People ask me why I care so much about bullying. Others have a hard time believing I endured two years of bullying in middle school. Even though I have written a bit about the subject, this is the first time I am addressing how it still affects me to this day. Organizing events is still terrifying for me because I always fear nobody will show up. Being the center of attention makes me uncomfortable because I fear being ridiculed. For many years I even straightened my hair so I could look like everybody around me.
I’m not looking for sympathy. Thankfully, I have done enough work on myself to be okay with what happened, how I responded and finally understood there wasn’t anything I could have done to prevent it from happening. This is something that those who endured bullying need to understand: you didn’t provoke it. It is not your fault.
The reason I am writing this post is because I still think too many minimize the effects of bullying on tweens and teens. They see meanness as something that is inherent to this stage of life. Others think it’s a rite of passage that makes you stronger to deal with life’s unfairness.
I hope that my story will open their eyes or at least help parents and teens understand that teasing, taunting and excluding somebody on a systematic basis can scar that person for life.
I think we can all help reduce the incidence of bullying. We can all help victims of bullying so they can turn something negative into something more productive. We can help reduce the pain.
Being vulnerable is extremely difficult for me, because I was teased so much. The problem is that falling from the top of the stairs hurts much more than when you fall from the bottom steps. You could say I felt on top of the world when I moved from the USA to Chile because I skipped almost two grades, and girls gushed over my long curly hair. My grades were excellent and I even was the only girl allowed into a computer programming class that would teach us Logo on brand new Apple IIe computers my school had acquired.
I thought I had made great new friends, and was part of the popular group…until they decided in the fifth grade that I wasn’t cool anymore.
To this day, I have a hard time letting go on a dance floor. Dancing used to be a passion of mine, but to this day I struggle at parties. As stupid as it might sound, it seems my unconscious keeps reminding me of that middle school party. I was used to nobody asking me to dance, but I still went to the parties I was invited to. I put on my yellow Esprit sweatshirt and mini skirt that Saturday, hoping this party would be different. A boy asked me to dance and I was over the moon. He was the class clown but we actually got along so I didn’t think much of him asking me to dance.
My happiness was short lived.
When we were dancing, suddenly he lifted my skirt so everybody would see my underwear.
The laughs and complicit glances told me this was planned. Tears ran down my cheeks as I ran from the living room dancing area and called my parents to pick me up.
I never wore that yellow outfit again.
The costume party
Things had gotten bad in school and I kept trying to make new friends. Being excluded from weekend plans and birthday parties became the new normal. When a popular girl invited me to her birthday celebration, I got so excited because I thought things had changed. It was a miracle! She verbally explained to me that it was a costume party, so it was important that I start planning what I would dress up as.
My parents were away, so I asked my step grandmother to take me shopping. In the Chile of the 80’s, there still wasn’t a mall so our options were limited. We found a tiny costume shop where I fell in love with a pink lace princess dress. I wanted to look pretty and to have the most beautiful costume of all, so even though it was very expensive, I begged and nagged until she gave in.
When I arrived at the birthday party, I was the only one in costume. Again, the joke was on me.
Whenever I see the scene in Legally Blonde in which Reese Witherspoon’s character shows up at a Harvard Law School party dressed as a pink bunny thinking it’s a costume party, it takes me to that gray and chilly day in which I was invited to a party to ridicule me. Elle Woods handled the situation how I wish I did, though.
For years dress codes made me anxious. I struggled with knowing exactly how others were dressing so I would not look out of place. I finally dress for myself, but I am always looking to the side to make sure I’m dressed appropriately.
As days and weeks progressed, the bullying got worse in school. Being the youngest in my class wasn’t cool anymore. It gave the bullies more material. They would joke about me being a baby, or yelled that I should be wearing diapers. The hair everybody used to rave about and say was pretty, now was made fun of. It was too big. Too frizzy. Too different.
Lunch recess was the worst. Eating lunch by myself wasn’t the worst part. I would try to hide from the taunting and mean jokes. One of my hiding places was my homeroom classroom.
Sometimes a boy, who shared my love of reading and writing, would also stay in the classroom. We weren’t close, but he let me read his manuscripts. He was much more artistic than the other kids, and boys teased him for not being “manly” enough.
One day, the bullies decided to lock us in the classroom. Then they started taunting us. You could hear the laughs and jokes through the closed doors and open windows. Jumping out the window was out of the question unless I wanted to risk a fracture. They later spread rumors about us kissing, which at the time was mortifying.
This happened again during another recess period.
I finally told a teacher. She believed me, and that changed my life. My classmates did not lock me in again, and plans were made to switch me to a different class. That was the best decision ever.
The boy’s story is his to tell, but I do know the bullying he endured also left scars.
For many years, I tried to blend in, and even let my grades slide so the teachers would stop calling attention to my excellent grades. I cut my hair during one of my parents’ trips. Later I tried straightening it.
To this day, locked doors make me nervous.
The silver lining
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had switched schools as soon as the bullying began. But the reality is that “what ifs” are a waste of time.
My experiences have allowed me to grow, and today, I try to help others. Bullying is not exclusive to middle school. I have seen in the workplace and even among grown women. Online, you are always at a risk for cyber-bullying, and many blogging friends abandoned the space when they couldn’t take it anymore.
That is why I carve out time to lead self-esteem workshops, host events centered on the importance of kindness, and even collaborate with companies such as Dove and Google that are trying to improve things for children and teens.
Above all, what I went through and how I rose above it has made me a better mother. Because even if you cannot control what others do to you, I never forget you can control your own actions and reactions.
The tears, the pain, and the powerlessness can be transformed into something positive. Kindness goes a long way, and it’s something I teach my own children.
However, I know not everybody’s story ends well. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, resulting in about 4,400 deaths per year, according to the CDC. Over 14 percent of high school students have considered suicide, and almost 7 percent have attempted it. Bullying victims are between 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims, according to studies by Yale University. LGBTQ teens are at a higher risk for being bullied, and 160,000 kids stay at home every day in the US due to bullying. You can find a few ways to get help here.
Please take bullying seriously. Please believe victims. And please be an upstander. Leading by example teaches kids more just telling them what’s the right thing to do.
Lee en español: Cómo el bullying me cambió para siempre