Sticks and Stones – When Words Hurt

Bullying is as old as life itself. It can start pretty early in life, even in really young children, and just gets more pervasive as we age. It does seem like bullying is getting more intense and frequent.

Bullying takes many forms. Nobody – no matter your age, gender, bank account, geographical location, job, school, title – is exempt from either side. Bullies don’t always look menacing, and victims aren’t always the lowest man on the totem pole. Bullying is the use (perceived or real) of power or authority to coerce, intimidate or hurt others.

Bullying has been in the news constantly for years now. I still cannot forget the story of fifteen year-old Phoebe Prince, a high school freshman in Massachusetts who hanged herself as a result of “relentless taunting” by classmates in 2010. A girl with her entire life in front of her, Phoebe was so beaten down by the verbal bullying and threats of physical harm, that she believed she was better off dead than having to face her tormenters.

Thankfully, people are starting to rise up against bullying. Projects like The “It Gets Better” campaign, originally developed to target Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender Youth, promotes openness, and support in the crusade against the effects of bullying. The Centers for Disease Control considers bullying of all forms as harmful to health. Even the federal government has taken a stand against bullying. But is it enough?

A Right of Passage?

I’ve often heard others describe childhood bullying as something we all must go through. Some people believe that taunting helps us compete, and that we must earn respect and friendship. This notion is what in later years manifests as hazing in sports teams, marching bands, Greek organizations, at work, and in the military.

Every living generation has their own version of what a bully is and looks like.

If you’re old enough to remember the television show, “The Little Rascals” (created between 1929-1938 but shown in syndication for many decades), the neighborhood kids suffered under the thumb of bully “Butch” and his sidekick, “The Woim”. Modern films like “Mean Girls (2004) offer a humorous take on the cruelty that teen girls dish out to each other, not only to those they think are socially beneath them, but to others they consider friends.

This tells us that is bullying is nothing new. In fact, it is happening much more often, and much more severely.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that five percent of children reportedly missed at least one day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe. Those numbers don’t count the kids that don’t miss school, but who still feel unsafe. I’m betting that number is much bigger.

Screen Shot 2013-03-13 at 12.23.00 AM

According to The Bully Project, 77% of students – that’s more than 3 out of every four children – are mentally, physically, or verbally. The internet, and the ability to photograph/record videos makes it even easier to harass someone. What makes bullying so painful is that the bullies often focus on things that the victim can’t control – wearing glasses or braces, their family’s financial or marital status, physical traits like height or freckles, being new at school or work, etc.

“The pen is mightier than the sword”

This adage has been around for eons. People often attribute the idea to Shakespeare, a 500 BC Assyrian teaching, Greek philosopher Euripides, Islāmic prophet Mohammed, as well as both the Old and New Testaments of the bible.

Some may think, what can words do? As kids, we use the phrase “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.”

However, words can hurt, and those scars might never go away. A 2003 journal article discussed the results of a study on adults to assess “the relationship between anxiety disorders in adults and self-reported history of teasing or bullying experiences.” Ninety-two percent of adults who suffer social anxiety reported that they were teased or bullied as children. In addition, they were also more likely to also suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Panic Disorder.

Indeed, words hurt. Words cause deep wounds. Words scar. And words can kill.

I am an adult survivor of bullying.

Thirty years ago, bullying wasn’t high-tech. The kids in my class did it quietly and subtly so that the teachers didn’t catch them.

Having Cystic Fibrosis probably gave them a lot of ammunition. I was physically smaller than everyone else in class. I coughed constantly and had frequent stomach issues. I had strict parents who kept me from socializing with classmates. During the winter, when it was too cold outside for me to play at recess, I used to help teachers decorate the classroom and bulletin boards. Put it all together and you might as well have put a target on my back.

These are some of the names that I was called while in school, K-8.

These are some of the names that I was called while in school, K-8.

I remember an episode in fourth grade, I had awful stomach pain, and asked to go to the school nurse earlier in class. The teacher didn’t really believe me and said to go back to my desk to relax. As I walked back to my desk to get my notebook, several kids called me a faker. As I bent down to pick up a pencil I had dropped, I let out some gas without expecting it, which made the whole class laugh. The teacher asked “who did that” (I’m sure she knew it was me) and I froze. She held up class until somebody (I?) admitted it – as if it was a joke – and threatened detention to the four people at the back of the room from where she believed it originated. It took about twenty minutes and glares from the other three kids sitting near me for me to make the mile-long trek to Mrs. K’s desk at the front of the class and admit that I had done it.

That pain that I had supposedly “faked” led me to spending almost a month in the hospital with both a complete bowel obstruction and a kidney condition. When my teacher had everyone in the class draw and make me “Get Well” cards, I wanted to throw them away. For the rest of my school career, I had great fear and anxiety of having gas issues, which were inevitable given my CF.

If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all

Things started to escalate in junior high. The kids – mostly a group of girls – used all sorts of tactics. There created a Slam Book about me. People tripped me in class. Fellow cheerleaders mocked my cartwheels in practice. The class labeled me as “goody two shoes” for my good grades and because I didn’t know the meaning of words like “virgin” or “condom.”

When I was in the eighth grade, it was tradition to have every classmate write in your yearbook, usually on the last day of school  (it was a half day for 8th graders, with Graduation that weekend). We just passed them up and down the classroom aisles so that we each of us could write in everyone’s books. Given that I didn’t have any “real” friends, I didn’t expect much, so I wasn’t as eager as everyone else was to see what people wrote to me. While everyone else read their books, I just sat at my desk quietly until the bell rang.

I knew that most messages would consist of things like “good luck at High School”. Most people wrote next to, or over, their photos.

On my way home from school, I rode in the passenger seat of my mom’s car. I opened up my yearbook, flipped through a few pages, and my heart sink. I realized that it was smart to wait. I wondered if having a blank yearbook would have been better. Here are some examples of the lovely sentiments left by my classmates, some of whom I’d known since Kindergarten:

1. “I hope I don’t see you next year at ———“

This boy was going to attend the same high school as me, and shared his sentiments about seeing me at school.

R.P.

RP planned to attend the same high school I had chosen. He was one of two boys who used to spit on me from the upper stairwells every day on our way back to class from working on a school fundraising committee. He also used flip my uniform skirt up in front of classmates, and block me from getting my coat and backpack from the class coat room.

2. “I know I won’t see you next year. Thank God.”

This boy was thrilled he was going to a different high school.

A.P.

I met A.P. in fourth grade, when he was a new student. He and a band of other boys liked to make fun of my family, my lack of friends and my unpopular status.

3. “SORRY for everything we did this year. Your friend, S—-.”

A girl with whom I had been friends and fellow cheerleaders apologized for "everything we did this year" (to me).

S.C.

S.C., a girl who I had considered a friend, wrote words of remorse for the many things she and several other girls had done to me. I wanted to ask, “what exactly are you sorry for?”. I still wonder, so many years later, if the other girls ever felt badly about what they did.

4. “I still Hate You.”

A boy who classmates used to joke had a crush on me didn't spare any words.

M.O.

Written by a boy who other kids accused of liking me, M.O. didn’t hesitate to share his feelings about me. You can see how hard he held his pen as he scrawled those words.

Growing a Thicker Skin

It wasn’t always easy, but I tried living like a duck – you know, just let it roll off your back.

Throughout high school, I worked really hard to gain confidence and began trying to stand up for myself when people made fun of me. I started to believe in myself and my talents for writing and acting. I didn’t care if people thought I was a geek for spending half the school year on the annual musical, or spending my entire summer performing in community theater.

Once in college, I realized that I was a bit awkward and very naïve. I had a lot to learn about myself, about living with strangers, about how to handle myself in situations for which I was definitely not ready. I made mistakes, but I learned how to pick myself up and dust myself off. I also learned how to talk to people I’ve never met before, how to interview, how function in a group. I took on leadership positions, worked hard, earned good grades, and received awards for my efforts.

I am proud of what I have overcome, but standing up for myself is a lesson I’m still learning. For those who cannot fight anymore, I will continue to fight for you.

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