Yes, the truth will heal us all, just as soon as its done stomping all over our spilled guts.
When I got an email message from Dodai Stewart at Jezebel asking to republish The Lessons My Bullies Taught Me, I was over the moon. Like millions of small-time writers the world over, I dream of nothing so much as getting my words in front of more eyes. It will surprise no one who read that piece that my life has been one long search for acceptance and approval.
After Love with Teeth* appeared in the winter 2010 issue of Brain, Child Magazine, I learned to receive other people’s stories, to hear their pain and be connected to strangers by the common experience of loving/hating/loving our high-needs babies. Turns out, that didn’t quite prepare me for hearing the stories of people who were (or worse, are currently being) bullied.
Let’s begin with an admission: I thought that bullying was, if not rare, at least fairly uncommon. I’m embarrassed to admit such a large error in perception, but there it is: I assumed that we, the bullied of the world, were a small group.
But when the messages started pouring in, I had to rethink it all. And the ones that really stood out were the ones from my own classmates. There were two different kinds. First were the ones that said, “Adrienne, I had no idea!” Lesson learned: I’ve been a part of keeping the issue underground all these years. And second were the ones, almost all sent privately to my FB inbox or my email, that said, “Me, too!” More of them than I would have thought possible. People who I envied and who I thought were socially successful.
I am not an expert, nor even especially well-read, on the issue of peer abuse. Regular readers of this blog know that my research and reading time is pretty well occupied with the topic of pediatric mental illness. However, I’m willing to say with conviction that the problem is much larger than most of us imagine it to be, and that the lessons my bullies taught me are the same lessons that most bullied children learn.
I cannot respond personally to all the many messages I have received in response to The Lessons My Bullies Taught Me. The best I can do is encourage every adult I can reach to do everything possible to communicate these messages to the children in your lives: You matter. You do not deserve to be treated badly. I will do everything in my power to protect you.
I feel guilty every time I see someone on the web castigating my parents for their handling of the matter. Yes, I am still angry. That piece of my pain has yet to melt and heal. However, I absolutely know that they love me and did the best they could at the time. Neither of them was bullied as a child. No one, back then, talked about bullying as an issue worthy of attention. I will not make excuses for them; they are responsible for their behavior, just as I am responsible for my many and varied parental mistakes. But it’s no excuse to say that it’s not easy to find solutions to problems you don’t understand.
I want to address one more thing that came up a number of times: quite a few people mentioned that my teacher was right and that I should have changed my vocabulary to make the other children more comfortable with me. On its face, that seems reasonable. Social pressure brings people into the fold, yes? We couldn’t have a civil society if people wouldn’t learn to abide by our cultural mores.
What if those kids were made uncomfortable because I was a stutterer? Or because I was a minority in a racially homogenous school? Or because I had a big mole on my chin? Or because I was less intelligent than average? I was born a word-person as surely as I was born a blue-eyed person.
This is an important issue to me not just as a person who was socially ostracized as a child, but as the parent of a child who has significant, obvious behavioral and emotional differences. I want to live in a world in which we’re all safe to be who we are, without pretense. I strive to teach my children not to judge. I can think of no other place to start.
Every child is a potential bully. Every child is a potential bully victim. Many children bully and are bullied. Mine is not a story of evil children with me in the role of innocent victim. Neither is it a story of evil, neglectful adults. Bullying is complex and destructive to all involved; it’s an issue that affects millions of people long, long after the bullying is over and it deserves our attention. Thank you for joining the conversation.
Finally, I would like nothing more than to receive some stories from people who bullied other children. Go now and find the people you hurt. When you are ready, when you feel open and willing, make an apology. The person to whom you are apologizing may not be ready to hear you, might refuse to respond or even tell you you’re an asshole. However she or he responds, you will have done what’s right, and you will have given your victim(s) cause to begin thinking of you as a real person. After you’ve done that, come here and tell me all about it. The truth hurts like a son of a bitch, but it’s the only path to healing.
*Haven’t read Love with Teeth? Email me and I’ll hook you up.