It has been close to 30 years since a lot of what I am about to divulge occurred, but certain situations I experienced in my youth continue to resonate with me. I specifically recall several different occasions while I was in sixth grade in which a socially awkward girl was tormented because of her lack of athletic prowess, unwillingness to go with the flow plus… she wasn’t attractive. She broke down sobbing more than once in our classroom, with a few other students seemingly relishing the thought that they were the cause of her anguish.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t the only classmate who was repeatedly and ruthlessly picked on. A morbidly obese boy regrettably nicknamed ‘Two Ton Tony’ was also relentlessly tortured. I can still clearly see the pained looks on his face when these insensitive taunts were directed at him. I learned in the early 1990’s that ‘Tony’ had passed away, reportedly the result of a massive heart attack–in his early twenties. I wonder how his story might have been different if one of us was brave enough to go against the crowd and reach out to him.
How It Has Impacted Me
What brought these hibernating feelings of regret to the surface was a book that my step-daughter encouraged me to read about school age bullying. The book, By The Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead, by Julie Anne Peters, chronicles a fictitious 15 year old girl’s fantasy-induced but all too real countdown to the day she targets to commit suicide. From an early age, this awkward young girl had been ridiculed and ultimately ostracized due to her excessive weight. This would not be the first time this girl had contemplated suicide; she had unsuccessfully attempted to end her life a couple of years before by swallowing highly corrosive fluids.
It has been critically important to remind our daughter that she is okay the way she is, and that her height, or lack thereof, doesn’t make her any less wonderful, smart and creative. She has been picked on for being one of the smallest students in her high school. Over the years, it has been readily apparent to me that those who judge others are either envious of their victims or simply insecure about their own physical or mental attributes. Furthermore, it has been my observation as both a teacher and parent that if a child is being bullied at school, it manifested itself at home, the result of abusive and noncommitted parents.
We persistently inquired about our daughter’s daily happenings, suspicious that she was encountering challenges on an almost daily basis. Only after a lengthy period of time did she acquiesce to experiencing a whole lot of angst. Then we were able to help her come up with ways variety of ways to cope with different stressors. As parents, it is essential not to disregard the most seemingly insignificant slights. What may appear to be an innocuous or off-handed comment may in fact be a harried child’s plea for help or at least an understanding of what they are enduring. Furthermore, it is entirely possible that, for them, you are their last line of defense. Even in these times with increasing attention paid to bullying and its repercussions, too many children and their concerns fall through the cracks.
The Harsh Reality
I would not be going out on a limb if I said my 15 year old step-daughter was trying to relay a message to me by sharing the book about the suicidal teen. From what her mother and I have ascertained, our daughter has been experiencing similar issues at school. Her relationship with a few of her classmates is growing increasingly tenuous, who apparently take exception with the fact that she is 4’10” tall and is another individual that doesn’t entirely go with the flow. Upon initially learning of her situation, I succumbed to fits of silent rage and utter contempt for those who have been giving her so much grief, even purposely bumping her in the hallways, knocking her off balance.
The aforementioned book evoked not only grave concerns for my step-daughter but motivated me to reassess my awareness of and ability to recognize signs of not only bullying but distress that has transitioned into something even more dangerous. After some careful thought, I am still convinced that it doesn’t require a doctoral degree to ask a simple or question or two, and then be willing to listen with undivided attention. It could be the difference between diffusing a situation in its nascent stages or ultimately witnessing a confrontation with catastrophic consequences.
I Was On The Receiving End
Besides, I was a mark of some bullies as well. I was tall, skinny, gawky, socially awkward and immature for my age, so I was an inviting target as well. Furthermore, with the last name of ‘Reed,’ I heard my fair share of surname-related derision (“Reed can’t read” and the like). However, it didn’t excuse the fact that I, at times, directed insults and occasional jabs at select peers. I didn’t realize it but over time, I developed a keen understanding of why I behaved in such a way. The fact of the matter is, I was struggling emotionally, the result of my parents divorcing, and the toll it exacted on my psyche made me fodder for other bullies.
Offer Unconditional Love And Support
If there is anything I can convey to parents and teachers of bullied children, it is to repeatedly remind them that they are not alone, and that they too have a voice. It’s not enough to share with children what you have gone through; you need to demonstrate to them the significance of maintaining open channels of communication with their families and peers. Moreover, remind them – with thoughts of my step-daughter clearly in mind – to not keep their wildly oscillating emotions bottled up inside like I did. Not only do I hope this message will eventually lead to someone helping a child they love dearly; maybe it will, in some cosmic sense, help me right some old wrongs as well.
Peters, J.A. (2010). By The Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead. New York, NY: Disney.
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