It Starts with One: On Bullying and Bad Memories
(Note: this was inspired by something my friend Blake brought to my attention this morning. You can read about it here.)
Words have power. Like all things of power, they can be used to ill or good, to hurt or help, to wound or heal. Words can be either prayers or curses – and there’s nothing neutral about them. Words have meaning suffused into them, inherently and contextually. So, it is wise to be mindful of those we choose.
This falls to me and you, as people. This falls to you, too, as a parent, teacher, librarian, or simply someone who is present. As a child, or even a teenager, it is often difficult to find the right words – but it is most important not to choose the wrong ones. The ones that inflict pain. The ones that point out shortcomings. That ones that harm. The ones that heap misery onto someone who, maybe, can’t handle it.
As a kid, I was teased fairly regularly. In middle school, I was a total dork. I didn’t wear the “right” clothing (which, at the time, included overalls. I think I made the wise choice there.). I didn’t steal wine coolers, have a boyfriend in prison, or smoke. But I wasn’t teased for that.
No, I was teased because my family had horses and my last name happened to be Trotta. Horses TROT, right? Yeah, I didn’t think it was that clever either, and I certainly couldn’t do anything to change it. I remember being neighed at daily. (Now, it reminds me of a scene from Practical Magic, which I will get a link to, later) As stupid as it was, it hurt. It bothered me. It made me feel bad about myself. It made going through the normal adolescent bullshit all the more difficult.
I didn’t wear makeup. I wasn’t allowed to dye my hair. I was not slim. By eighth grade, I’d developed dandruff (thanks, Crazy Teenage Hormone imbalance!) and I had kids in my class calling me Selsun Blue and Head and Shoulders. Beyond the sparse, “shut up,” I didn’t say anything. I just took it. I endured it. I dealt with it every day. It sounds almost silly, writing it out. Because I wasn’t physically harmed, but not all harm is physical. It’s bullying. It’s emotional abuse. Now, we have a term for it. I’m not sure that we did, then.
Thinking about those things, now, they don’t hurt as much. But I’m still surprised to find a vague sense of shame accompanying those memories. Maybe that’s just the ghost of pain. I don’t know. (The strange thing of it was that while I rarely stood up for myself, I almost always stood up for other people. Sometimes, it was disastrous; sometimes, I felt like I did some good.)
There were a lot of days where I came home from school and cried. There were a lot of days where I was simply, abjectly miserable. I felt bad about myself. I felt bad about things that I couldn’t control. I felt like someone had stamped a giant L for LOSER on my forehead. It sucked.
You know what strikes me, now? The fact that the teachers often did nothing. Oh, they heard. It was impossible not to, but they stood by and watched people pick on me. And on others. Sure, the kids were just as likely to make fun of our overweight history teacher, but he had one advantage that I didn’t: he was in a position of authority. Not having the adult in the room say a word? Well, it made what those kids did, and said, okay. It was condoning through silence. And, thinking about it today, it shouldn’t have happened.
It all seems silly now, but at the time, it sucked. (Side-note: that is when I started to write poetry. It was emo, before emo existed. Yeah, I was that cool. Also, I may have overused the word ‘alas’ a lot. But at least I know what it meant and how to use it. Shakespeare for all!) And I carried that with me, all throughout middle school. The feelings persisted even through high school, even though the comments stopped.
The truth was, I was a late bloomer. But I was also lucky. I was lucky that I had a family who supported me, who routinely asked how my day was, and who told me it would all be okay. I had good friends outside of school (hi, Mandy, if you’re reading this) who made me feel better and not alone. I had somewhere to run to, places to seek comfort, and other sources of happiness.
I turned out okay. I got through it. I didn’t let it ruin me like it could’ve. I was lucky, because I never got desperate enough to take my own life.
But it happens. It happened then. It happens now. And I hate it. I hate it because it doesn’t have to happen. It’s not a disease you can’t avoid. It’s not stepping out into the street and getting hit by a bus. It’s not a car accident. It’s not a stroke.
It’s someone making a poor choice. It’s someone failing to be kind. It’s someone acting like a monster. It’s someone picking on someone weaker.
It can be stopped. It can be avoided. It gets better.
All it takes is one person. One person to step up and say no. One person to say enough. One person to make the right choice, instead of the wrong one.
It starts with one.