Today my heart goes out to the parents of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons and all those who loved her. It makes me shake my head and tears do fill my eyes to acknowledge she is the latest victim of uncensored bullying who has seen no alternative to her situation other than to take her life. Her tragic death has led me to reflect on my own experiences with bullies. It is after all only through self-reflection that we can better understand ourselves and choose for what we stand for. I stand for compassion and understanding and for an end to what is becoming an epidemic of bullying affecting all of our children.
When I was 11 my parents moved and so of course did my brother, sister and I. This meant I would spend Grade 6, the last year of my elementary education, in a new school. The kids in my class had been together for many years and this made me an outsider to many. I remember being bullied by another girl. She was the queen bee and the others followed. She was more developed than the rest of us skinny Grade 6 girls and having boobs for some reason gave her even more power. She was, of course, mean to boot, but that’s a secondary factor. If she hadn’t been pretty and had boobs she’d have been dismissed as simply mean. Her looks and charm gave her a pass to be who ever she wanted to be.
It’s a funny thing about boobs and pre-adolescent and adolescent girls. If you develop early and you develop a woman’s size bosom you’re considered different and you’re a likely candidate for bullying. If you have nothing, as was my case, you too are different from the “norm” and a potential candidate. Thinking about it now, I suppose you’re only lucky if you develop a small bosom early on: one that attracts boys but doesn’t make you the standard by which all others fall short. If you look like a woman when you’re 11 or 12, through no fault of your own, it gives some girls yet another reason to feel insecure and dislike you. Its not until you’re an adult that you realize that unbeknownst to many of these girls, it was primarily, their boobs that made them popular, not their personality or their brains. I’m sure there isn’t a woman out there who doesn’t know exactly who that girl was in her high school. In its own way it’s liberating to learn this.
I also remember an altercation that same year whereby one of my best friends stood up to a boy who was bullying me. I can’t remember what it was about. Even today I am grateful she stood up for me and was even prepared to physically fight this boy after school. I’m sure if no one had stood up for me, his bullying would have been the beginning of an on-going trend in which I would be forced to play the role of the skinny weakling victim. I remember there was a group of kids that followed us all out of school and off school property. I remember there were taunts and some pushing. I remember feeling worried, scared and uncomfortable that this was happening. I’m certain my friend and the boy felt exactly the same sense of bewilderment. I’m also grateful that it didn’t escalate beyond that. I can’t remember why. But, I do remember after that incident the boy left me alone and he didn’t bully anyone else either. I think he and I both owe Gail a thank you for standing up for me, and questioning the validity of his actions.
I’d like to say I took the high road after that but as we all moved to another school (Junior High) another power dynamic replaced the old one. In this one two older boys who had failed a grade, who were bigger, more physically mature, dressed cooler, and exuded a air of being dangerous became the objects of all the girls’ desires and the bane of existence for many of the boys. I cringe and yet, still feel strangely valued, as I write that I was one of the chosen girls protected by these boys and that they made other boys in our class carry my books and the books of the other girls under their watchful gaze from class to class. Like serfs they did their master’s bidding. It was a much nicer position to be in than I had been in during the previous year. And I have to admit it also boosted by confidence in some weird way. I wasn’t nearly as skittish after that year, though, my experiences in Grade 6 did teach me to be careful and not too bold. A habit it’s taken me years to break.
I can’t imagine when these boys left high school early that they were much missed by the boys they’d tormented. I can only apologize for the role I played in it all. I know now that joining the bullies in their game was not the right thing to do. At the time unfortunately I was only as wise as most 12 and 13 year olds and the choice before me was be protected or risk being bullied. I can’t think of any kid that age that would choose being bullied. But as an adult I need to acknowledge that in part due to my own personal fear, I played a role in the continuation of this situation. I need to also add that the situation was compounded by what I realize now, was also the failure of teachers and the school’s administrators to address what was going one. I even remember some teachers being amused by it.
As a parent I wonder how difficult that must have been for those boys and I’m sorry I didn’t have the skills to change it and that neither did the adults involved. This doesn’t make it right and based on my experiences as a parent I know this situation continues today and I know that if we, the adults, don’t come up with a solution it will continue just as it did when I was in Junior High over 25 years ago. I also remember a boy who played the trumpet beautifully who tried to kill himself in high school. I’ve always wondered if it was because he too was bullied- because he was. Today those children we were are now the adults in charge and I can’t help but think that surely, there must be something we are willing to try to change the situation since it is clear that what we are doing or not doing is not changing it. Regardless of which side of the power dynamic we were on I’m also certain we all remember what it was like and I hope that enough of us have grown into adults who no longer condone these actions as acceptable and that we are bold enough to say “No more. Lets work at changing this.”
I think its time to stop throwing our hands up in the air and feigning despair over a situation many of us are choosing to avoid under the false belief that it won’t happen to our kids or their friends. The fact is if it can happen to one kid it can happen to another. If you don’t believe me take a couple of minutes today and reflect on your experience with bullies. Its what I did and its how I know it can happen to anyone.