Monday, September 30, 2013

Bullying and Silence. One and the same.

There has been a lot of publicity about the coach that suspended his players for eight days for bullying at Union High School in Roosevelt Utah. It even made national news. If you think about it, eight days doesn't seem that long for bullying that could potentially result in life long self-esteem issues, yet in our world, that kind of behavior (bullying), is too often ignored or explained away as "teenagers being teenagers". So when coach Labrum put his foot down and  suspended not only the guilty players, but the whole team, the nation took notice.

I took notice as well.

Why? It isn't the sacrifice of football games that caught my attention. It is because, as he explained it, 'If you stand by and do nothing, you are as guilty as those who do the name calling.' That was what surprised me the most. I especially like the quote he asked his boys to memorize:

“Good character is more to be praised than outstanding talent. Most talents are, to some extent, a gift. Good character, by contrast is not given to us. We have to build it, piece by piece — by thought, by choice, courage, and determination.”

This is a deeply personal issue for me. It is not something I have shared with many people or even like to talk about, but it feels like the time has come to stand up and share my story. It  happened twenty-five years ago in high school. I was bullied by two different groups of girls. I should be over it. I should have forgiven those girls, I shouldn't even talk about it or bring it up now, right?

But here is the ugly truth about bullying. It doesn't just go away when the girls who "pretended" to run you over have added stretch marks, children, and mortgages, and have seemingly forgotten all about their thoughtless debauchery.  If not dealt with, the affects of being bullied can stick with you like a bad case of meatloaf and affect your self-worth for years and years.

I had a very happy childhood, good friends, and happy family memories. Coming from a family of nine, we lived humbly but happily, in a 1800 sq. ft home with a one car garage up until I was in the fifth grade. Then we moved two houses over and doubled the house and garage size, but  still lived relatively modestly by today's standards. When I entered South Fremont High School in the tiny town of St. Anthony, Idaho in the fall of 1988, I was popular, cute, was a freshman cheerleader, and was ready to conquer the world. If I had a fault, it was that I was a bit naive to the world of high school and its many entrappings and believed people would like me for me.

School hadn't been in session long when I sensed mixed signals by the older classmates. Ugly stares seemed to meet me at every turn. I had no  idea why, except, maybe  my nose wasn't perfect, or my hair too frizzy or my butt too wide. I had no idea. One night a group of freshman students, including myself, drove to a potato cellar where the junior class was busily working on their homecoming float. I remember walking in, not feeling bashful, as I recognized several kids from my neighborhood and thought they would be happy to welcome us. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a girl  I didn't know, but had seen before in the halls coming swiftly for me like an escaped gorilla. She had always appeared very happy, like when she laughed (loudly, I might add) her eyes squinted nearly shut in pure delight and she seemed to be very well liked. At the same time, she might have been able to bench press her boyfriend if she needed to. So you get the idea; I wasn't sure what to make of her. But here she came, stomping towards me, her arm outstretched, her finger pointed in my direction. "You!!" she had yelled. I knew I was in trouble. I took a step back, but it was too late. She grabbed me by the wrists and  started swinging me around in a circle like I was a limp doll. I fell to the ground and tried to fight her off me. My legs kicked up a cloud of dust. The taste of sharp dirt was strong in my mouth.

As I struggled with her I wondered why someone wasn't trying to stop this insane girl from tearing me from limb to limb. I don't even know if I knew her name. I remember yelling out, "Why do you hate me?" and she sneered back sinister-like, "Because, you're a wench!"   I remember hearing some laughter. It was as if my world had turned upside down. These people who had seemed so nice, who I would have believed would save me if I needed saving, were watching this whole scene in interest. Not even my Freshman friends did anything. Finally a teacher came  and pulled us apart. I left, shaken, dusty and confused. I went to the car and waited for the others. One of my friends whispered, "Why do they hate you so bad?" I could only shake my head as I wiped  embarrassed and dusty tears away. I had no answer, yet at the same time I was wondering, "Why didn't you stop them?"

Nominated for Freshman Homecoming Royalty the day after the "incident"
The next day I was called to the principals office. Three or four of the girls involved were sitting there glaring at me. I had not told on them, but the damage was done. The principal, bless his heart, didn't understand the situation. He thought we were friends who had gotten in an argument. It was the biggest waste of fifteen minutes I had experienced in a principals office ever. The bullying only grew worse after that.  I kept it quiet, not wanting a repeat of the soft lecture we had all gotten from Mr. Parker. I was nearly run over, flipped off, called names, had doors slammed in my face, or pushed into the wall and called more names by a whole herd of sophomore and junior girls. It got to a point that I avoided the main hall where upperclassman sat on benches and watched people walk by. I never sat on those benches. I would walk outside to get to the other end of the hall rather than have to  hear them heckle me. I hated those benches and never sat there. Not even my senior year except maybe once when someone insisted I sit by them.

high school can be such a lonely place
This continued into my junior year. Though the Junior girls had moved on, the girls who had bullied me as sophomores were now seniors. You'd think they would have  found other girls to pester, but I must have been too irresistible. It all came to a head near the end of my junior year. I was running for cheer queen. Let's clairify-- I didn't want to run-- I'd been voted in to run. I knew my fragile self-esteem was in serious jeopardy with any sort of election, but I'm not usually a quitter so I didn't drop out.

We were in the middle of an assembly. I believe we were doing the gong show and I was supposed to sing a song as well as I could and then they would "gong" me off. It was supposed to be a joke. I was supposed to sing well, and still be taken off. Funny, right? I knew it was going to be fodder for the felines, but I did it anyway. Sure enough, I began to sing. I don't know who it was, but I do know that most of it came  from girls in the first and second rows. (The mighty Seniors). Some of it came from a few guys. The sounds of bleeting sheep, of  vomiting, and sequential giggling was all I could hear as I sang. I tried to ignore it, but it was the final straw in a three year history of abuse from these otherwise popular, beautiful, well-liked girls. I ran off the stage. My heart felt crushed, broken, and hopeless. I had reached a tipping point and I was falling through shattering glass. Devastated is an understatement.  The skit wasn't over. We were supposed to go running back on the stage, but I was done. Done with everything. Including life. I slipped into a dark deserted instrument room, crumpled to the floor, and cried three years worth of tears in complete darkness, feeling more alone and worthless than I had ever felt before. I wanted to die. I don't know how the skit ended, or if anyone noticed I was missing. Eventually the bell rang. Time for lunch. I slowly walked home knowing in that moment that I wasn't going to win, and I was just glad it was almost over.

Besides wondering why these girls couldn't leave me alone, I wondered more earnestly, where my friends were. I knew that in each instance it had only been a handful of girls yet it felt like the whole school was against me. It felt that way because while these few individuals called me names, prank phone called me, pushed past me in the hall, drove circles around me, etc, there were always dozens of bystanders watching, and never once did any of them, including my best friends, come to my rescue and tell those girls off. Ever. In three years, (and believe it or not, it even continued briefly during my first year of college by one particular girl), I never had anyone stop this bullying. No one, that I am aware of, called these girls out while they were doing it or stood up for me  The teacher that witnessed it first hand only called all of us to the principals office, like I was a guilty participant instead of an innocent victim. And these aren't bad people. I have good friends. The teacher is now the principal. He is a good man. But people have long looked the other way when it comes to bullying, giving it the label of teen aged oats to be sown. Or harmless pranks.

In spite of the darkness, there were glimmers of hope. I did have one of the girls that wasn't actively participating, but was a silent observer, come up to me after the girls had done something in the locker room and actually apologize for her friends behavior, stating that she didn't know why they were so mean to me. Just her acknowledging that it was happening, and that it didn't make sense, and that she was sorry for her friends actions meant the world to me. I never forgot her and if she is reading this, I want her to know how desperately I needed her words of apology and sympathy more than she could have ever known. Thank you for standing up for what is right.

It is not only for what we do that we are held responsible, but also for what we do not do. Moliere

The bullying I experienced was small potatoes compared to what others have gone through, but the emotional drain it had on me has, unfortunately, affected every aspect of my life. I have felt as if I must prove myself, and conquer the inconsequential opinions, of others while at the same time doubting I am of worth anyway. Sometimes these experiences make us stronger, they give us more drive to be successful. Maybe at some point in my life I will thank these people, but I doubt it. I wonder what the Becky of yesterday could have done with her life if she hadn't been squashed to nothing by those girls in high school. It is unfortunate that I have spent many years trying to "get over" the damaging affects of their actions.

I worry about my own kids, not just that they might be bullied at some point, but even more dangerous in my eyes, that they might be silent observers. For that is the true downfall of society. People who know better but do nothing. I have tried to never be that person. More than once I have gotten in the middle of things if I have felt someone was being victimized or  unfairly judged. I even tried to break up a fist fight once. By the way, I wouldn't recommend it. Not when you are half their stature and weight. I am a loyal friend. I will stand up for you to anyone at any time. I am not afraid of the backlash of others opinions, though I am trying to learn to be more diplomatic than I have been in the past. If you know me, you might recognize this in me and maybe now you might understand why I do what I do.

Bad things happen. Why did those girls hate me? I have an idea, but it's only an idea. In the end we can't control other's actions, we can only control our own. It doesn't always make things hurt less, but it does give us a recipe for how we should behave. This is why I share my story. To help make us all aware that it is our responsibility to stand up for those who are too weak to stand.

And just like Napoleon Dynamite,  if and when you ever need me, I've got your back.

People are unreasonable, illogical and self-centered.Love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Do good anyway.
If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.
The biggest person with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest person with the smallest mind. Think big anyway.
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
People really need help but may attack if you help them. Help people anyway.
Give the world the best you have and you might get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you've got anyway. 

Dr. Kent M. Keith