I would like to save this post for when I am a famous author being interviewed on NPR, but I’m going to share it with you now, despite my embarrassment, in the hopes that it encourages someone who is afraid to write–or that it helps you encourage someone.
There has been a lot of commentary and response lately to the recent student suicides that were the result of vicious bullying. I also just found out that my 16-year-old brother-in-law, who has aspergers, has been bullied at school and hit his limit last week. Thank God he knows how to flip out or reach out for help without hurting other people. He is a smart, sweet kid, and I hope things get better for him now that everyone is taking the situation seriously.
What most people in my life don’t know is that I was on the receiving end of persistent bullying in junior high. And it almost stopped me from writing for good. What happened to me was so painful to me that even though I wanted to write so badly that it hurt, I just couldn’t trust paper with my inner thoughts again for many years. Fifteen years, to be exact. Bullying made a mess of me. If you’ve ever known me to be prickly or reserved or arrogant or snide or perfectionistic or defensive, this is the root of it all. I am still climbing out of this self-protective hole. But I’m not writing this to get your pity. I’m telling you my story to tell you two ways you can do something about bullying and keep other kids from going through everything I had to to get back to my center and start writing again.
It doesn’t really take much to convince a twelve-year-old girl that she’s ugly and worthless. Being ignored, purposely excluded from groups, or mercilessly teased on a daily basis will definitely do the trick. And unlike my brother-in-law, I didn’t know how to ask for help, because I was embarrassed that the bullying was going on at all. After a while it sank into me, became a part of my identity. I remember a time when I told myself to memorize the appearance of my hands, because they were the only thing about myself that I didn’t hate. But one day my mom’s friend paid me a compliment about my skin, which meant a lot to me because she could see that I had a lovely peachy skin tone even though my skin was broken out. And that was what I wanted most of all–for the people around me to see through my glasses and bad haircut and bad skin and value the person I was inside. Taking a giant leap of faith, I wrote down these thoughts in my binder one night. And a few days later, I took another leap of faith and threw this writing out in the trash can at school along with some old homework. I told myself it was paranoid to think that the mean girls in my class would go through the trash to see what I had thrown away. I mean, come on! I decided I just wasn’t going to be that paranoid person, and I went ahead and cleaned out my binder, threw the papers in the trash.
The mean girls pawed through the trash and found my inner thoughts. And then they shared them with the twelve-year-old boys (what could be worse?). And the boys read them in front of their math class (oh, that is worse). And then they passed the note around and read it in front of other classes, none of which I was in (still worse: I was oblivious to why boys were jokingly flirting with me in the halls for two days). And then when I found out what was going on, on March fifteenth (beware the Ides of March, right? Of course I remember the day. I remember what I was wearing. I remember everything.), they passed the paper on to other schools in town. I asked for it back. They said they didn’t know where it had gone. They were lying. It’s still out there somewhere.
To my creative openness, this was a near death blow. And some kid out there is going through the exact same thing right now, and maybe they are supposed to be a writer too, just like me. I want you to do what you can to help them, so they don’t wait fifteen years to start writing again.
Here is what you can do:
1) When you see the bullying, don’t turn away in embarrassment. Speak up. It will make all the difference. Where were the teachers in the classes where the boys read my note? Did they briefly step out of the classroom when this happened? Did they stand by? I don’t know. But if the first teacher had taken the note away from the first boy who read it, things would have been different for me. If the second teacher had taken away the note, and so on, it would have helped. If one other kid in the entire school had said, “Hey guys, this is really mean and immature. Let’s give Laura her paper back,” it might have made a difference. Even the kids who clearly cared were silent. Be anything but silent.
2) Encourage a bullied kid in their gifts. Most bullied kids are kind of nerdy, which means they’re usually pretty brilliant at something. I had created my own language for secret communication with my friends by sixth grade and written a thick folder full of poetry by seventh grade. I got straight A+s in English grammar and Spanish. Clearly I had a thing for languages. If someone had said something to me, encouraged me to write more, I would have held on to that scrap of hope like a life raft. If someone said anything to me like this, I don’t remember. Of course it was more obvious that I was talented at playing the piano, since I did that in public, so it’s possible people encouraged me in this instead. But you get my point, right? It never hurts to encourage kids that they are talented, and bullied kids really need to hear this.
Also, keep in mind that a negative statement carries ten times the power of a positive one. One well-meaning English professor in college told me NOT to write fiction but to teach grammar instead. Guess which part of that statement burned into my brain and kept me from taking the plunge for a few more years? I’m doing it anyway, now that I have my confidence back, but it took a while to pull myself up out of self-doubt and fear.
None of us is perfect about encouraging others, or even avoiding saying hurtful things–certainly not me. But we all can do more to help kids who are being picked on. I know it. Will you keep your eyes open for someone who needs encouragement this week? My twelve-year-old self would be forever grateful to you.