In recognition of World Day of Bullying Prevention, I’m reprinting an op-ed that was originally published on Friday, November 6th, 1998, in the Atlanta Constitution. I wrote this editorial in response to a bullying victim’s beating death and another student’s suicide. Their names are omitted to avoid reopening their families’ wounds. (To my bullies who have apologized, this is not meant to reopen your wounds, either.)
It began in kindergarten where I was “Big Bertha Blue Belly.” In sixth grade, I was “Ratchet the Hatchet,” and by eighth grade, “Rogel Wiggle.” I walked down the hall to chants of “Rogel Wiggle, see her jiggle” or “Big Bertha Blue Belly, see her stomach like a bowl full of jelly.”
Born with brain damage, uncoordinated and overweight, I found school a nightmare where, from kindergarten on, my friends were the fat, buck-toothed girls. They were the only ones who were kind, because they, too, knew the agony.
Like most parents, my mother told me to ignore the taunts, while my father taught me at an early age that “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
But by sixth grade, I would have willingly been stoned just to have had a square dance partner in PE. Like ———, who committed suicide in 1994, and ———-, who died Wednesday after being beaten by a 15-year-old, I found that words did hurt–and that my teachers and my parents didn’t understand the torment because, after all, ‘kids will be kids.’
Beyond adult platitudes, there’s the child reality, in which 180 days a year of eating alone at lunch, being chosen last for teams, having hair pulled, glasses stolen, and jeering taunts become simply too much. If my principal had made pig noises while my fourth-grade teacher ate her lunch, perhaps she would have understood. If someone picked the back of my science teacher’s neck with straight pins as he worked at his office desk, he might have glimpsed the reality of my life–because there is a point at where the intolerable actions of others make the thought of living unbearable.
Like ————, I became “tired of it.” When my shoes were stolen and thrown on the school roof in eighth grade–my ninth year of enduring mindless torment–I reached my breaking point. I ripped open the door to my science classroom, stormed upon the boys who made my life miserable, and yelled, “I have had it!” I think I threw books: I know that night was the first of many I thought of suicide.
The transition to high school helped some–a 240-pound ‘nerd’ who read a book a day, I was still an outcast, but at a larger school there were more kind people. My English teacher, Mrs. Dillard, encouraged me to write–and capturing my torments on paper lessened their power. Raff wanted to be my lab partner; Julie, a cheerleader, took me to her hair stylist for prom, and Mark, the drum major, sat with me at lunch–these people chose to be bright spots in my otherwise dismal life, and I am convinced they kept me from taking —–‘s way out.
I needed a place to confess how hurt I was, what the years of ridicule had done to me–and I also needed to be accepted for who I was: fat and suicidal, yes, but smart and funny, too. The consistent kindness of a few, over the course of four years in high school, offset the agony inflicted by others. By graduation, though still somewhat depressed, I was STAR student, student body president and yearbook editor–but more important, I knew that there were good things about me.
Now an adult and a teacher of the cruelest of the cruel–middle-schoolers–I am, I hope, succeeding where many of my teachers failed. I punish bullying and harassment, but more important, I take time with the harassed child. I listen to him, acknowledge his pain, encourage others to befriend him–because I remember what it is to be tormented: very real and very painful.
May God be with ——-. May we not lose another child like we did ——-. May we see beyond “kids will be kids” to the child the kids are hurting.