The response I’ve had to my last blog post has been overwhelming, to say the least. What went into the computer as a semi-standard late-night brain dump has been re-shared enough times that I can’t even track it. According to my site stats, my post has been read over two thousand times and in over eighteen different countries.
For that, I thank you.
I also thank everyone who took time to write to me, both old friends and new, to let me know how what I wrote affected you. A large number of people who knew me in school offered a blanket apology for anything they might have done to me in school that may have contributed to how I feel today. It is interesting to note that none of them had needed to. My memories of them ranged somewhere between minimal and fond, but never negative. I think that’s rather telling, but of what I’m not certain yet. Nearly everyone had stories of their own that made them sympathetic. Even if it had been just one or two incidents, they had still left a mark on people. I am in a deep sense of awe over what people have shared with me, and I think it’s worth me taking the time to distill a little bit of what I have learned from all of you.
I’ll start with one of the earliest responses I read — the only one, in fact, that did come from someone I would have considered a “tormentor.” It was poorly punctuated and spelled, but the essence of it was “Everyone gets teased. There are bigger problems out there. You need to just get over it, because until you do you’ll never be happy.”
It falls into the category of the more things change, the more they stay the same. Allow me to translate the above statements into what I shall call “Seventh Graderish:”
–Everybody was doing it.
–I barely touched him/I didn’t do anything/it was nothing
–Stop being a baby.
–You brought it on yourself.
That last one, in particular, I think, is crucial. YOU need to get over it. It’s YOUR problem. In the mind of a bully, I really believe that they think that anything they did was not instigation, but reactionary. They had to laugh because the clothes you were wearing were just so stupid. You deserved to be called a nerd because you’re making the rest of us feel dumb by answering all those questions, and nobody likes a know-it-all. Don’t blame us because you let yourself get so fat. Etc.
I have often wondered if somewhere in the back of their heads they might have believed that at some level they were performing some sort of public service.
It would be one thing if the mob mentality directed itself against people who were actually doing anti-social behaviors such as theft, rape, maliciousness, or say BULLYING. What surprised me most about people’s stories is the way in which bullies take something that should be a strength and turn it into a weakness. In my case, it was being smart. This made me a brainiac, a bookworm, a nerd, an Einstein. To which my reaction was “I thought everybody liked Einstein?” I remember a time when I was in eighth grade and my brother, who was equally a ripe target, was in seventh grade and he was crying after school at home. He explained to our mother that some kids had called him a “rocket scientist” in the library. I think Mom responded with something like, “Well, why did that hurt so much?” And my brother wailed, “Because that’s what I really want to be!”
- [A side note: For all the crap I went through, I know for a fact that my brother had it worse than me often, because he was even more academic than me and had to deal with me as an older brother. As shameful as it is to say, there were times when I was able to get a modicum of relief from being bullied simply by being pointing out I was not as nerdy as him.]
- A second side note: I was THIS CLOSE from planning on majoring in chemistry after I left high school, but one of the reasons I didn’t was because I had heard people describe me as “person most likely to cure cancer.” Later in life, I ran into one old classmate who in fact said, “I’d have thought you would have cured cancer by now.” I answered: “Maybe I have, but that I don’t think humanity deserves to have it.”
This theme echoed throughout the chord I struck with people through my blog post. One of the most beautiful young women I knew in school shared that she was teased because she was SO attractive, so undeniably sexy that people simply called her a slut, which could not be further from the truth. Young men with great voices and a love of music became “choir boys.” One peacemaker who did try to stick up for others was always rewarded with rumors of her being in love with any outcast boy she defended. A person who I’m happy to say had her heartwarming smile on display in her profile picture had stopped showing it after a while when she was younger after people called her “Chiclet” because her teeth were so bright and perfectly straight.
I also received a note from someone who remains devastated that he used to taunt someone at his school as being gay, even though he knew that the victim wasn’t gay, all the while knowing that he himself was gay, and had been keeping it secret in part through teasing others.
As much as “nerds” like myself liked to direct our anger at “jocks,” not even athletes were immune. Especially if they were girls. I received messages from women who had been tall and muscular in school and played sports. They were called things like “dyke,” “troll,” “sasquatch,” and “cavewoman.”
It seems as if the only thing that the culture of junior high and high school had decided it was okay to be was a bitch or an asshole. And I’ll give you a hint who set that standard: I’m pretty sure it was the bitches and the assholes.
So what’s the solution? Again, I’m not sure yet. I’m still working on it. In fact, I spend more time trying to figure out a cure for bullying than I do cancer. In some ways, bullying is like cancer. It can certainly be as fatal, as countless suicidal teens (and younger than teens) has shown. But I do know this: The other constant theme in all the messages I received was a sense of “if only I had known how many people felt the same way” and “I wish I could have shared how I really felt.”
This is where we bully ourselves. This is where we turn our own strength into weakness. By trying to not let things affect us, to form a callous on our souls and an armor for our hearts, we lock away the things that can save us: our humanity, our dignity, our self-worth. If I had shared these thoughts back then, or read my “other” speech at graduation, would things have been different for me? Maybe. But clearly, they WOULDN’T HAVE GOTTEN WORSE.
Here’s another thing: We all know, and hear, and repeat that nobody’s perfect. What we need to tell young people is that no one can BECOME perfect. Yes, we can become better, smarter, stronger, prettier, but never perfect. Be as good as you can be, but never perfect. Because even when a teenager realizes that they have flaws or differences, and that other people do, they are still spending massive and wasted energy to eradicate them or hide them. They are so locked onto it that they cannot truly appreciate their gifts because those make them special, and special is different, and different is bad.
We have to remind ourselves and our children of this imperfection because then it becomes perfectly acceptable to admire others, to respect their strengths that we don’t have while not being afraid to bring our own to the table. Maybe that was what I meant subconsciously nearly twenty years ago when I gave the speech I did give, encouraging people to reveal their hidden talents, their true selves, and not feel ashamed of it. Because maybe if we can do that, neither one of those speeches would be necessary.