My daughter asked me if I was open for ideas in my writing. Absolutely, I told her. What she said next stopped me in my tracks.
“Can you write about what I went through when I was a kid getting bullied? How you felt about it? Every time I try to write my thoughts down about the years when I was bullied, I have to stop. It’s just too painful.”
I prefer to write humorous pieces. Laughter is a gift that lifts our hearts and makes even the toughest times more bearable. I could find no humor in the things that happened to my child. I thought about what she had asked me to do for days. I remembered holding her in my arms when she was first born, gazing down at her tiny sleeping face, and wishing she would always stay this small so that I could hold her and protect her for the rest of her life. I write this for my daughter, to give her back her own voice, one that has been silenced for far too long.
According to our own federal government’s website, www.stopbullying.gov, the prevalence of bullying in our schools is so profound that as many as 1 in 3 students now report being bullied.
My daughter was bullied relentlessly from fourth grade through eighth grade. In the lunch room at the elementary school, her classmates built a wall of lunch boxes to isolate her from the rest of the group, calling her a space alien and telling her that they didn’t want to catch her weird disease. She spent recess time alone and was routinely and deliberately excluded from birthday parties. When I visited the school to talk with her teacher, I was informed that my child stared off into space and seemed to be in her own world most of the time, and it would help if she tried not to be so different from the other kids. The teacher made no attempt to disguise her contempt for my daughter’s behavior. Part of the problem. I visited the principal’s office and requested that the teachers monitoring the lunch room be made aware of what was going on at my daughter’s table and was told that no one had seen anything happen. The lunch box walls continued to be built but were invisible to the adults in the room. Part of the problem. The bullying continued the following year. When I visited the teacher, this time I was told that the best solution to stop the bullying would be for me to buy my daughter a new wardrobe so she would look exactly like the other girls. Part of the problem.
During this time, my daughter woke up one night and came into my room. She was unable to speak and the corners of her mouth were pulled down. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. I was terrified. She looked as though she had just had a stroke. I rushed her to the emergency room and we discovered that she had suffered a grand mal seizure in her sleep. She was diagnosed with benign rolandic epilepsy, a seizure disorder that she would probably outgrow within two to three years. The episodes of staring off into space that her teacher had noticed the year before were undoubtedly the early signs of this seizure disorder. The medications the doctor gave her made her groggy and unfocused and caused her to gain quite a bit of weight. Nonetheless, middle school would hopefully be a fresh start.
At the beginning of my daughter’s sixth grade year, she started to emerge from her shell and tried to form friendships with kids who had not been in her elementary school class. In response, the group of girls who had bullied her in fourth and fifth grade systematically moved in and broke up every friendship she made with other students. She left Girl Scouts after one of her bullies joined the troop and publicly humiliated her by pulling her underwear out of her camp bag and encouraged the other girls to shun her for not wearing the right underpants. When her science class was studying Mad Cow disease, her teacher, with the encouragement of the students, chose her to play the Mad Cow and she was dressed in a cow costume with spots painted on her face for a classroom skit. She spent the remainder of her middle school years being called a Mad Cow. I visited the principal’s office once again and requested that she be placed in separate classes from the kids who were bullying her. This helped a little bit, but there were still episodes of malicious gossip and routine taunting that were instigated by the same group of kids that had started the whole business back in fourth grade.
I considered pulling her out of the school district and enrolling her in cyber school, but feared that her education would suffer and she would become even more isolated. As an alternative, I enrolled her in multiple support groups to give her social skills training and an outlet to express herself away from the school. She made friends in these groups and her self-confidence started to grow slightly. Her high school years were better, although there were still multiple bullying incidents, most of them instigated by the same group from fourth grade.
My daughter is now a college graduate and well on her way to building a successful career in restaurant management. I’ve always told her that her strongest personality trait is resiliency. She has endured a tremendous amount in her young life, but she’s repeatedly found the inner resources that enable her to bounce back from any adversity. She usually appears somewhat shy and hesitant in new situations, but she is one of the strongest people I know. However, the scars she bears will remain with her for the rest of her life. Wrapped up with the pain of recalling what she endured is the difficulty of publicly expressing her feelings about what happened to her and the potential for ridicule and further isolation. Part of the difficulty in recovering from a traumatic event is the repressed fear that the same thing could happen all over again. When a person is routinely persecuted and treated as a lesser human being, and the rest of the world doesn’t even seem to notice or care, that individual loses her voice and becomes invisible. As sobering as the reported bullying statistics can be, an even greater number of bullying incidents are never reported by the victims.
My daughter asked me to express how I felt about what had happened to her. Naturally, there was a great deal of anger and resentment, both towards the kids who bullied her and the adults who stood by and failed to intervene. There were nights after she went to bed when I would sit downstairs alone and cry, questioning God as to why he was allowing this to happen to my child and praying that the next day would be better. There were many times that I felt inadequate as a parent and cursed my inability to protect her, the impossibility of keeping her close to me and shielding her from harm as I had done when she was a newborn. There were also many moments when I was grateful for the help and support of the good teachers and friends that believed in my daughter and were brave enough to step in, speak up and stop the bullying when they saw it happen. They provided her with a safe haven that helped her survive the experience. They were part of the solution. There are many children who didn’t have that, and the results have been tragic. I am grateful that my child is alive and doing well.
One of my daughter’s elementary school classmates recently reached out to her on Facebook and apologized for not doing more to help her when they were young. There were actually quite a few good kids in that class, along with a handful of bullies. Given the right encouragement and direction, the good kids could have easily been converted from uncomfortable, silent bystanders to active interventionists. In the Bullying Statistics section of PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center website (www.pacer.org/bullying/resources/stats.asp) studies have shown that 57% of bullying situations stop when a peer intervenes on behalf of the victim. In our modern world, the bad guys always seem to get a lot of press. It’s easy to believe that the world is taking a turn for the worse, that people are becoming meaner and more evil, that children are worse than ever. But for every Harvey Weinstein that has spent a long career harassing and abusing women, there are still plenty of great guys who treat women with respect and dignity. For every bully who has made someone’s life miserable, there is a group of good kids who could be encouraged to stand up and do the right thing. We can’t afford to wait until a celebrity or a football player speaks up and at that point finally join the chorus. We can’t wait until a bullying prevention group decides to show up at the school to give a talk. These are all great efforts, but they can’t be the only efforts. As parents and adults, we hold the responsibility for instilling the right values in our children and encouraging the right behaviors, every single day, whether or not anyone else is watching. We all want our children to feel good about themselves, but it is part of our job description as parents to make sure they don’t feel good about doing the wrong things. When someone remains silently in the background and watches another person being abused because they’re the wrong color, shape, religion, disabled, or just different in some obscure way, they’re part of the problem and should not feel good about what they’re doing. As individuals, we have the power to change our world one day at a time, one word at a time, and we should never be afraid to raise our voices and speak up when we see someone doing the wrong thing. Every moment we are blessed enough to walk on this earth is a teaching moment, with our children, our friends, our colleagues, even our own parents. We have choices to make that place us firmly as either part of the solution or part of the problem. Silence is never the right option.
I appreciate my daughter’s fourth grade classmate reaching out to apologize for not speaking up. It required both courage and compassion to acknowledge that what she had done was wrong. Had she and a few others been encouraged to speak up in fourth grade, my daughter’s life would have undoubtedly been very different. The greatest gift this classmate can give to her own children is to ensure that they never need to say they’re sorry for not doing the right thing when they had the chance.