I recently found out about the tragic story of Phoebe Prince, a young girl who was bullied by her peers to the point where she felt she had to take her own life. I found this whole situation to be extremely sad and disturbing. From what I read, Phoebe was a naturally friendly girl and some people got jealous of her ability to grab a guy’s attention naturally and started calling her names and threatening her. I think statutory rape was involved in some way. It got so bad one day that she went home and hung herself. Apparently faculty and staff at the school knew what was going on and did nothing to stop it from happening. The least they could do was offer counseling to Phoebe to help her cope with her peers’ behavior and taunts. This situation has brought up how the issue of bullying has escalated from playful schoolyard taunts to physical abuse (such as hazing) and slander on the internet. The issue of bullying hits close to home for me as a parent and as someone who was picked on by their peers in the past.
About 6 years ago, I read a book that I was able to relate to in many ways. It was a true story by Jodee Blanco titled “Please Stop Laughing at Me...” It was her personal account of bullying from her peers. No matter where she went to school, she usually would start out popular and would make friends easily. Then she’d go against the grain of peer pressure and everyone would turn against her. She changed schools several times and it always led to the same outcome. I don’t think she ever tried to kill herself, but I know she displayed self-destructive behavior as a result. Miraculously, she came out on top as a confident adult who was able to tell her story in a way that it was nearly impossible to put down.
As I mentioned earlier, both Phoebe Prince's tragic death and Jodee Blanco's book struck chords with me...chords that would not have been struck had I not been a victim of bullying. I usually don't talk much about this because I supposedly lead such a "charmed life" nowadays, but I think it needs to be told in hopes that other people will be inspired to share their own stories and experiences. Maybe the more stories that are shared will inspire schools to mandate school faculty and staff to attend bullying prevention seminars before being allowed to set foot in a school building.
Mind you, the stuff I've heard and read about makes anything I went through pale in comparison, but it's still personal to me. I somehow managed to survive my school years and move on to college and adult life with the intention to start fresh. I think the main thing that kept me going after a while was self-confidence. It's something I've carried over into my adult life. And that didn't come into play until high school.
I started out with a lot of friends in preschool and kindergarten. Then the social circles started forming in first grade. Yes...first grade! People already knew if they fit into the popular or unpopular (i.e. geek) groups. Guess which group yours truly ended up in? :P I had friends, but some of them had split loyalties. Grade school was tolerable until the later years. The friends I had helped me weather any storms and I had my best friend at home too (my sister). I also had some other close friends outside of school. Of course, there were the mean girls who thought it was funny to ask me questions that tested my naivete about sexuality. Basically, you were damned if you said you were a virgin and also damned if you said you weren't. (Madonna's song didn't help much.) There were also boys who were just plain mean. One used to make me miserable at the bus stop every morning. (I got back at him in a subtle way during my college years...by acting like I didn't know him and then hearing from my boyfriend at the time that this guy was sending obvious signals of interest...and then making it very obvious that I was with someone.) The friends I made toward the end of my elementary school days didn't help matters much. However, I did have some friends who were destined for popularity at some point. The other factor that didn't help much was how I was super emotional about getting teased. I wore my vulnerability where everyone could see it and attack it.
When I got to junior high, I thought meeting people who didn't know my status in grade school would help, but it really didn't. The circles that were formed in grade school stuck and created monsters that sucked up the friends I had from before. (Basically, people whom I thought were my best friends decided that popularity took priority over their friendship with me.) I did make some new friends, but that proved detrimental to my social standing for the rest of junior high. There was one girl I became close with early in 6th grade and then she even turned on me because I wasn't geeky enough! She even got mad at me for a social mishap that was out of my control, but she saw no problem in making things even worse for herself and everyone in our little circle. (Basically, she got mad at me because everyone wanted me to dance--which I didn't even do at that time--in an effort to make fun of me more, but then she went and auditioned to be a cheerleader when she knew she was moving out of state soon. Then that started rumors that people thought her mom was suing the school. I was actually smug about it when people were surrounding and taunting her.) Other than that, people I thought were my friends in the beginning of the year turned on me in the typical mean girl style. I took modeling classes from Sears during that year and while I thought it would be seen as cool, I got picked on because it was for Sears. Nothing was good enough. I could buy all brand name clothes and start wearing bras and none of it would matter. My social status was set.
During the summer between 6th and 7th grade, I went to overnight camp with my BFF. That was a mistake (not about going with my BFF, just about going at all). The girls were all stuck up and made my four weeks there hellish. If I thought that being teased about not knowing about virginity was bad, having my naivete about all things sexual being ripped into made that look like a walk in the park. They were just awful and they would accuse me of destroying their property but then would see no problem in taking my towel while I was showering (and then getting mad when I got them in trouble). If my BFF had not been there, I would have gone home without even completing the four weeks. Years later, I read "The J.A.P. Chronicles" by Isabel Rose. While my camp experience wasn't as bad as the main character's, it was fun to imagine karma for all the girls in my cabin (with the exception of my BFF, of course). Two funny things that came out of this a long time later: I ended up dating the best friend of one of the girls' brother. I wonder if she ever knew about that. Also, one of the girls (who especially made fun of my naivete about sex) was at a close friend's bachelorette party and I got a high out of winning a contest where we had to answer a lot of questions about sex (factual, not personal). I don't think she remembered making fun of me back in the day, but I still enjoyed feeling smug about that.
Seventh grade was even worse. Someone told a girl I was trying to befriend that I would "ruin her rep." (This same girl who said that later was nice to me in high school.) The girls were just meaner in general. They would follow me around school and taunt me for no particular reason. Eventually, one of the gym teachers brought it to a halt. Until that time, I would hide out during "recess" and read a book behind some trees. I tried to avoid people whenever possible and hated going to school in general. Talking about it with my parents didn't help. They felt bad that it was going on, but I somehow felt I was failing them. In the meantime, I had Hebrew school and another set of obnoxious boys and girls to deal with there. I did have some saving graces though: Pen pals, a new friend from Hebrew school and V.C. Andrews books.
Eighth grade was a little more tolerable. I made a couple of nice friends (one whom I reunited and became closer with years later) but also had to deal with more mean girl behavior. I was hanging out with one group for a while when this girl decided she didn't want me to be a part of the group and wrote me a nasty letter too. I still resent her for it to this day. My saving graces this time included: knowing high school was around the corner, writing for the school paper, chorus, a nice school counselor, and gaining respect for my brains and because I tried out for the volleyball team. There was also the nice gym teacher who let me take a dance/exercise class instead of gym that year. I hated gym class, so it definitely saved my sanity. Overall, the movie "Welcome to the Dollhouse" made my junior high years feel a lot less hellish in comparison, even though I didn't get to see Eric Mabius sprawled out on a bed in my house.
High school wasn't too bad. I still dealt with my share of bullying from time to time, but I also had a lot of things that kept me going. It was easier to make friends because there was a wider pool to meet. Sure, the social circles still existed, but they were more scattered. I had speech team, which is where I gained my confidence. I also was also involved with chorus, theater, dance, etc. I did have moments every year where it was rough to go to school, but I got through it. Toward the end of my senior year, I had to deal with bullies amongst my own circle of friends. One was even disguised as a friend, but I realized later on that she really wasn't what one would call a friend. The other was this obnoxious guy who was so awful to me that I like to think his girlfriend refused to go to prom with him as a result of how he was treating me. (Why wouldn't you go to prom if you had an automatic date? I didn't have such luck.) I think I also became mean in the process of dealing with bullies through most of my life. I think it was a defense mechanism in a way. I still have times where the mean side of me comes out, but I think it has softened up over time. It's more of a protection mechanism these days. I also feel that Schadenfraude is a protective mechanism. I'd love to find out that someone who was mean to me is not doing so well in life.
Things did get better in college and even beyond. There were times I had to deal with rudeness in the working world, but no one was outright harassing me. Sometimes I wondered about peoples' intentions when they wanted to be friends (or more). I didn't join the Hillel in college because it reminded me of BBG and I didn't like most of the girls in that group. (Some of them even went to the same college as me.) There was a time that a girl I didn't like went to college with me and would prank call me with her friends. My friends and I curbed that behavior with an obnoxious outgoing message on my answering machine. I would see the same girl around my hometown and she'd act like my friend but it was so fake that it was disgusting. Last year, she tried to friend request me on Facebook and I ignored her. I don't plan to be another number for her and I don't need her knowing about my personal life. I just don't get how girls like her are married and the nice, normal girls I know are still trying to find Mr. Right. (There are other cases like this, where girls who were totally awful to me throughout junior high and high school managed to secure a spouse. I even saw one of them at two weddings a few years ago and was actually enjoying showing off my marital status at one of them...as my husband wasn't able to attend the other.) There was also a time when friends of a past boyfriend were telling him mean things about me. I even tried to reconcile with one of them but she wrote a nasty note in response.
Now that you know about my past issues with bullying (and I skimmed over a lot), I wanted to share my concerns for the future. Now that I'm a mom, I worry about bullying when my kids go to school. I worry about my kids being either the perpetrators or the victims. When I read "Nineteen Minutes" by Jodi Picoult a few years ago, I thought about this a lot. It was about a boy who was picked on so badly that he opened fire at his school and either injured or killed his classmates. I think he even killed a teacher. It was very disturbing because I knew it happened in the past and could happen again. I'm teaching my kids about how to be confident and stick up for themselves, but to not hurt other kids at the same time. I hold them accountable for their behavior. (Recently, my older son threw a toy at a little boy and my husband and I made him write an apology letter.) I worry more that my older son will be a victim because he's overly sensitive and he has something obviously different about his physical presence. Right now, he's in a school for kids with hearing loss and he's proud of his cochlear implant. However, I worry about how kids who never dealt with hearing loss will perceive it if he is mainstreamed. I was proud of how confidently he talked about his CI when another kid asked him what it was. He acted like it was no big deal. I just hope that confidence will stick with him over time. He's very friendly and likes to be the class clown. He loves laughing and making other kids laugh. He has a plethora of girlfriends already. I hope this all follows him throughout his grade school, junior high and high school days. He's more tuned in to kids who are different like him, and I think that will make him more compassionate overall. However, if anyone ever bullies or hurts him, they will have me to answer to and the school will have another thing coming if they don't do anything to prevent it from happening. As for my younger son, I worry that he'll be the bully. He's aggressive and likes to hit and push to make his point. We give him time outs, but we're not sure when that will sink in. He's a sweet kid otherwise and has made friends at his school already. He's very active and I could see him being the athletic one in the family. That might help him when it comes to the social circles that are probably being formed as we speak.
As for the adult world, bullying still exists. It was seen in the first season of "Ugly Betty" when Betty was being picked on mercilessly at her new job. People lightened up when they got to know her, but there were still times when she was thrown under the gauntlet. I know this is just a TV show, but workplace bullying does exist. There are managers who don't know how to treat their employees. I know people who will attest to this. And if you still don't believe me, check out "That's My Boss," a blog about bosses who don't know how to treat their employees properly. There are other ways bullying can occur in the adult world. Domestic abuse is another example of such behavior. And I'm sure that the girls in "Muriel's Wedding" aren't the only adult version of mean girls.
Overall, bullying is not something that will go away. If kids see a reason to be mean to other kids, they will stop at nothing to make someone's life hellish. I really hope schools get on the ball and work to educate and prevent bullying. I'm sure that it will be hard for them to get through those tough heads, but something does need to be done. Maybe a zero tolerance policy against bullying that would lead to severe consequences for all bullies? I don't know what it will take in order to prevent another incident like Phoebe Prince's tragic and completely unnecessary death. Keep in mind that she was harassed for being pretty and friendly. Imagine how much harder it must be for kids who are deemed by their peers as unattractive or socially inept. I like to think I came out of such a scathing experience okay and no worse for the wear, but I still have my mean (and sometimes vengeful) side. I don't forgive or forget as easily as one might think. In the meantime, I have a fabulous group of friends from all the different places I've lived and through the Internet.
Please share this post with anyone you know in an effort to explain how bullying feels for the victims. Especially before this issue escalates completely out of control in the future. If kids are cruel to each other now, I can't even imagine how much worse it could become.