|Photo of a photo taken around my middle school
years. This might be just before I entered high
school. Yep, I used to play guitar. Yep, those elbows
are still sharp enough to take someone’s eye out.
As I sit here, recovering from a Monday morning migraine and watching the light Minnesota snow drift down, I’m brought back to my younger days in upstate New York.
In addition to attending special education classes for my dyslexia, I was type of kid who was all elbows, knees and unmanageable hair. I was horrible at physical activities like gym, and my sense of style was…questionable. Though it WAS the early/mid ’90s. Everyone’s fashion sense was pretty iffy back then.
Now, I realize that my physical awkwardness and issues with matching clothing could have had something to do with my dyslexia, or maybe some undiagnosed dyspraxia.
Anyway, there was one span of bullying that still stands out today, because it so clearly focused on manipulating my identity as female and the perception of my lack of intelligence.
I can’t remember exactly how it started, but I have the feeling it began with whispers of a moderately popular boy having a crush on me. Being as withdrawn and miserable as I was, that little rumor bewildered and encouraged me to believe that maybe I was worth something.
Eventually, I started getting phone calls at home. They were full of puppy dog romance, like promises of kisses and dates. The boy told me how pretty I was, and suggested outfits for me to wear. The one that struck me as the most odd was a request to wear jeans under a jeans skirt and to meet him at a particular spot in the school.
The day after, I wore a skirt, but not the jeans. I remember looking around for the boy in question, but not seeing him around. I did hear some giggling, though, and spotted a couple of kids watching me.
That’s when the idea that something was wrong dawned on me. Still, I clung desperately to the idea that someone actually liked me. Maybe this was just my version of the tough time princesses in fairy tales had before they were rescued.
The next phone call was angry. Why didn’t I follow his instructions TO THE LETTER? Didn’t I care what he thought? I probably apologized, and the events just kept happening.
Messages started showing up on my locker, and notes were tucked into the grate. The words themselves weren’t mean, but when taken into context with the phone calls and stares, they were mocking.
There were no dates. No face to face interaction. Just phone calls, notes and graffiti.
No one understood why I was so upset all the time. It seemed as if no one cared.
I was reduced to tears on a regular basis, and spent a fair amount of time alone, quietly trembling in fearful misery.
Eventually, I did tell the adults in my life. For the most part, they brushed me off, which I knew would happen. Eventually, my mom contacted the popular boy’s parents, and had me talk directly to him.
His wasn’t the voice who had been taunting and abusing me over the phone, but he was still the one I finally told to leave me alone.
That last phone call is the one that stopped that round of abuse. I believe I started studying martial arts not long afterwards, so future attempts weren’t quite as effective.
I don’t think the boy even knew what was going on, though I have no way of knowing for sure. Maybe he was in on it and got scared when he was confronted with my shaky, tearful yell. Maybe hearing the anguish in my voice woke up a bit of his humanity. Maybe his buddies were playing a prank on him, and the fun got taken out of it when he found out. It doesn’t really matter at this point.
Looking back now, I realize that even at that young age, those cruel children were using a young girl’s budding sexuality as a weapon against her. They were enabled by adults who just saw it as a harmless game. I had no physical injuries, so why step in?
It makes me wonder how it would have been different if I was a boy. As it was, I had a few minor physical interactions throughout middle school, like being shoved around in the hallway and pennies thrown at my legs, but nothing like all out fist fights. Would the bullying have been as psychological and subtly sexual as it was if I was male? Would it have been more physical?
It’s sickening to know that girls are targeted like that in school even before they hit puberty. Boys and girls are taught from a very early age about what gender roles to carry out. Girls in particular are encouraged to consider romance as the end all, be all of life. At that age, I had bought into that idea enough to fall victim to what those kids did to me.
Even worse, bullies are still reinforced by adults who see it as harmless fun, a rite of passage or, in my case, “boys being boys”. Cruelty and abuse should never be ignored or encouraged, especially when it may be a precursor to domestic violence.
After it was over, I was still devastated. I wasn’t attractive to the boys in my class, outside of for derision. I was smart enough to look back and see the warning signs, but still know that I fell for it. The life long messages shot at me of LD kids being stupid were just reinforced by what had happened.
Obviously, I survived, but it did scar me for a long time.
I’m pretty sure it had a big impact on my academic performance, too. How could it not? When a child is too afraid to want to go to school, or traumatized into illness, naturally they can’t concentrate on their work.
How can we stop this cycle? How can we help kids who are currently coping with the mental and emotional battle that comes with bullying? How can we help girls, and the few boys, whose sexuality is already used against them?
I think a huge part of it needs to start in the home. All children need to be taught about respect and diversity. Parents and older siblings must model how to behave respectfully, and children prone to treating others poorly must face consequences.
I don’t think those consequences should be more cruelty, either. All beatings do are demonstrate violence is the solution to more violence. They should be more along the lines of witnessing the damage they’ve done, learning how to empathize with their victims and finding ways to help clean up the fallout.
Adults also need to take children’s emotions more seriously, especially if they’re the result of “harmless schoolyard games”. Those games are what teach kids how to behave as adults. When the emotions are minimized or dismissed, the child is being told they don’t matter. It’s a message that’s disturbingly easy to internalize.
Even when the bullying isn’t physical, it can be deadly. Many children have committed suicide because of how their peers have treated them.
It must be stopped, and we all have a role in ending it.