I had injured my knee when I was in basketball in seventh grade, and was on crutches with a hip-to-ankle leg brace the day I got on a bus and rode ninety minutes from home with other students from my school to attend a Student Council leadership conference. It turned out to be one of the worst days of my life. I was, for reasons still unclear to me, the target of vicious bullying in seventh grade largely led by two girls who took every opportunity to demonstrate their hate for me. The teachers did nothing, other students did nothing. For months and months and months, nothing. The bullying was so bad at one point an incredibly inept guidance counselor told my parents we should consider moving.
I had no friends in seventh grade save one, a girl who is still my friend today. I got on that bus with the feeling something bad was going to happen, above and beyond the usual daily crap I took from the kids at school (like “slam books” being passed around with horrible things written about me or having obscenities scrawled with my makeup all over my gym locker or people kicking my crutches out from under me and laughing as I fell to the floor). The high school this conference was held at was an enormous school in a suburb of Milwaukee. After the final sectional of the day, we had to hurry to get back to our bus. The kids from my school, led by my main bully, took all these confusing turns and hallways intentionally trying to lose me as I struggled to keep up on my crutches. I could hear them laughing at me and taunting me. I heard my bully say, “She’s been like a dog following us all day. Let’s lose her!” And they did, they took off running and I couldn’t keep up with my crutches and after not too long, I couldn’t hear their footsteps anymore. It was winter and had become dark outside by the late afternoon, and I was completely lost inside this giant high school. I let my crutches fall to the ground, then my body followed, and I began to sob. I was lost, physically and emotionally. I had no idea why these kids hated me so, so much. Where did their cruelty come from?
My teacher came looking for me, and found me in a teary puddle on the floor. He sat down next to me, put his arm around me, smoothed my hair, and hugged me. And then he said, “Missy, they hate you because you are better than them.” I never told anyone what he said to me, but it stopped the suicidal thoughts going through my head. He helped me up, we walked back to the bus in silence. I rode home in the seat across the aisle from him in the front of the bus, crying quietly and just aching to get home and fall into my mom’s arms. When we got back to school, I quickly and quietly hopped down the stairs of the bus and walked into school while he stayed on the bus and gave the kids some wrap up notes for the day.
I was trying to get my books and back pack and get the hell out of there, but my leg in the brace was throbbing with pain at this point and I couldn’t move fast enough. The kids started filing up the stairs to our hallway of lockers, quietly staring at me. The teacher must have said something.
And then it happened.
My bully came up to me, put her hand on my neck and made a motion like how you would take a leash off a dog. She said loudly, “There you go you bitch dog, you are free of your leash and don’t have to follow us anymore.”
Where she touched me on my neck felt like fire. I saw white and my ears rang. And then I exploded. I dropped my crutches and in one swift motion grabbed her by her throat with one hand, lifted her in the air, and pile drove her into the bank of lockers. I slammed her into the lockers, as hard as I could. I held her in the air by her throat, and hissed at her through clenched teeth that I may be a bitch dog, but she was nothing but dog shit and that I hated her more than she hated me. I said I was done with it, and tomorrow, she had better leave me alone. Then I threw her to the ground and left her there in a snotty, crying mess. And I heard everyone laughing at the bully who had terrorized our entire grade for a year.
I collected my things and began the long, cold, crying, painful walk to my house. When I got in the door, my mom hugged me and said I wasn’t in trouble. She must have gotten a phone call. My dad hugged me. My brothers checked on me later that evening. I had people around me who loved me and showed it, which is why I didn’t kill myself that night. But I wanted to. I didn’t really want to, but this was my breaking point. I just couldn’t take one more day of being made to feel worthless. Mostly, I didn’t do anything drastic that night because I loved myself and I knew that what the teacher had said was right. I was better than them.
The next day when I walked into school, kids were smiling at me and saying hi. Not just hi, they were saying my name. Like I was a real person. I had people to sit by in lunch and study hall. Things changed very quickly for me. I was instantly liked by my classmates again and by the beginning of 8th grade, I was popular and remained so through high school.
What became of my bully? She was largely ostracized and bullied by most of the school until the day we graduated. So, I did what I had been brought up to do – I befriended her. We became very close friends, actually. I stood up for her. I stood up for other kids being picked on. I had words with boys who were bullying my younger brother. I broke up fights, and had secret therapy sessions in the bathroom with girls who were where I was that horrible winter day. I kept everyone’s secrets, still to this day. I was in every club and every sport, and enjoyed being friends with all the kids jocks to band geeks. Because no one has the right to make you feel small.
My senior year of high school we studied the Holocaust for many weeks, culminating in a large display of mixed media art. We had two Holocaust survivors acting as mentors for our class. One warm spring day, I was designated by my teacher to walk the woman back to her car. She was elderly and walked slowly with a cane. She had parked really far away from the parking lot, down the block and up a hill. It took us forever to reach her car, but I was so honored to be in her presence that I reasoned it would totally be worth the inevitable detentions I was about to get. She told me about her sister and mother and father who had been killed in the camps. She didn’t tell me about their deaths, she told me about their days spent alive. She told me about her favorite dress, and how dirty it had gotten on the train to the work camp she was deported to. She told me about the children she had birthed in America, and what a lovely place America was. I couldn’t speak the entire time, I just held tightly to her arm wrapped in mine as we walked. The sun was warm on our backs.
We reached her car and she said to me, “Your project is one of the best in the class. Do you know how I know this? It made me cry. Not a lot of kids understand this. What happened. You do. You touched my heart and now you need to promise me, when you see injustice, you are to be not silent. Repeat that to me.”
I stood there for an unknown amount of time, dumbstruck. I found my voice and I said, “My promise to you is that whenever I see injustice, I will always be not silent.”
I have always kept my promise to her. I always will. I will always be not silent. Those words are burned into my heart.
I don’t feel like making a video about my bullying experience for Team Bullied, because I can write better than I can talk. But I did make a video about bullying and my friend Carrie Goldman’s new book “Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs To Know To End the Cycle of Fear”, and you can see it here.
Tomorrow I’ll review her excellent book, and tell you how I’ve dealt with bullying as a parent, and how I am teaching my children to create a culture of dignity in their school and with their peers.
No one has the right to make you feel small. When it does happen, be not silent.