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So this Sunday, Cartoon Network is presenting a special called Stop Bullying: Speak Up, and is encouraging kids and parents to watch together. The special will feature an introduction by President Obama, depict conversations with bullied kids (and once-bullied kids who are now adults) and suggest strategies for dealing with bullying situations.
As much as we currently discuss this subject, it will never be enough, so I’m cheered by Cartoon Network’s efforts to further the conversation. I have pretty strong feelings about it, having been bullied myself and having somehow survived it without doing harm to myself (or anyone else).
Indeed, I have it much of it formally documented. In the eighth grade, I wrote a novel. Well, I thought it was a novel, but in retrospect it was more of a novella, and also, unlike a novel, nearly everything in it was true: I just changed the names.
I was a compulsive writer from the time I could hold a pen, and I wrote fictionalized autobiographical accounts of virtually everything that happened to me.
Through most of my early life I lived with the voice of an omniscient narrator prattling on constantly inside my head, describing even the most mundane tasks: Lesley gets out of the car, suddenly remembering she has forgotten her Ramona Quimby book in the back seat. She presses the lever that allows the front seat to fold forward, noting the mechanism seems less than crisp, and retrieves her book. She thinks about what dinner will be, and whether she will have time to watch Diff’rent Strokes before starting her homework.
It was a strange way to live, dictating a dull story to myself that no one would ever read, but I didn’t seem to have any control over it.
I had forgotten that middle school “novel” completely until about a year and a half ago, when, on a visit to my mother’s house in South Florida, my mom suddenly produced a thick sheaf of dot-matrix-printed papers, the perforations on their sides still intact, the sheets still joined in one long banner of text.
“Do you remember this?” she asked, and I had to say no, I had no idea what she was talking about.
When she put the papers in my hand and I saw the title of the first chapter -- “Tremors” -- it all came flooding back. The memories were difficult ones, sickening, even; they were early experiences I had gladly forgotten and yet which I could still apparently recall with perfect clarity, the printed pages serving as an emotional time machine. I read those first lines and felt all the rage and disgust and resentment I felt then -- and also the hopelessness.
I wrote this story -- which I cryptically titled “Forgiveness” -- about what might be politely termed as my “social problems” in middle school. At the time I did not think of myself as bullied; I knew that I was miserable, and I knew that I was badly treated, and I also knew, with a certainty that might have saved my life, that I did not deserve any of it.
The story began with the eviction of the girl who had been my best friend from the clique we hung with, and ended with my exile from the same group over a year later.
Much of what I experienced is common among girls of middle school age; a good deal of public humiliation, a fair amount of being ganged up on by the girls who were supposed to be my friends. I would sit in math class, where two members of my clique sat behind me, detailing all of my shortcomings -- physically, intellectually, even the finer points of how I held a pencil and the socks I had chosen to wear that day -- in whispers loud enough for me and several other of our classmates could hear, all of whom were theatrically amused by it.
I was always writing stories, and I took to writing stories about vengeance, about stabbing my friends with whatever was near to hand; pencils in the classroom, sporks in the cafeteria, a ruler in the hallway while classes were changing. I walked around with vivid images in my head of tearing those girls' faces off.
I’m not exaggerating; were I student today and anyone found those stories, I would have been suspended, if not expelled. If they had found them at the time, at the very least I would have been marked down as "disturbed."
I was disturbed. But I think external circumstances had made me thus.
You can spot the bullied kids; there’s something about them that screams “target,” whether it’s in their slumping shoulders, their social awkwardness, or their desperate need to be liked. When our clique ejected my (former) best friend -- we’ll call her Dana -- over a period of weeks, she repeatedly attempted to enlist my support, to get a kind word from me, anything.
But the girls so bent on making her life miserable were powerful figures in our school, and by some miracle they still seemed to like me -- for the first time in my life, I had influential friends -- so I ignored her pleas. More than that, I actively rejected them.
Even I could smell the blood in the water. No one was going to stop until Dana was utterly broken. But I said nothing, because nobody talked about bullying, because talking about bullying was a good way to get bullied yourself.
Near the end, after several days of our friends following her around school all day long, peppering her with insults and threats, Dana bravely approached our lunch table and asked me directly, “Will you come with me, please?” The courage required by this must have been massive, but then maybe Dana was just at her wit’s end -- no one, literally no one in our grade would talk to her, would acknowledge her except to offer hatred or harrassment.
As I said, these were powerful girls.
I coldly told Dana to leave me alone, with my friends. Her face dissolved in despair, and she cried, helplessly, pathetically, right in front of us. I realized that it honestly hadn’t occurred to her that I would say no. But I said no because Dana had spent years bullying me too, and now I could get her back. Revenge. Ugly, loathsome, hateful revenge.
Dana actually changed schools immediately after this. It was that bad.
By the time the same clique turned on me, we were well into eighth grade, and I knew I did not have to hold out too much longer. Lunchtimes were lengthy opportunities for my friends to demonstrate my falling stock; they would make me sit at least a few feet down the table from them, claiming to be worried I would break the bench they sat on, and then would speak in voices too low for me to hear, with frequent glances in my direction meant to suggest they were talking about me.
This was hardly a violent attack, but the subtle paranoia the bullying of girls can bring on is just as destructive. I became obsessed with the idea that everyone was watching me, judging me, and finding me lacking, all of the time. I hated myself. I wished everyone else was dead so I could be alone with my loathsomeness.
They took other approaches: things of mine would mysteriously go missing and then be “found” and returned in disgusting condition -- a misplaced book given back with every page decorated with a large drawing of a cartoon penis (a little funny, now, but not so much when it’s a book you’re expected to be using in class), a lost jacket handed over with its lining freshly covered in saliva and mucus (I remain convinced they enlisted boys to help with this task).
They told the cutest boy in school that I liked him, so he could assert in the middle of the playground and at the top of his voice how disgusting I was, and what it would take for him to ever be interested in me (I believe it involved the destruction of all other life on earth, and a blindfold). When I protested that I didn’t like him, they changed tactics and began calling me a dyke, an idea which spread through the rest of our grade like wildfire. Lesley the lesbian.
Phys Ed classes were spent listening to fat-related insults and queer-based epithets as I tried desperately not to fulfill the fat-kid-sucks-at-sports stereotype, and failed. It is remarkably difficult to succeed at something when everyone around is vocally rooting for your defeat, it turns out.
Eventually I gave up, and decided friends were terrible. I spent months racing from class to class and speaking to no one; I tried very very hard to become invisible.
I started sneaking my lunch into the library; that worked for a few weeks, until one of the girls spotted me there and they relocated their attacks to my sanctuary, much to the rage of the librarian, who seemed to blame me for it as much as them. (Fuck you, middle school librarian, seriously.)
After that I started spending lunch in the bathroom, sitting on the closed toilet with my feet propped up against the door so no one could recognize my shoes, eating a granola bar (or nothing at all, as this was the phase in which my self-imposed “diet” consisted of not eating during daylight hours unless I absolutely had to) and reading.
The bathroom being the only place where a girl could lock herself away, I’m sure my friends figured it out eventually, but they had already lost interest; there was a new girl in school who had recently moved from somewhere overseas, and so she was weird by our standards and utterly unprepared for the social battlefield of an American middle school, making her an excellent test subject.
Fortunately, although the bullying would continue for a couple more years into high school, I never internalized it. I knew I didn’t deserve it, somehow, and I knew those girls (and all subsequent bullies) were the ones in the wrong. I think my dreams of revenge -- which grew ever more detailed and elaborate -- were an expression of my anger at being so sorely mistreated for no good reason at all, simply because I was somehow different.
Lots of kids are not so lucky. Many carry the traumatic effects of bullying well into adulthood, and too many don’t survive. Moved by the recent suicides of bullied kids, I even made a (PAINFULLY EARNEST) It Gets Better video back in October of 2010. It was harder than I thought.
I never stood up to my bullies. I never stood up for other bullied kids either, never tried to build strength together. I regret that.
Nor did I ever tell an adult about what was going on, although in fairness the adults around us knew, they saw it all and did nothing, only intervening when things escalated to physical violence, a failure which really underscores the importance of anti-bullying education being taught to teachers and other educational workers as much as it is taught to students and kids.
I rather walked away from my bullies. I choose to go to a different high school than they did, because it was a choice I had the privilege to make. Lots of kids don’t have an escape route, they don’t have anyone they trust to talk to and they don’t have any reason to believe things will ever improve, or more tragically, they do believe in a better future, but they are unconvinced they will survive long enough to see it happen.
Some come to believe they even deserve it.
This is why I won’t ever shut up about bullying and public shaming -- which is really just a variety of institutionalized bullying -- because not only does it hurt people in the moment, no matter their age or circumstances, but in many cases it hurts them for the rest of their lives.
No one should have to live like that. No one. We need to make speaking up the rule, and we can only do that by continuing to talk about it. I’m glad Cartoon Network is taking the same stand.