I wrote about my personal story (albeit in a different context) in 2006. I'm going to retell a part of that story here so that everyone understands where I'm coming from.
I'm in my early 40's. You couldn't pay me to re-live high school. Even with 25 years plus of distance between myself and high school, the experiences I had still grate, still define (on some level) who I am and why I do what I do, and still haunt me to a certain extent.
Did you ever meet that kid in high school who was just kind of out of place? There are some who are out of place and know it - they embrace their "differentness", incorporate it into who they are and roll with it. But there are those - and I was one of those - who really wanted to be accepted, yet never was. That's a painful enough experience, frankly - to be rejected by one's peer group. 25+ years has, of course, brought some measure of perspective and a requisite distance which has allowed me to see that these people, whose approval I sought, are not people I would want to know or talk to or hang out with today - but in high school - the center of my teenage universe - it was The. Most. Important. Thing.
It's one thing to be simply rejected - ignored, treated as though you are irrelevant. That's painful in its own way. It's another entirely to be actively persecuted, tormented, and vilified. I fell into the latter category.
I'll give you a few examples.
It started right at the end of 8th grade. My mother was always my example for how I wanted high school to go for me. She had been a stellar student, a cheerleader, and popular. She told me stories the way mothers who love their daughters tell stories. She didn't foist expectations on me. Rather, I adopted them for myself. At the end of 8th grade, I decided to try out for the freshman cheerleading squad. I can almost remember my rationale - if I could try out and make it, I'd achieve the equivalent of the social Holy Grail. I wasn't popular at that point - but I wasn't UNpopular, if that makes sense. I was just kind of not there, more or less, to the crowd that enjoyed popularity.
So I tried out for cheerleading. The problem was, I didn't work very hard to prepare for the tryout and I wasn't very good. So naturally, I didn't make the squad. I took some teasing over that - but it wasn't around-the-bend. Just garden-variety stuff (if there is such a thing). After trying out and failing (rightfully), I dedicated the next year to working towards the goal of trying out again at the end of my freshman year and getting a spot on the junior varsity cheerleading squad. I had always been a big girl throughout high school - solid and tall. Not overweight, but not slender, either.
So the end of freshman year rolls around. I sign up for cheerleading tryouts. I take a lot of shit over that - "You'll never make it - why are you trying out?" Stuff like that. But I had worked for this. I had been improving my flexibility and my strength. I had been practicing the cheers I'd seen the cheerleaders doing. I knew that stuff COLD. And when tryout day came around, I did great.
It took them a few days to post the results. The school was divided into color-coded locker rooms (corresponding to each grade) and each locker room area had offices associated with that grade. Staff moved with students throughout their high school tenure, and any and all notices pertaining to a particular grade were posted in the administrative areas next to the locker rooms for that particular grade (I hope that makes sense). Freshmen were in the blue locker room area. Because, at the end of the year, they were ascending sophomores, all notices pertaining to the next year were posted in the blue locker room area. When the cheerleading squad information came out, the 9th grade staff posted a big poster board and put it on an easel in the middle of the freshman area. Everyone was guaranteed to see it.
It was a Friday. The results were posted after lunch. I remember feeling nauseated as I entered the locker room area and spied the poster board from across the space. I went to my locker, switched books for my next class, and took a deep breath. I headed for the poster board. I looked at it - and THERE WAS MY NAME. I had made the squad. Joy!! I spent the rest of the day on cloud nine. This was WAY before the advent of cell phones, so I had to wait until I got home that afternoon to call my parents at work and tell them the good news. I went to sleep that night knowing that my whole high school experience was going to change, that I was going to be a cheerleader and was going to be accepted.
Then came Monday. When I entered the freshman locker room, the poster board was still there. I went over to it to see my name again. Next to it, someone had posted a sheet of notebook paper. The title was "Petition to get RenaRF off of the cheerleading squad". There were a lot of signatures, mainly from the jocks who played sports.
I was flabbergasted. Although I didn't realize it at the time, I was about to have my first anxiety attack. I couldn't breathe - my head was swimming. My mouth went dry. I got light-headed. I thought I was going to throw up.
And it was about to get worse. I somehow managed to get through my morning classes. We did lunch in shifts - there were four periods, and I had the last one. I went to my locker before lunch to stow my books. When I opened it, a stream of garbage - from the cafeteria - mixed with dip (chewing tobacco) and dip spit spilled out. Everything in my locker stank. My notebooks and textbooks were soaked with the runoff.
At least I had had a weekend to enjoy the delusion that this was somehow a positive thing.
The taunting I endured, as well, was merciless. I can't even remember some of the things that were said to me (I think I've blocked it), but they were uniformly intended to wound, to torment, and to belittle. Over the coming weeks, my locker would be vandalized multiple times. Not only that - my house was vandalized. At first it was just someone who dug up the flower beds by our mailbox and threw the flowers into the street. But then it got worse - they spray painted my car, garage door, and the side of the house. After we had repainted, they came back and did it again - the car and the side of the house - and as a bonus, they spray painted "RENARF GIVES GOOD HEAD" on the garage. I didn't even know what that meant - I had to ask my Dad.
When I did, in my sophomore year, cheer at my first pep rally, I was booed by the majority in attendance when I was annonced. I was repeatedly told to quit, that I wasn't wanted, that I wasn't good enough.
Over and over.
Of course, when all of this initially started, I complained to the ninth grade staff. I knew who had done this, but I couldn't prove it. Damage done to our home was reported to the police. Multiple times. My parents came in and met with the staff. Multiple times.
Yet it continued. It continued throughout my sophomore year and into my junior year (I had tried out for and made Varsity cheerleading). I didn't even like cheerleading at that point, you know? But the fuck if I was going to let them make me quit.
A new student - a boy - started at our high school at the beginning of my junior year. In addition to cheerleading, I was involved in theater and choir (we had a national championship level music program). The new boy also got involved, and we struck up a friendship. I had a mad crush on him, and we really did get along in those first weeks of school. He dropped all the hints in the world that he was going to ask me to Homecoming - yet he never did. I can't remember if I asked or if he volunteered information regarding the lack of a Homecoming invitation, but I basically was told that, while he liked me, he didn't want to commit "social suicide" - his words - by taking me.
THAT was when I finally cracked. I considered, seriously, suicide. My parents couldn't help. The school staff couldn't/wouldn't help. The police didn't do anything. My life was a living hell of torment and ostracism. Complaining about it, either to my parents (who were outraged on my behalf and would promptly demand action from the school) or to school staff only made it worse. I had NO ONE - not a single person - in whom I could confide. Not one person who had my back. I was utterly alone. I actually just stopped going to school after the whole Homecoming issue. I think it was all I could think to do to stop the spiral of loneliness and desperation that I was in. I'm quite certain that it saved my life.
I wound up stealing my parents' car, their money, and their credit cards and running away from home. I figured I would head to Florida - it was warm there, and I could live in the car. I made it as far as Roanoke, and I called my parents, who were beyond frightened. When I came home the next day, I told them that if they sent me back there, I would kill myself. Period. And I meant it.
I was incredibly lucky, frankly, that my parents were successful and had the financial means to find a private school of my choice (a boarding school) where I wound up going immediately following what could have been a deadly meltdown.
There are kids who - at this very moment - are being tormented to their breaking point who don't have those options.
"Kids will be kids"
I've represented the word "bullying" in quotes for a reason. It was while I was driving home yesterday, listening to CNN on satellite radio, that my outrage meter pegged on high. From the CNN transcript:
VELSHI: All right. The investigation found that the actions of the faculty [in the case of Phoebe Prince] did not amount to criminal behavior. But could anti- bullying laws have stopped this? Forty-one states currently have anti-bullying laws on the books. Both the Massachusetts House and Senate, the state where this occurred, has passed versions of a law, but they disagree on whether to require schools to train their staff on bullying prevention.
I want to bring in CNN legal analyst Lisa Bloom.
Lisa, this story really caught my attention. And I don't know what to think about it. I don't know whether to think anti-bullying laws are the answer, or anti-bullying training for teachers are the answer, or parents who are able to understand what their kids are up to and step in is the answer.
What do you think?
LISA BLOOM, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it is a very disturbing case, Ali. And here's my take on it.
Why do we use the word "bullying" for behavior that, if it was done to adults, we would call stalking, harassment, threats? I mean, if someone was sending threats to my physical safety, to me, by text, on a daily basis, if someone were throwing objects at me on a daily basis --
BLOOM: -- I would call the police. Why do we not do that if it's a child who is the victim?
VELSHI: I guess the question then is, where is that line? Because some people will say kids will be kids.
VELSHI: Is there some standard by which we decide what is the line? Is the line that you would use the same as the line that kids should use? If I threw something at you and abused you around the workplace, and you'd say this is too much, this is something the police get involved in --
VELSHI: -- is that what the line is?
BLOOM: That's right. I think we have to get over this "kids will be kids" mentality.
This isn't the first suicide that's resulted from bullying, and some kids act out violently, as we saw in the Columbine massacre, when they perceive themselves to be the victims of bullying. Bullying implies that it's OK because it's just kids being kids.
If someone is threatening the physical safety of someone, if the behavior goes on day after day, month after month, as it did in this case, if it's making the girl so sick she doesn't want to go to school, and ultimately is hanging herself, obviously this is behavior that's beyond the pale. I think we should start treating this as the Catholic Church finally started treating molestation, which is this is not just an internal matter, this is something that has to be reported to authorities. These are crimes being committed against our children, and we have to be serious about it before we have more of these terrible outcomes.
Snap. I couldn't agree more with Lisa Bloom.
WTF are "anti-bullying" laws, anyway? Why are schools law- and consequence-free zones for abusers and those who willfully dispense abusive behavior?
I can't imagine what would have happened if, after that first act of vandalism on my locker, the school administrators had done what they should have done and called the police to come in and take a report from me and from any potential witnesses. I can't imagine the message that would have sent to everyone who thought it was OK to torment and harrass another person. Would it have made me popular? Hell no. But perhaps it would have curtailed that behaviorsuch that I wasn't literally driven to within an inch of my very life.
If a student walks into his or her school and shoots another student, the police are called. If a student is dealing drugs within his or her school, the police are called. There are law in our adult lives that protect us and give us legal recourse if we are incessantly harassed, verbally abused, physically threatened, and if our person or our property is assaulted. The only mystery here is why those laws seem to end at precisely the point that a student enters a school.
Right now, various states are running to talk about how they're strengthening anti-bullying legislation. But the real question is - WHY strengthen this legislation? "Bullying" is so demeaning to the victims of abuse - and THAT is what they are. Victims of abuse. "Bullying" implies that nothing really terribly bad is happening - that a young person is "going through a rough time" or that an abuser "needs to outgrow it". What a load of horseshit.
I don't even know where to begin to try to correct this issue and to compel a move away from the errant notion that "bullying" is somehow less than abuse. All I can suggest is that you contact your Congressperson and tell them that "bullying" is a euphamism for much more egregious - and illegal - abusive behavior. Tell them that laws that protect them from harassment, stalking, verbal or physical abuse, and assaults on their person or property should apply to students in schools.
In The End...
I don't think children are generally forthcoming about the abuse they suffer while in school. Under the current construct, the abusive behavior is roundly poo-pooed and written off as some harmless youthful indiscretion, when it is anything but. Trying to file a complaint with a school or get the involvement of a parent only makes it worse because the situation itself isn't taken as seriously as it should be and the full force of the law is not brought to bear on the guilty.
They've arrested the students who tormented Phoebe Prince, and national conversation has ensued. But Phoebe Prince is DEAD. Countless other students are DEAD because it was less painful to DIE than to go to school. It's time that the law extend to all areas of our lives, including that of our children. Write your Congresspeople today.
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