As we begin the school year for 2015-16, it is important to continue to raise awareness of bullying once more because it continues to be a prevalent issue and so very destructive to the lives of our children. More and more, we are seeing the impact of bullying (and particularly cyberbullying) prominently in the lives of our children.
Bullying can scar a child for years to come
The girl stood in the school doorway, tears streaming down her face.
“Where have you been?” her father said, annoyance clear in his voice, as he walked up to see why the 9-year-old hadn’t come to the car. “We have to go. You have a dentist appointment.”
The girl said nothing, but knew resisting was futile. Still, she dragged along behind him, silent tears running down her cheeks. As the two rounded the corner of the building, two boys jumped out of the bushes. The girl screamed.
These were the boys who had threatened to beat her up after school. These were the boys who had pulled her hair, punched her on the playground, called her names, and threatened her relentlessly for six months.
They had chased her up the street as she and her brother walked home from school so often that she begged her mother to pick them up. At recess, she tried to stay as far away as she could, but the one boy — who was 5 inches taller and at least 30 pounds heavier — always seemed to seek her out. He would get in line behind her at the end of recess, and kick her, poke her, pinch her.
Even the girls in the class got in on it after a while, making fun of her clothes, making fun of the thick black hair that stood out against her pale Irish skin.
It had gotten so bad that the girl who loved school begged and even cried, asking her mother not to make her go, and had developed a cough so severe it kept her up all night — and disappeared the instant her mother called the school saying she would be absent.
She had tried to talk to the teacher about it. “Don’t be a tattletale,” the teacher said, admonishing her.
This day, however, was the final straw.
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According to a study cited by StopBullying.gov, 28 percent of students in grades 6-12 have experienced bullying. It takes many forms — name-calling, rumors and gossiping, cyberbullying and physical threats and attacks. Kids get singled out for any variety of reasons — disabilities, social awkwardness, being overweight, social status, or being gay or transgender are among some of the most frequent targets.
The 9-year-old girl standing in the doorway of that school, crying, terrified, waiting for her father to pick her up for a dentist appointment, was me.
We had moved to a very small town in Pennsylvania because of my father’s job. It was the kind of area that should have made for an idyllic childhood — lots of woods to explore, a creek to wade and fish, wild berries to pick. We rode bikes around the neighborhood, bought penny candies from Wiley’s Delicatessen and didn’t come in until the street lights came on.
But for the first nine months we lived there, it was far from idyllic.
I was the new kid in a very small town. And I was smart enough that school came very easily to me.
I became a target on a daily basis. Poked in class. Name-calling — “Wiggy” because my dark hair was so stark against my freckled Irish skin. Chased around the playground at recess, and hit and pinched.
Threatened with being beat up on a regular basis.
School — which I had always loved — was a place of torture. It was rare that a day went by without some kind of incident. I had tried to tell my parents, but they didn’t understand how bad things were at school, even when I cried about having to go. My Sunday School teacher was sympathetic, but told me to pray for the boy who was the ringleader — which did little to make me feel safe.
And of course, the teacher told me not to be a tattletale.
The day my dad came to pick me up for a dental appointment changed the equation. It was then that my parents understood the extent of the problem and took action. My father collared the two boys and read them the riot act. Then he went into the school and raised hell with the principal and the teacher in particular for not taking steps to address it.
The two boys in question were suspended from school for a week. The ringleader was transferred to another school in the district. It was springtime — there were only a few weeks left in the school year. Because the bullying had infected the entire class, another boy in the class slammed me to my back on the classroom floor the following week. I remember hitting my head and chipping teeth.
These days, the impact of bullying on a child — both those who are bullied and those who do the bullying — is better understood. Studies show that bullying contributes significantly to depression and low self-esteem, can result in health problems or impact the academic performance of those who are bullied. Kids who bully are more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs as teens or adults, get into fights, and be abusive toward their partners or children as adults, according to StopBullying.gov. And studies show that kids who are bullied can also turn around and bully others — a problem seen with the hazing rituals that have surfaced at high schools in recent years.
We lived in the town three more years…
…and the whole time I avoided the ringleader’s house at all costs — until we moved again for my dad’s job. But the damage was done.
At my new school, I shied away from making friends. I was terrified of becoming a target again. I struggled with depression and weight issues throughout high school — my grades were the only thing that didn’t suffer, because my academics were the one thing that made me feel good on a consistent basis.
Intervention — especially by adults — can have an impact. But that starts with understanding that it’s a real problem and accepting that every child is capable of it. The mother of the boy who led the bullying of me never believed he could do such a thing — even though he had multiple discipline problems in school. I learned years later that he had committed suicide at the age of 18. I feel for his family because no one should lose a child that way, but I can’t say that knowledge ever made it easier to forgive what happened.
I will always wonder if things could have been different if the teacher had taken the problem seriously and stood up for me. Despite years of therapy, I still keep the world at arm’s length, 40 years later. I am wary of everyone at first — to the point where a family member once told me point blank: “You have trust issues.” Guilty as charged.
It takes a long time for me to let my guard down, and even then, it rarely comes down completely. I share innocuous things — my love of soccer, for example — but only a handful of people really know me.
It’s just safer that way.
Please be aware of children in your care who are showing signs of fear, anxiety, sleeplessness or other unusual behaviors that may signal bullying. It is too serious an issue to ignore. As you saw in this article, bullying can be life-dominating for both the bully and the victim of bullying.
Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network