Expressive 1010 Honorable Mention
Professor Julia Combs
A bully is someone who hurts, belittles, and torments someone else in order to feel better about him or herself. In clinical terms, it is called leveling. They've made movies about it. They've written books about it. They've done studies about it. And now they're launching a national campaign to try to help prevent it. Me… I just lived it. More importantly, I survived it.
For a teenage girl, junior high and high school are equivalent to the CBS hit reality television show Survivor. Originally you're all on the same team; everyone is nice, and everyone wants to get along. But within minutes of Jeff Probst handing out the different color buffs which determine what team you are on, or when the school doors open, things can and will get ugly quickly. Alliances are made, many are voted out, and the only sure way of surviving is to fly in under the radar.
Bullying, what was once thought to be a problem among males, seems to be a growing problem among girls. Mary Phipher, a clinical psychologist and author of Surviving Ophelia, brought attention to "relational aggression," a term used to describe a type of bulling primarily used by pre-adolescent and adolescent girls to victimize other girls. Relational aggression is a covert use of relationships as weapons to inflict emotional pain (Skowronski). Personal experience tells me it's very effective.
My Survivor season started my 9th grade year. Life was good, and I was happy. I never considered myself "popular," but I did have a decent group of friends, or so I thought. One day as seventh period was nearing the end, one of my so-called friends, and locker partner, approached me and asked me to participate in a "game" or "trick" on someone else in our circle of friends. She suggested we create a "burn book" about her. The popular movie Mean Girls explains what a burn book is. A burn book is like writing a diary, but instead of writing things about yourself, it's acceptable to write mean things about people who are supposed to be your friends. Or it's fine to write lies or share secrets that you know about someone. This cruel book she was suggesting was to be passed around amongst our friends in order to victimize one of them. I was shocked. I refused to participate and suggested we drop the idea and move on. Nothing else was said to me about it, so I assumed she took my suggestion. A few days later, I opened my locker to find the book. It seemed the plan was carried out, but now the book was about me. All my friends had taken turns writing horrible things about me, none of which were true, and they also included pictures that they had cleverly distorted. Naturally, I was crushed, embarrassed and devastated.
This was the beginning of many years of torment for me. Next I was "outed" from the group. No reasons are necessary. This happens quite frequently in junior high school. Survival during these years requires lying low, not being too good, too smart, too happy, too rich, too talented or too popular. Unfortunately, I was a competitive gymnast. I was strong, happy, had a tight little gymnast's body, and my fair share of trophies and confidence. Like the game of Survivor, if one excels in anything, one becomes a threat; therefore, she must go or be put in her place. Where I once loved school, I now hated going. I ate alone. I walked alone. I was alone. Other students who were not in "our group" seemed to care, but they were also afraid to befriend me for fear of the attacks that would be launched on them.
I was fifteen and by myself. I lived at the gym and hung onto my few friends there. But the reality of "gym-rats" (gymnasts who all work out together five hours a day, five days a week, and travel together on weekends) is that we have our own drama and our own competitiveness. Teammates love you and cheer for you as long as you're not better than they are. These aren't the kind of girls you can really hang on to or trust to be your friends. So although it was an escape for me, it still wasn't a safe place. Thank goodness I loved my parents.
Round three… cyber-bullying. An online encyclopedia describes cyber-bullying like this: "Cyber-bullying involves the use of information and communication technologies to support deliberate, repeated, and hostile behavior by an individual or group that is intended to hurt others" (National Crime Prevention Council). E-mails, text messages and voice messages started arriving at alarming rates. An occasional e-mail would carry a vain threat, but mostly they just contained mean words as silent reminders that they were out there and waiting to destroy me whenever they chose. Studies report that kids start being mean to each other online beginning as young as 2nd grade. While boys start bullying younger, by junior high school, girls are more likely to engage in it than boys are (Patchin and Hinuja). The beauty of cyber-bullying is that it allows the kids to be mean to each other without a grown-up ever knowing. Also, kids tend to be meaner, braver and bolder when they're not looking their victim in the face.
At first I didn't tell my parents about the emails and text messages. I just erased them and tried to hold my head high. On one occasion I was with my family on vacation. We walked out of a Broadway play; I checked my phone and noticed I had seventeen voicemails just waiting to bring me back to my real life. I began to listen to them. Due to their content it wouldn't be appropriate to share the messages these presumably sweet fifteen-year-old girls had left for me. As the color drained from my face and tears rolled down my cheeks, my father grabbed the phone from me and listened. Color filled his face, and after he resorted to Wikipedia to find out the meaning of some of the things they'd said, he got involved.
It's a hard call and I didn't know what to do. If I got my parents involved, I'm a baby who can't fight her own battles. If not, I'm alone. Thankfully, my parents gave me no choice. On more than one occasion, I cried myself to sleep in my mother's arms.
We changed my phone number, but that only helped for a few weeks. Despite Facebook and MySpace being all the rage, I knew better than to open an account; it would just be another place for them to publicly humiliate and taunt me.
Grown-ups in my world made me promises that, "Things will get better in high school." Although they meant well, they weren't right. At every turn they were there, the texting, emails and voice messages never stopped. In the middle of my sophomore year I tried switching high schools, thinking a fresh start might make it easier. But because of technology, they were still there. No matter how hard I tried I couldn't escape them. I returned to my boundary school. On one particularly hard day, my mother made a trip to the vice principal's office. He listened to our story with a straight face and then replied, "Maybe you should just switch schools. There's nothing we can do and there's nothing the police can do." It was a hard lesson to learn that these so-called adults that are set in place to help you, and to protect you, and to counsel you… don't care. We left his office feeling defeated.
My father ignored the vice principal's advice and contacted the police anyway. Turns out, there is something they can do. They were on my doorstep within five minutes. Pictures were taken of text messages and voice messages were recorded. Officers made me promise never to delete another message as it served as evidence. Legal charges were filed and the girls were ordered to stop.
Weaker girls would have quit, given up, sold out, or joined a group where they would have been accepted. Me, I just kept swimming… or flipping, actually.
Despite being told not to by an officer, my father contacted one girl's parents. She was the ringleader and seemed to be the most relentless. Her parents immediately believed us, which tells me they knew what she was capable of. By now we'd grown up, well at least chronologically, she was the oldest in the pack and with an early birthday had already turned eighteen. One night she was physically dragged to my house by her parents and forced to apologize. All the right words, yet no meaning, no heart. The bullying didn't stop, it just took a different form. Pointing, giggling, name-calling, eye rolling, gossip and gagging sounds surrounded me as I passed them in the hall. A restraining order was issued, and community service was assigned. The ringleader went so far as to change her phone number and continue to text and voice message me, thinking I wouldn't know it was coming from her.
I learned through a counselor that online high school was available and I quickly took advantage of the program and only went to the actual school for a few hours in the morning. Then I'd go to gym for five hours, come home and do online classes. I graduated early just to try to escape them. I hung on to the words of my parents and older siblings, "They'll grow up." I'm still hanging on to those words.
Funny how easy it is to hang on to the negative, how easy it is for me to hear, "You're so ugly! You'll never date! You're so fat! You're such a loser!" Even at twenty years old, when I'm having a bad day, or I break up with a boyfriend, those words still ring in my ears.
Frank, a character in a 2006 Fox Searchlight movie titled Little Miss Sunshine, was speaking to his troubled teenage nephew about Marcel Proust, a French writer, and he said,
Anyway, he uh... he gets down to the end of his life, and he looks back and decides that all those years he suffered, Those were the best years of his life, 'cause they made him who he was. All those years he was happy? You know, total waste. Didn't learn a thing. So, if you sleep until you're 18... Ah, think of the suffering you're gonna miss. I mean high school? High school—those are your prime suffering years. You don't get better suffering than that.
If Frank is in fact right, I'm bound to be the smartest kid around that graduated from high school.
I'm now two years into college. I moved far away from my hometown. Given the chance, these girls would still bully me. These girls stole my entire high school years. They stole my self-esteem. They forever changed who I am and how I view myself. However, I am proud I never gave up on myself. I'm proud I never stooped to their level and attacked back. I consider myself a survivor, a winner in the game. When the jury gathers, and Jeff Probst reads the votes out loud, I'll hold my head high. I lost a lot, but in the end, I survived.
"Cyber-bullying." National Crime Prevention Council. NCPC, March 2010. Web. 16 Nov 2010.
Little Miss Sunshine. Dir. Jonathan Dayton and Calerie Faris. Perf. Steve Carell. Fox Searchlight, 2006. DVD.
Patchin, Justin W. and Sameer Hunuja. Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. 2009. Print.
Pipher, Mary. Reviving Ophelia. New York: Ballantine Books, 1995. 304. Print.
Skowronski, Marina. 'Parenting Perspectives." Teachers and Families. National Association of School Psychologists, 2005. Web. 16 Nov 2010.