I was bullied mercilessly throughout my entire middle and high school academic career. I was a tall girl, I was overweight, my skin was dark, my hair was nappy, and I had the privilege of wearing both glasses and braces in 8th and 9th grade. I was, for all intents and purposes, the ugly duckling. My self-esteem was low which further made me withdraw from my peers, and that isolation made me even more of a target.
Of course, as I became more withdrawn from the social element of school, I retreated from the academic side of things as well. I went from being a shy yet social, relatively well-liked and Honor Roll student in 5th grade, to being a social outcast struggling to make C’s and D’s in the 6th grade. That adjustment period is hard for all children; you typically move to a new, bigger school around the same time you’re going through puberty. Your body and mind are both undergoing change, and your external environment is evolving as well. So what makes this adjustment harder on some adolescents than it is on others?
There’s a fine line between the awkwardness that mostly everyone feels in that period, and social underdevelopment. As children and teenagers, we become aware when something is “different” between things even if we can’t pinpoint the differences, or rationally respond to them. It’s human nature to group with things and people that we can identify with. And things that we can’t identify with become threats, especially at that age. The goal is to label a threat, neutralize it, and contain it.
So some kids are labeled ugly, stupid, weird, and gross.
Then they’re neutralized by lowering their self-esteem and ridiculing them on a regular basis.
Finally they’re contained by having limited social interactions with the majority, and being rebuffed when they attempt to socialize.
As human beings, we need socialization. It’s a basic need, and without it, well… we start losing our shit, for lack of a better description. By age 13, I had begun the process of losing my shit.
Tired of being teased by 200 peers at lunch, I stopped going to the cafeteria, and started hiding in the bathroom during the lunch period. I would continue the ritual up through 12th grade. Tired of having people laugh at my low, soulful voice, I stopped talking to most people. Tired of the butterflies in my chest and stomach every time I was called on in class to answer a question, I stopped going to school. Tired of being “the tall, ugly, fat friend,” I stopped hanging out with the few friends I had left.
I would come home from school, immediately lock myself in my room, and cry most days. On days when I didn’t have tears, I would just sit in sadness and anger. I wouldn’t do my homework, I wouldn’t hang out with family. I was depressed, and nobody at home knew why or what to do about it, so I went through the stages of being labeled, neutralized, and contained within my own family. I would spend holidays barricaded in my bedroom, ignoring knocks at the door. I could rarely peel myself out of bed to shower on the weekends. During the long summer breaks, I would go days hiding in my room alone; days without hearing my own voice, much less the voices of others.
Eventually, I started to break.
Maybe once a school year, completely weary of both internal emotions and external bullying that I couldn’t control anymore, I would blackout in a rage. Everything would be a blur as I just vomited every ounce of toxicity in me on whoever sent me over the edge that day.
On one particularly volatile incident in 9th grade, I was attacked. I was in P.E. walking on the track, when a group of 5 boys walking behind me began throwing rocks at me. Actual rocks. At first, small rocks that I ignored. But the rocks got bigger, their laughs got louder, and I got angrier.
I turned around to confront my bullies: five boys taunting one girl, five boys that I had reported in the past to no action by teachers and administrators… and was called various names. There was nothing I could say that could hurt them the way I was hurting, so I started to hit and kick my way to some sort of street-style justice. I took out my wrath on one boy in particular, and completely lost it. The last thing I remembered outside on that track was breaking the other student’s phone, and my gym teacher blowing his whistle at us.
The next thing I remembered was writing my side of the story on an incident report in the vice principal’s office. Being that I had no physical marks to corroborate my side of the story, and the other student had a broken phone, I was labeled the aggressor. I was neutralized by being told to go back to class, with no discipline being given to the boys who threw rocks at me. I was contained by the fact that nobody else in my gym class really spoke to me about the incident, or came forward to validate my story.
Some variation of this tale would happen many times over through the rest of my days in high school, and had happened before several times in middle school. Each time, there was never any support. There was never a response to the many acts of bullying I reported, yet there was always a response when I reached that breaking point and retaliated.
It was as if the lines had blurred between me being the bullied and the bully.
I know many other young people, from childhood into adulthood, who share that same experience. Why does our society still put more effort into invalidating the claims of those who have been bullied than correcting the behavior of those who bully, and providing counseling and other services for young people to cope? I’ve overcome many things from those years of bullying; I went from being a failing student who barely showed up in high school, and became someone who loved college and graduated Magna Cum Laude. But I still have permanent emotional scarring, and deep-rooted insecurities, that stem from years of bullying and isolation. While I was able to find small rays of sunshine, I can’t help but think about people who never overcome those pains in any capacity.
So while I’m in awe of the strides educators and politicians have made to combat and confront bullying in the years since I’ve been in grade school, I hope that more research goes into uplifting and rebuilding the emotional being of targets. It’s time to label the issue, neutralize it, and contain it so that less young people have to share this story.