I’m not talking about the massage technique. I wish I was. (Yes, this is one of those pretty much non-running-related entries. But that’s covered in the “AND BEYOND!” of the blog’s tagline.)
No, I’m talking about those things that bring up stuff from the past – usually stuff that you thought you were over and had left behind. Most of the time you can see these things coming and do your best to void them, or at least be prepared and try to deal with them as best you can. But there are times you don’t really see it coming (maybe you should, but for whatever reason you don’t) and it blindsides you, brining up all kinds of stuff.
That’s what happened to me this week.
I’ve been working my way through Jillian Michaels’ podcasts (I’d listened to them for a while, then stopped, but have started again and am catching up), and one I was listening to this week ended up being about cyberbullying. And bullying in general.
WHAM!! All of a sudden I wasn’t fine. All of a sudden I was back in junior high and high school – emotionally at least.
See, I was bullied pretty much from 9th grade on. I can only say thank god there weren’t cell phones and the internet then because I can’t even imagine how it would have gone down now.
While there were some things that weren’t totally “normal” in middle school (thanks to pre-teen hormonal emotional swings, I got sent to therapy at 12 – same time every week, and it meant being picked up early from school…NOT helpful and my final “diagnosis” was “12 year old girl”), it pretty much all started with 9th grade English. Our teacher, Mr. Mitchell, had us all keep journals at the beginning of the year. We had to write a certain number of entries per week, and at certain times he’d collect them. He’d read them (ok, I agree now that part could be called questionable, but he never specified how detailed and intimate we needed to get), and if we were puzzling out something, he’d often comment with his advice or thoughts. I trusted him, so I opened up more as the year went on. Even after the official assignment ended, he said if we wanted, we could continue on with the journals and he’d still collect them from time to time. I chose to continue.
I don’t really know why I was the selected target in my class. And there may have been others, but it certainly seemed like I was getting the brunt of it. I had several things in the “not like us” column for sure: I was fat, I was an academic and musical geek, my dad worked in a church and I was actively involved, we weren’t rich, I didn’t party on the weekends, etc. The one thing I had going on that I never let anyone see was the questioning of my sexual orientation – I hid that well (or thought I did anyway) by putting up pictures of the latest hot teen boy idols in my locker rather than the celebrities I really found attractive…and I never really worried about dating or anything, was more asexual than anything. So maybe that did contribute, I don’t know. One of my best friends was B, who had been born to a teenage mom so they had even less money than we did, and who had a hearing impairment. I’m not sure why the pack didn’t pick on her – or maybe they did and I just didn’t see it because of my own struggles with them. But regardless, the pack set its sights on me.
It started with someone stealing my journal. Since there wasn’t really time to get to the side of the building where my locker was, I carried most of my stuff around for most of the day. And at some point, one of them went in my bag and slipped the journal out. I noticed it later, and tried retracing my steps to find it, thinking I’d just lost it. But I never succeeded in finding it. It would mysteriously reappear in my backpack as suddenly and unexpectedly as it disappeared. Pnly it wasn’t just the way it was. Someone, or more than one person, had read through my journal (where I had opened up enormously because I trusted my teacher) and written their own comments. In red ink. Which cannot be covered over by regular white-out. And I can assure you their comments weren’t supportive or helpful.
Little things like that (I say “little” meaning things that wouldn’t be detected so easily be administration or school staff) kept happening. Why my English teacher never attempted to step in or do anything, I still don’t know. Once I realized he wasn’t really doing anything other than just trying to be supportive of me, I definitely stopped opening up as much to him – but even my more banal entries earned more red writing. Eventually I just stopped journaling all together and it took me a while to start opening up again, even in the relative anonymity of cyberspace.
Things continued throughout high school. On occasion a work packet would disappear a day or so before it was due only to reappear after the deadline had passed (thankfully most of the teachers were understanding). I dealt with things by just making myself disappear into music and academics – climbed from top 20 at the end of 9th grade to top 5 (possibly even 3rd, but I never saw a number) by graduation. Here’s a hint to especially junior high and high school teachers and counselors…it’s not just the kids whose grades drop suddenly you should be worried about; if there’s a meteoric rise in performance it would/should be worth a look as well. But essentially I made myself appear oblivious to how I was being treated. Truth is I did care, and I really wanted friends, but it just flat out hurt too much. And it wasn’t just from my own classmates.
One day in particular I remember from my sophomore year. Due to a scheduling glitch, I ended up first semester in a Current World Events class which was normally only juniors and seniors. I had my struggles in there, but generally did ok. So for second semester, I really wanted to take psychology – another class that was normally reserved for juniors and seniors. I made my case that they had put me in the other class in spite of my being a sophomore so therefore it was unfair to then say I couldn’t take a class I wanted to take because of my grade. I won, and got to take the class. One Friday, I was going to be going from class to the band room for last minute audition rehearsal with my band director before my mom picked me up to drive to Winston-Salem for Governor’s School auditions. All during class I kept feeling things hitting my back and head, but I didn’t want to make a big deal about it and bring attention to myself in front of the juniors and seniors who hated me (probably because I actually cared about the class and they just wanted an easy grade). My friend T met me after the bell to walk me to the band room and wish my good luck. (T was a senior, but never one who treated me badly). She immediately said “What is in your hair?” and discovered that it wasn’t your simple spit balls. It was gum. Little balls of chewing gum. There was no rehearsing that day – my band director (probably the only one who had any inkling of what I was going through, though he never really did anything to prevent it either, he just opened up the band room as a place where we were allowed to hang during lunch) spent the time gently picking the gum out of my hair, piece by piece. I never told my parents about it – in fact, the first they heard of it was when that was included in my section of my running club’s It Gets Better video.
Later that year, on a band trip to New York, there was a glitch with the rooming list and I ended up NOT in the room with the few friends I had but in a room with three girls who were among the chief architects of my bullying. They were extremely verbal about their displeasure and others were acting like they were banished to life in prison. I was in tears and ready to just get off at the next rest stop, call my parents, and wait there for them to come get me. Thankfully some senior girls who were in a room of only three said I could stay with them. Surprisingly my band director had issues with this, but eventually one of the seniors convinced him they were fine with it and it was the right thing to do.
It was after those two things that I really just disappeared myself into everything not social, so I pretty much made myself oblivious to everything.
And then senior year. We were going to have an exchange student with us for a year. But when Martine arrived, it was obvious that it was NOT a good match. She refused to participate in family chores, feeling it was below her. She blatantly disobeyed my parents’ rules such as a curfew. And finally one night it was too much and my dad called the AFS field person who lived near us and said that she had to come and get Martine. Immediately. So home life was better instantly. But school got worse as Martine had immediately been sucked into the popular circles, and I was blamed for her being sent away (only to another school in the rich section of town where I’m sure she was much happier). So yeah, even more isolated than I had been before.
When yearbooks came out, I was being selective about who was signing it. But – you guessed it – it disappeared. When I got it back, I was terrified to read through what they’d done. Surprisingly most of it was positive – things along the line of how they admired my determination, etc. But the damage was done.
It made me hesitant to reach out to people, and so even in college where no one knew me or the history, I was afraid to reach out too far, to let myself get too close to anyone. I would see groups of people together and shy away. What I’d learned was that groups are dangerous. Groups hurt. Groups randomly turn on you and you have no clue why. And so while I loved college, I will freely admit it wasn’t the total overall experience it could have been.
When I started working in youth ministry, I made up my mind and made it clear that my groups were going to be safe spaces where bullying of any kind would no be tolerated. And slurs of any type would not be tolerated. That helped contribute to me leaving the last church I was working in – when parents are more concerned with condemnation than the fact that their kids were using “gay” as an insult (and this was even before I finally explored and admitted to myself that I’m gay). And I work on making my classroom a safe space as well.
The effects of what happened to me will always be with me. This week proved it when listening to the podcast and not realizing the detail it was going into until it was too late and I was stuck like a deer in the headlights, unable to turn it off.
Bullying and its effects aren’t something that just goes away (even when marathon running has gotten some of them to congratulate me and encourage me and say I’ve encouraged them). Even now I’m hesitant to get involved in groups, especially where things are already established. I isolate myself, and I freely admit that. Am I proud of it? No. But it’s what I’ve always known, and it’s my fallback position. I am trying though – running club in particular is a place where I’m beginning to feel safe, where I’m beginning to feel like I can reach out. Like there are really people who will accept me for who I am and how I am.
It’s hard to admit when you’re being bullied or when you’ve been bullied. Even now, I know that there are people who did participate in the bullying who are on facebook who may read this – or even people who aren’t on facebook who might find this and read it. Part of me wonders how they’re going to react, if they are. Did they realize they were bullying at the time? Or how it would have ripple effects even this far out? But I think it’s important to talke about bullying, about how you can move through it even as the scars will always be with you.
But even with scars, you can be strong. You can succeed for yourself. You can cross that finish line and know that you’re stronger than you would have been.
Even though nothing’s perfect, it does get better. I promise.