Friday, October 29, 2010

It Will Get Better (My life is so much better than it was at my unattended birthday party.)

At first, I didn't think my experience was similar enough to others' to warrant sharing. After all, even if I was called a 'dyke' once or twice growing up, I didn't believe it was true, and so it didn't bother me. Try as I might, I can't recall who said it in what context. All I can remember is me thinking, "Whatever, they don't know me."

But I do have a story, and even if it's not similar to many that have already been told, maybe it's similar to someone who's struggling right now. I grew up in a large Catholic family in the South, where only 4 or 5 families in my entire school were Catholic. We were middle class, but some of my siblings were in college, so I wore hand-me-downs of generic-brand clothing. In kindergarten, I was made fun of by one girl because I wasn't wearing Osh Kosh B'gosh, though most people didn't care.

I was the only kid in my entire grade who went to the gifted school once a week. By third grade, I was a grade-wide outcast, one of the two kids that everyone else had free reign to pick on. One girl told me, "I only invited you to my birthday party because my mom made me; I threw your present away because you had touched it." Even though I invited all the girls of my class to my own birthday party, not a single person came.

I did have my siblings and a couple of friends in my neighborhood who went to different schools, and I tried to shrug it off -- I never let the bullies see me cry. I never even let myself cry about it alone. But after years of torment, I wondered whether there was something inherently wrong with me, if I was just unlikeable. When I moved at the beginning of sixth grade, I was scared that it would start all over again.

But it didn't. Somehow, in the wider world of middle school, I wasn't quite such an outcast. There were other gifted kids in the school, and normal kids who didn't care if I occasionally cracked a dorky joke. I joined a sports team, so I had my sports friends too.

By eighth grade, I even had the guts to stand up to a bully who was always putting down one or another of our mutual friends (usually the person who wasn't there). I told her that I didn't like the way she was always putting people down, and I didn't want to be around such a negative person, and I left our lunch table. It was a bit scary, but two friends followed me, and the next day, two more joined us at our new lunch table.

We had another confrontation in the locker room, where she tried to get physical with me, but I looked her right in the eye, firmly told her that she wasn't worth getting in trouble over, and then turned my back on her. Throughout the rest of that day, a number of other students thanked me for standing up to her; apparently she had quite a few victims.

I can't say I always managed to speak up when I saw someone being bullied. And sometimes the victims would laugh along with something I thought was cruel, and that made me think maybe they wouldn't want me to speak up for them. Laughing along or trying to ignore it won't make it stop. Bullies often don't feel good about themselves; they use putting you down to try to build themselves up. And many times others will pretend not to hear, or will even laugh along, because they're scared of becoming the new target.

But if you can try to show the bully that their methods reflect on them, not you, it might get them to stop. If it doesn't, talk to an adult. Ask for help. And keep asking until someone listens and helps. I never told an adult in elementary school; I was too embarrassed, too ashamed to admit I couldn't get along with my classmates. Bullies rely on that to keep going, so you have to be brave and speak up.

After hearing so many times that you're less than, you might start to believe it, but remind yourself that they're the one(s) with the problem, not you. And that you can prove that, once you're done having to be in the same place as them. Give yourself a chance to prove it.

Once you're an adult, you'll have a lot more freedom to choose who you spend your time around. You'll also be able to meet people with common interests, people who will love you just the way you are and appreciate all the unique qualities that make you you. It might take some time to find your place, but there really is a place for you. I know, because I have found my "place" -- several times, in fact, as I went to college, started work, went to grad school, and now as I'm about to start work again. And if dorky me who had not a single person show up to her birthday party in elementary school could find a place, anyone can.

Just a note: even if you're not the one being bullied, you can help stop bullying. Stand up to the bullies. It doesn't even have to be a direct confrontation; it can be as simple as rolling your eyes at your friend and saying "That's so dumb" or "That's not funny" and then talking about something else. This lets the victim know that not everyone thinks the way the bully does. Because when people watch silently, the victim is told that no one cares about them. But deep down, you do care, don't you? If you were to hear that something had happened to the victim, how would you feel? Don't let yourself wind up in that situation.

If even just commenting seems too scary, you can tell a trusted adult about the bullying. Most bullies time their attacks so that teachers remain unaware, and too often the victims are too intimidated to tell -- or even when they do tell, it becomes his word against the bully's. But as a witness, you can help the bullying to stop, and the bully need not know you were the one to tell. If you were the one being bullied, what would you want someone to do? Do that.

I was going to talk about how scary it can be for a Christian (or anyone who's been taught that homosexuality is wrong) to think they might not be straight, but how that can actually instead be the beginning of an incredible faith journey... but I'll save that for my next post. I plan to add a resources page with references that might be useful. You can find some resources related to bullying (for victims and for people who care) in my "It Gets Better" post for Spirit Day.

1 comment: