It gets better

I’ve been trying to think back to when being picked on first surfaced in my little world. This topic has surfaced here before, but I thought I’d actually hit the finer points of what used to happen, and how it DID get better.

The bullies started off being primarily teachers. Probably some to many of my former classmates had very different experiences – but on the side of things where the misfits and I resided, it wasn’t happyville. I was, probably, classic ADD, waaay before such things were being identified, labeled, or given any attention at all. The usual modus operandi in my case was to sit in class, and pop off into distracted daydreams. Teachers would often then startle me out of my reverie, in front of the class, and attempt to embarrass me into paying attention. Homework was often incomplete, and before long, I was singled out as being potentially “slow” – something that didn’t play out to the teachers’ satisfaction, I guess, because I always scored high on standardized tests, and, much to their dismay, I gather my intelligence testing was fairly high. My mother never would tell any of us our scores, but the guidance counselor at the elementary school let it slip that they hadn’t had anyone test so high before. I don’t say that to stroke my ego by any means. Knowing that fact was useless and even more depressing to me – mostly because I couldn’t seem to make my brain do the things it was “supposed” to do. It was a long and endlessly unhappy tenure in elementary and middle school….

There seemed to be no end to the adults who felt that it was okay to demean and humiliate, not just me, but anyone who failed to turn into average or better than average workers. How could I explain to any of them that I wanted desperately to be like the rest of the class, getting A’s, privileges, stickers, pats on the back? I can’t count the times I cried myself to sleep, or just dreaded going home to explain yet another crummy report card or test. And before long, the kids picked up on the notion that if adults were doing it, teasing, mocking, harassing – all of it was not just something to be gotten away with, but tacitly approved. It was like living through a kiddie version of a Code Red (made so famous in A Few Good Men), and the few times I did speak up, was given the message from administrators that it was MY fault.

Adding fuel to the fire were some other particulars which made me stand out even more, I guess…my dad was and is a priest of the Protestant sort, so I frequently got a lot of teasing about whether I’d be a nun when I grew up, and some other things that stemmed from the ignorance of most people about what that sort of family must be like. I was scrawny, had goofy glasses (it was the 80’s after all), and by the time I was in 5th grade, I had size 9 ladies’ feet. You can imagine what effect that might have.

Things got progressively worse and worse until I tried to run away in 9th grade. I’d left a school system, tried to fit into a new one, and it seemed to follow me…all the crap that I was trying to get beyond.

Do you want to know what helped me to turn the corner? I hope so, whether you’re in school, or work at one, or are just a caring adult:

Someone finally saw my struggles and reached out to me.

It was right after the running-away attempt. I was supposed to get in trouble, but we had an assistant principal at this high school, and he handled the incident. He told me that he’d become aware of everything going on, that I was being bullied, harrassed, and threatened – that he doubted I would have done what I’d done if not for all of that. He opened his door to me, told me to come and tell him if anything further happened. Why? ‘Because this should be a safe place for you.’ was approximately what he said and how I recall it, even now.

So I say to anyone reading this – take a moment and help make life feel a little safer for someone who is struggling. Last fall at my younger son’s birthday party, I had a middle school-aged sibling of one of his friends helping me with goody bags. She was clearly wanting someone to talk to, so I let her share anything she wanted. She was surprised by me letting her in on the fact that I’d been in her shoes. I’m hoping I don’t look or act like a victim anymore. It was that same message, that it DOES get better.

I let go of the pain and anger years and years ago – and I do say this as well – going through a little strife helps mold you. I eventually got the guts to join sports (and lo, found that it was the best solution to my distractable self – went on the honor roll, even!). I got my degree in something I was passionate about, even though there were lots of obstacles. Did a lot of strange and interesting things in my youth. And now, I have my own family. And you know what? Having struggled and come out the other side, it makes me acutely aware of my own kids and the potential pitfalls. I teach them to be sensitive to kids who struggle. It’s a big thing for us, since one of our kids is autistic. I know what could happen, I know the rough road ahead for each of them.

To parents – teaching empathy is so important. Beyond that, establishing trust and open communication is vital. We all have our shortcomings – I was always too scared to tell my parents what was happening to me. I never thought I’d be believed, so we have to make our kids believe in us.

To teachers and administrators – school has changed a lot since I was a kid – I am grateful for the changes. Even more than zero tolerance policies, however, we should be pushing for tolerance of one another. School being a safe place is an undervalued message (albeit a challenging one). Even just doing what that one principal did for me, just talking one on one to a student, it can change someone’s world.

To kids – have the guts to stand up for what you believe in. The faith that life isn’t always going to be painful. The courage to do the right thing, even when no one is looking. It doesn’t take much. But once you start doing things, you find it’s addictive, and the good feelings you get are just a perk.

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