I was sick and absent a lot during high school. And by sick, I mean "sick." Over the years, I became a natural at faking it--though not on a Ferris Bueller level or anything. My mom was totally on to me. Sometimes she convinced me to get out of bed and catch the bus. Most times, though, she let me stay home, brought me a bowl of ramen soup, and wrote an excuse for the school office explaining I suffered from "cold symptoms." It was kind of true: I had terrible allergies. But the thing I was most allergic to was high school.
I loved learning, earned mostly As, but as a super-shy transfer from a private school, I was an outsider in a class full of kids who had all grown up together, and they bullied me mercilessly.
My peers pelted me with spitballs and taunted me with made-up songs. The teachers never discouraged the teasing or punished anyone. Not a single person stood up for me.
Worst of all, I never stood up for myself.
I never said a thing.
Until one day.
I got hit in the back of the head by an especially hard eraser and turned around to face my attacker--a kid whose name I can't even remember now. I looked him in the eye and asked him, with my heart beating way too fast, "Why did you throw that at me? It hurt." He kind of laughed, shocked that I had actually spoken aloud and had the nerve to stare him down. He didn't reply. I threw his eraser at him and turned back around.
And he threw the eraser at me again.
I spent a few more months scraping spitballs out of my hair, but by the beginning of eleventh grade, the bullying--for no particular reason--stopped. And the people who had terrorized me for so long suddenly started talking to me as if we were friends. They'd forgotten, but I couldn't, no matter how I tried.
After surviving three long years of spitball-dodging, I still flinch whenever anything flies past my head, or when anyone says my name in a singsong way. I have psychological scars from the bullying that may never heal. But the pain of those years has made me a much stronger, more resilient person and a passionate writer of stories for young adults. Because it was stories that got me through the hardest days. I read books voraciously to stop my racing thoughts, to help me forget my worries, to slow my tears. Stories, literally, saved me. I wasn't out as a lesbian in high school--I can only imagine how worse things might have gotten if I had been--but I know the ache of feeling different and the deep trauma that bullying furrows into a heart.
As an adult, I have the privilege of being able to embrace my differences openly. I've kind of made a career out of it. For kids caught in the fishbowl of high school, though, that isn't often an option that feels safe, which is really sad. But there's much more bullying awareness now than there was when I was a student. That's awesome and gives me a lot of hope. I eagerly await the day when all schools adopt a zero-tolerance bullying policy, and the only motivation kids have to fake an illness and skip out is to avoid the rope climb in gym class. Or--blech--dissecting frogs.
(I may be guilty on both of those counts.)
(Please don't tell my mom.)
Thank you, Jenn for speaking from the heart. I, for one, am glad you spoke up. You are a brilliant human being and I admire you so much.
Check back tomorrow for FML Friday!