WARNING: This post includes profanity. If that offends you, you may wish to avoid reading or at least have some grains of salt nearby.
It’s true that bullying takes many forms, from the most simple of mean looks or hurtful comments up to deeply violent and physical attacks. While I would find it hard to argue against the fact that the latter, which can lead to permanent injury or death, are worse on the grand scale, the truth is that the invisible scars left by any form of bullying carry weight.
The other day I got an email from my friends at GLAAD reminding me that today is Spirit Day and asking me to join them and scores of others in donning purple (online and off) and standing up against bullies.
In light of stories such as those of Tyler Clementi or, more recently, Amanda Todd, as well as the millions of untold tales that we all know exist I have decided to share a couple of my own stories. At no point in my experiences was I ever actually in physical danger. At no point in my experiences did I ever contemplate suicide (even when in one scenario I was told I should kill myself). I am well aware that in the big picture, I had it easy. I also had the benefit of a fairly healthy self-esteem and a home environment where I was given tools and support to make my way through. I share these stories to hopefully share with those who are less fortunate that there are ways out. You can get through and in the end, as Dan Savage’s series reminds us … it DOES get better.
With that …
The first time it happened I was in 6th grade. It began as a prank, or perhaps as a slightly mean-spirited moment of jealousy. It doesn’t really matter how it began. What matters is how it escalated. Like many kids, specifically girls, around that age, I had a couple of friends who were my “clique” (if a trio can be called such a thing). We did pretty much everything together – hung out before school, giggled during homeroom, went to movies, the mall. One day they decided they were going to ignore me.
My vague recollection has it having something to do with my getting a better grade than one of them on a science quiz, because at the end of class I went over to talk with her and she ignored me and walked out. I didn’t pay it much mind, until a few periods later when it was time for lunch and I went to join my pals at a table. When I sat down they stopped talking, looked at each other, then got up and walked away without a word.
I followed and sat with them again. The same thing. Stony silence followed by their getting up and walking away without a word. This continued all day … and the next day … and the next day. Rather than sitting alone at lunch I managed to find another group of kids who’d let me sit with them. It wasn’t as though they really accepted me so much as they just didn’t chase me off.
Over the course of the next six months things got more ugly. While there were never any direct physical threats, the series of hate notes that were stuffed into my locker on a daily (sometimes multiple times a day) basis got worse. Scratched in angry block letters (I’m guessing to mask the handwriting of the perpetrators, which was familiar to me from the days when friendly notes were passed in class), the messages that shouted from the single-ruled pages ranged from calling me ugly and stupid to telling me I should just go kill myself.
I was lucky. I went home to parents who let me cry, comforted me by assuring me that there was nothing wrong with me, and helping me to understand that those who were attacking me were the ones with the problems. They also gave me the invaluable advice that in situations like this one, when you allow yourself to be changed by the bullies, when you change your behavior and give up, you let the bullies win. Bullies should never win.
The epilogue of this story is a simple one. About five weeks before my birthday (which is in early May) I started to plan my birthday party. One day, as if nothing had ever happened, the two girls began talking to me again. No acknowledgement of the last six months. No apology. Looking back, the woman I am now would have likely tried to confront somehow on the issue. At the time I was just so glad to have my friends back that I let it go and moved on. I say that but even as I type the words I realize that I never really forgave them. Our friendship never was the same. I never fully trusted them again. I have, thankfully, released my own resentment over this and the wound of mistrust ripped open by this experience did ultimately heal.
Now fast forward to high school … I was working in downtown Philadelphia at KYW Newsradio as a desk assistant, which meant handling wire feeds (which at the time came off physical wire copy machines), cutting tape (yes, reel to reel), tracking police scanners, and making coffee … lots of coffee. There was an editor who worked on the newsdesk at the time whose vocabulary was populated primarily by an array of four-letter epithets. Now for a kid coming from a Main Line Suburb home where telling someone to shut up was grounds for being sent to your room, this rather colorful language was more than a little shocking. There was something more about it though, it wasn’t just that he cursed. It was that he leveled the barrels of his profanity shotgun directly at whomever was pissing him off at the moment. As low rung on the newsroom ladder desk assistants generally bore the brunt.
I’d come home from work almost in tears not knowing what to do or how to handle it. I’d never been called stupid before let alone being called a fucking moron, fucking idiot or fucking useless waste of time. (I’m happy to report that as a rule I don’t get called these things today either. ) One night as I sat sniffling after a particularly grueling day at station, my father quietly sat by my side and said the following:
“Cathy, sometimes when someone bothers you and speaks to you in a language that’s not yours, you need to speak to them in a language they understand so that you can stand your ground. That’s what it’s about. It doesn’t mean that they’re right. It doesn’t mean that this is how you should start to behave. It merely means that you are letting them know you heard them, you understand them, and that you refuse to be pushed around.”
He then hugged me and left the room.
The next week I found myself in the newsroom for another shift and had shown up a bit early. It was a crazy day. Bad weather made traffic a nightmare. Power lines were down. Phones were ringing. The newsroom was in chaos. As I wasn’t yet on the clock and not wanting to be in the way of the current shift, I went to the desk assistant cubicle and sat to the side observing and making sure that I was on track for picking up the baton when the shift started.
That’s when it happened.
Apparently someone had misfiled a wire report and so a bulletin that had crossed the wire about 30 minutes earlier was only now in the editor’s hand. Vesuvius had nothing on the explosion of expletives that erupted. Whipping around in his chair, the editor leveled his look at the cubicle responsible for sorting the wire copy – the desk assistant. The person on the previous shift was in the wire room tearing more copy and so the person in the crosshairs was me.
There’s a wonderful educational video about how the word fuck is the only word that can be used as every word in a sentence. What happened to me next was kind of like that. As he yelled I felt myself beginning to retreat and the tears starting to well up.
Then I remembered what my father had said.
Taking a deep breath I waited until the editor had paused. At which point I looked him dead in the eye … and told him to go fuck himself.
I then proceeded to yell at him, tossing back pretty much every use of the word he had just leveled at me. I punctuated the entire tirade with, “And you know what? Everyone in here hates you anyway.”
I then turned on my heel and proceeded to cry in the bathroom being pretty sure that I was going to get fired. When I returned to the newsroom, I got a few winks from seasoned reporters. Several others gave me encouraging glances, smiles and even a hug or two. The editor barely looked at me the rest of the shift. The next week, when I found myself back in the newsroom with him again something amazing happened. He was nice to me.
Well, as nice as he was able to be as a person anyway.