(Let me apologize in advance for the length of the post. I hope you will read through anyway. I’ve just finished reading another story about a kid killing himself after being bullied and I can’t stand by and say nothing. A couple years ago, I read a book called, DEAR BULLY, where amazing authors shared their experience with bullying. While I’m not a famous author yet, I have my own story to tell. So, I’m taking a stand. I’m telling my story and I swear, if it stops one kid from going down this path, then it’s worth opening up the wounds of my past. So here goes.)
I've spent my entire adult life trying to forget aspects of my childhood. Things weren't always so great. And I’m sure you’re thinking, “Who’s childhood is great? Everyone has problems.” And you are right.
No one’s life is perfect. But when you look at the headlines and see children as young as SIX YEARS OLD committing suicide, I think it’s safe to say that some people have a more “not perfect” life than others.
When I was in ninth grade, I was the victim of bullies. You wouldn't think I would be a target. I wasn't shy… pretty sure anyone who knew me back then (or now) can attest to that. I was a swimmer and had a good group of friends. Our entire team met at “the shrub” in the morning to gossip, swap vocab answers and wait for the bell to ring. Being on that team meant I had a place in the school social order. I’m not saying it was a super high one, but it was a place. I wasn't a nomad. Seriously, I was set when it came to jumping in to the high school world.
Until I got to Algebra. In my class there was a set of twins. We’ll call them M&M for short. For whatever reason, M&M, who were a year ahead of me, decided they didn't like me. Which is weird because I don’t remember ever talking to them or giving them a reason to hate me. Ever. But eventually I caught on to the glares and the passive aggressive attitudes. The name calls just loud enough for me to hear, but not the teacher. The comments about my “man arm”, which I didn't really think was all that bad. (Remember, I was a swimmer… I had some upper body strength happening.) At one point a classmate flat out told me to make sure I was never alone with them. And before I knew it, I dreaded Algebra.
I remember walking up the stairs to the second floor of the math building, my stomach tightening with each step. I never knew what I was going to walk in to, but I wanted to be in my seat before M&M because then I could pretend they didn't see me shrinking into my chair. For a social butterfly to turn into a timid student who went out of her way not to be noticed in class was unusual. When I forgot myself and laughed, I quickly cut it off, fearful that they would say or do something for my blatant disregard for me “victim” position.
One day, my teacher asked me to stay after class. I felt their warning burning into my scalp. Sure enough, when I glanced behind me, M&M were both giving me the signal that, if I said anything, I was a goner. And so I didn't. When asked if anything was wrong, I said no. When confronted about my falling grades, I tried to brush it off. Several times my teacher pressed me to reveal what was going on and time after time, I refused. There was nothing she could do. Without me spilling the beans about what was going on, her hands were tied. I never told my parents. I didn't tell my friends, though it would have been hard for them not to notice something was going on. But if they did, they didn't say anything, and I don’t blame them. I don’t know if I would have back then. Why would I want to make myself a target?
So, when I didn't say anything, I thought, surely I had earned some brownie points. I had proven I wasn’t a tattler. Now they would forgive whatever they thought I had done to wrong them and my life would go back to normal.
In fact, the next day, one of the girls on my team, who was friends with them, said they had told her to try to drown me at practice. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was one thing to torment me in math. I didn't even like math. But the pool was my home. It was my sanctuary. Nothing could touch me. Until M&M snaked their way into the locker room.
I couldn't breathe. I cried through my entire practice. Finally, an upperclassman asked me what was wrong and I spilled the whole story to him. I couldn't help it. I was tired of carrying everything inside.
I still remember what he said. “No one messes with us. If they want a fight, I've got no problem kickin’ a girl’s ass.” And I felt empowered. I was part of a team. They had my back.
Except that they weren't in my class and, for his wonderful sentiment, there was no way I was going to let my teammate get in trouble for this. So the next time he asked me about it, I lied. I said it was better. It was fine. (For the record, when anyone says something is fine, it’s safe to assume they are lying.)
A few weeks later, I made the unfortunate decision to take a short cut to my next class, which was in the opposite direction from the rest of my friends. And M&M were waiting. My first thought was, “How did they know.” My second thought was, “I’m about to die.”
They cornered me, threatening to throw me down the stairs if I ever said anything to anyone. Remember how I said I was a FRESHMAN. Seriously, at the ripe old age of 13, someone was threatening to kill me. And I completely believed they would do it.
I have to pause right now and tell you that, as I write this, my hands are shaking and the tears are clouding my vision. Every feeling I repressed is struggling to the surface and my body is responding with bursts of adrenaline. This might be a good time to mention that my 20th reunion took place in 2012.
Okay, so back to the story. The passive threats continued and I didn't know it then, but I was sinking into a depression. I hated going to school and would look for any reason to try to get out of it. Had it not been for swimming, I probably would have skipped, but no school, no practice. And, after M&M’s henchman quit the team, the pool was safe again.
Then a day I never could have predicted came: FIELD TRIP to a nature reserve. Guess who was going… yep. M&M. And it was not shaping up to be a good time. First, a TREATY… yes, a freaking treaty had to be negotiated by a friend. Yeah. You totally read that right. Which, looking back, is ironic because there was no way I was going to go anywhere near them in a nature reserve where we were doing water samples in Florida, home of lots of gators. Still, with the treaty in place, I climbed on the bus and of course the first person I see is M of M&M. I offer a smile, thinking we’re playing nice. She flipped me the bird. Guess I was wrong.
I survived the day, but that night, I thought about everything and how I could stand being tormented like this anymore. I was living in fear and I didn't see a way out. I won’t say I ever reached the point where I thought killing myself was an option. But if M&M’s parental unit hadn't been transferred to Miami, I don’t know what would have happened. Everything was on the table at that moment. I was desperate and I felt so alone. Fear became my constant companion and everything was tainted by it.
As it was, they did move. And I could breathe again. But a part of me was still looking over my shoulder. I barely passed math and the lack of foundation would kick my butt my senior year when I had Pre-Calc. And a part of me wanted M&M to arrive as the new girls in school at Miami and get their asses handed to them on a platter. I wanted revenge. I wanted them to know what it was like to be afraid every single day.
I don’t know what happened to M&M. And if I were given a chance to meet them as the me I have become, I don’t know what would happen. Because there is still that scared 13 year old in here. But there is also a strong and powerful woman who has learned that the worst thing we can do is be silent. As a victim, I wish I would have spoken up. As a friend, I wish someone would have stood up for me. As an educator, I wish no child ever has to feel afraid that a peer will harm them, especially at school. As a mom, I wish children were more aware of their actions. And as a human being, I wish people knew that their actions have consequences and that allowing for an environment where children feel they have no other way out than death is a crime against us all.
So BE FEARLESS when you see someone who needs your help. BE FEARLESS and share your own stories. And if you’re a writer and/or a blogger, I urge you to share your story so that hopefully someone will realize that life does actually get better and that someone does care about them. Maybe, just maybe, we can turn the tide of childhood suicide so that no mother will ever bury her child because of the playground bully again.