Sticks, Stones and Broken Bones

I was bullied for most of my educational career up to grade nine.

It was only when I started at a Catholic all-girls high school that it stopped. I can't tell you what a relief it was. Being able to go outside without worrying if a snowball laced with ice will hit you an inch away from your eye. Or that grade 9 boys won't decide to purposely push and shove you against the boot rack as everyone attempts to rush in from the cold back into class. Or that during French class, the kids sitting in front of you won't comment about your clothing style or hair cut. I could go on and on and on. In the UK, it was pretty much the same thing, but my barely noticeable darker skin colour (compared to fair Brits) was enough to be teased and for my brother to be beaten on. Being an introvert didn't help take any attention away from me, nor did talking to anyone about it. Especially not in those days where bullying wasn't seen as a big deal and we were taught to "ignore it".

It's safe to say that I was two different girls growing up. At home, I was energetic and outspoken and extroverted. At school, I would recluse back into my shell, only speaking when spoken to and to answer the odd question in class. The latter didn't help me, since I was already ahead of my peers thanks to an advanced UK curriculum (where I spent the first 10 years of my life), so it only drew more attention on myself.

Physically, I had a strong British accent, wore different clothing, had no hair style and was darker and genetically endowed with more hair than most Caucasian girls. I was not sporty, had no special talents, had maybe two girls I could hang out with, and didn't have a clue about puberty and what it meant to date a guy. I hated school, hated the teachers for letting me go through this and standing on the sidelines, hated the jocks and stupid sporty girls who treated me like a fly they'd step on. I wasn't bottling up my anger per se, but the biggest hit all this bullying and exclusion did to me was towards my confidence. I believed I was nothing, was not smart and would never find someone who could accept me for who I am. I believed I was ugly, believed that I was fat and hairy and all the other names I was called. And I really didn't get all over this until my early 20s.

I ran into one of the sporty popular bully girls from my junior high a few years back. She was working at Esprit and she recognized me. I also recognized her and froze, wondering if I should say hi or  pretend I had no clue who she was. But I did say hi and smile. Her first comment was how great I looked and she asked me what I was doing with my life...and I asked her the same. We were on vastly different paths and I could have thrown this fact into her face, but I didn't. I wished her the best and walked away. Had I forgiven her? Perhaps. I'm actually not sure because of the simple reason that she doesn't know what her words did to me.

There are many days where I have thought about writing a long letter and mailing it to every single bully who ever did anything to undermine my belief in myself. I want them to know that I wasn't stupid or oblivious to what they were doing...I just didn't have energy to fight back and defend myself. I don't want any apologies or them to feel sorry for me...instead, I want them to hear my story. I want them to know what they did to me back then, and how it stayed with me for many years to come.

And the crazy thing is that even though I'm 30 years old and blessed to have an amazing family, husband, friends, and job...I still get triggered and recluse back into those old feelings of self-loathing. Stupid and simple things will do the trick. Examples are: walking into a store where I feel like I don't belong and all eyes are on me - my hypothesis is that these stores trigger memories of the "it" girls who used to bully me; seeing a group of colleagues speaking and laughing together as I walk towards a mutual lunch space - I wonder if it's OK to join them or if I should start my own table?; walking into the hot yoga studio covered in clothing and wondering what the heck people think is wrong with me; meeting girls who seem to have, on first impression, similar mannerisms as those who made a mockery of me. I don't avoid these situations or break down when I come across them...I am aware of the feelings that are brought up, try to stay calm and then enter that situation head on. Avoidance isn't an option at this stage.

People who know me personally may say that I'm very determined...and I've learned as an adult that I need to stand up for what I believe in. As a child, I never had the chance to defend myself. What's also worth noting is that quirks are much better tolerated by adults than children. I do consider myself to be slightly "geeky" as an adult and my friends lovingly refer to that fact. But that's who I am and I can't change that. As a child, this personality trait was similar to having a sign on my back that read "kick me".

I don't have the cure to end bullying, but in working with kids who are both bullies and victims, I have some ideas. Teaching children to respect and understand differences is monumental in prevention work. As is creating a school environment that won't allow bullying. Even more important is educating parents about bullying and how to support their kids in being positive citizens (rather than defending them when they're caught). Teachers also need to know how to nip these bullying incidents in the bud, and how sneaky kids are  bullying where there are no supervisors around. Not to mention the rise in using the internet to target kids.

And so, that's my story. I didn't write this entry to get pity or attention, I wrote it because I've never really "let it out" anywhere. Also, I think I'm someone who can debunk the myth that bullying doesn't impact you long term. I consider myself to be a strong person, but I am also human and hearing negative comments day in and day out take their toll. In fact, MRI studies have been done on victims of bullying who are now adults, and the centres of the brain responsible for emotion are triggered differently. Just as with children who have been traumatized.

And if there are any kids out there who are being bullied and feel like they have no one to turn to, I encourage you to dig down deep and speak out. Keep speaking out and someone will hear you. There's also a comment form below, so I will listen and stand up for you. Or call the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868, they are qualified to help.

Because God only knows that every child deserves to at least be heard.

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