no matter what, they will ultimately be better-adjusted adults. My mother’s unwavering support is the biggest reason I came out relatively unscathed and can even look back on those years as an ultimately positive experience. However, looking back, I still say that it is an experience that we can all do without. Bullying is not “normal” and should not be treated as such.
Thank you all for reading this.
All about the movie "The Wave."