As a little girl, I was a black sheep to say the least. My two brothers and I went to a Catholic elementary school, and there were 18 kids total in my class from pre-k to the 6th grade. Even though we went to a private school, my family wasn’t as well off as most of the other students. We had hand-me-down clothes from cousins. We sometimes had to wear the same clothes two days in a row, if we didn’t keep up with the laundry. Our parents worked long hours and we were often alone to dress ourselves and walk ourselves the seven blocks to school and back. This independence meant choosing our own clothes. Have you ever seen a six-year-old choose her own clothes? Without guidance, I’d end up in colorful tights and long T-shirts that didn’t match. So it wasn’t exactly love at first sight between me and the other girls who were carefully put together in dresses, tights, and shiny new shoes.
Right off the bat, the other kids seemed to avoid me. I lacked in social skills and it was obvious. I never knew the right things to say or do, and I was overzealous. I loved people and I wanted them to love me too. It seemed as though my only way to be happy was to fit in to this small group of children, and boy did I do a terrible job. I was clumsy, tripping all over myself and sometimes the other kids. I was a magnet for embarrassing moments. I was an absolute mess, really. One girl, who is still my best friend to this day, stood by my side. They bullied her as well, but usually just for being friends with me. For being kind.
I became a sort of punching bag for the other kids. Laughing at my expense seemed to be their main source of entertainment. For years, I still tried to fit in. Desperately. But they were relentless. They threw things at me, taunted me, got me in trouble, somehow all without the teachers noticing a thing. Eventually, I gave up trying to get them to like me. I started getting detentions on purpose to avoid recess. I started skipping school, pretending I was sick. I didn’t do well in my classes, I wasn’t focused. My parents talked to teachers, I told on them, and when that didn’t work, I tried to just ignore them. But they were persistent. I mean, who else were they going to direct all this negative energy towards? There were only 18 of us, after all. By the fourth grade, an ulcer formed in my stomach from the stress and I was puking blood on my pillow. In the fifth grade, the one girl who was nice to me had gone off to public school and I came home crying almost every day. She was all I had to hold on to. By the sixth grade, I was contemplating suicide to escape the pain the other children caused me.
I was overjoyed to start public school in the 7th grade. There were so many other kids, and I finally found a group of outcasts that welcomed me with open arms. I was back with my best friend, and I thought things would finally be better. But 7th grade, all through my high school career, I was still bullied. At first it was spilled over from St Mary’s, the other kids didn’t want to be friends with a pariah like me. But over time, it was for other reasons. And with age, people became more cruel. I fell into the wrong crowds, looking for validation and acceptance. I got into partying at 15. I was doing drugs and getting plastered. I told myself this is where I belonged, that I finally fit in. But inside, I was ruining every bit of my sensitive soul. And at 16, I looked inside myself an hated what I saw. I thought I’d never be good enough for this world.
Luckily, I failed and ended up in a coping center. Within that year, I went to a several doctors and got put on several medications for my depression and anxiety. One of these medications made me gain 40 pounds at 17. So guess what? I got bullied for being fat for the rest of my high school career. The football team would stand on either side of the hallway shouting insults at people, asking me if I wanted a cupcake or a doughnut. Calling me names I’d rather not even repeat. They’d make fun of the way I dressed, the way I walked, the way I spoke. I failed half of my classes, distracted by my own depression and social anxiety. I skipped more days than I can count. But I held on by the skin of my teeth and graduated.
Since school, I am still struggling with the affects of being bullied. I’ve let myself be in horrible situations, thinking it’s what I deserved. I’ve let myself be in mentally and physically abusive relationships for years. I’ve tried to seek validation from people who criticized me instead of listening to people who truly cared. My anxiety is so crippling that on bad days, I find it difficult to go to the store a block away. I struggle with anxiety attacks on a regular basis and even though I have an entire support system of people now lifting me up, I rarely feel good enough.
I am now getting married to the love of my life, a man who truly thinks I’m better than good enough. In his eyes, I’m perfect. And although he’s seen me at my absolute worse, he stands by my side. He fights with me through the uncontrollable sobbing, and through the bad days when I can’t seem to find the light. I have a son who shows his kindness to the world every day. He is truly a sweet kid and constantly talks about saving the world, to the point that I believe someday he will. The love of my friends and family have helped me heal and become stronger, but it is a process.
It’s time for parents to stop thinking of bullying as “kids being kids”. It’s time to be present in your children’s lives and enforce kindness and compassion. You can’t know what is happening in every other child’s life. What kind of mental illness or home situation they may be facing. Pay attention to what your child tells you, be involved in the school.
They are growing, taking in everything that happens at school. No matter what you do as a parent, their environment at school and what they learn from it will affect their entire lives.
photos courtesy of Christine Stork