Why the victim of bullying must tell…
This morning, as I was reading an article published in OnLineRI by a fellow Rhode Island blogger, Jackie Hennessey (www.ventingsessions.com), on the topic of BULLYING… a flood of emotions from decades ago came back to me.
Jackie writes, among other good advice, “It’s OK to tell.” These 4 words mean everything to me.
In high school, I was a VICTIM of a BULLY. I searched my archives to find a post I had written about bullying back on September 10, 2009. That experience helped shape my life, my 30-year career as a teacher, my mothering and now my grandmothering. “It’s OK to tell.” I learned the hard way. Here’s my post:
There has been a lot of talk lately on Twitter regarding bullies and bullying. This probably has to do with kids returning to school and after-school activities… places where kids can somehow get caught in the bully-victim scenario.
As a former teacher, 30-years worth teaching English and Reading, I know a bit about The Bully. But that is a whole other post for another day.
The reason I was, and am, so tuned into The Bully is because I was once The Victim. And as difficult as it was to be in that situation, it did give me great insight into the minds and actions of both.
I was a sophomore in high school, a great big high school with a couple of thousand students. At my high school, way back in the late 60′s, there were distinct divisions… college prep, business, vocational… and each division had its own wing. The only time there was any overlap was during Physical Education classes. In the gym, hundreds of students from each division were together, three periods per week. It was there, in the gym, that The Bully came into my life.
I was a fairly good athlete back then, having grown up between two brothers whom I wanted to equal or excel in both academics and sports. I loved competition and I liked to win. I didn’t do any one sport particularly great, but I knew how to do lots of sports. Volleyball was one sport that I did fairly well… particularly the serve. I worked on my serve and I could hit one hard. This was fine during friendly backyard games, but, I would discover, not in gym class. Not in gym class with a bunch of girls that I didn’t know. Not in gym class with much tougher girls than me whose other sport was beating up girls who beat them in sports like volleyball. It was a pride thing.
It all began with a serve. My team was comprised of my friends from my classes. The team on the other side of the net was comprised of friends from another division. I served the ball. It hit hard. We won the point. The other team was not happy. I served again. Same thing. I had never played angry volleyball, and I got a little rattled at the anger on the other side of the net. I served again. But this time, due to nerves, I hit the ball hard and up, rather than hard and over. The ball went straight up to the ceiling of the gym. I watched it in slow motion. I still see that ball today in slow motion.
That serve would change my life.
The slow motion ball crashed into one of the metal cages that encased the gym light bulbs. The huge bulbs. But on that day, with that ball, on that serve… the cage split open and the light bulb came crashing down. On the other side of the net. At the angry girls.
The girls scattered in enough time that no-one was hurt. But what could-have-been became my fault. The leader of the angry girls came tearing at me, yelling about how I broke that light bulb on purpose. I was so confused as to how she could think I could ever do something like that intentionally that I didn’t realize that she wanted to hurt me. Fortunately, our gym teaching came rushing over to clear us away from the glass and to keep The Girl who would become My Bully away from me.
But it didn’t stop there. The Bully began to find me in my academic wing, often with recruits, because bullies are notorious for gathering recruits. On one of these excursions, The Bully handed me a note that said she was going to find out where I lived. I was terrified. But I was more terrified to tell anyone. I didn’t tell my parents. I didn’t tell my guidance counselor. I didn’t tell my teachers. And I begged my friends not to tell anyone.
It got worse. On another of her visits to find me, a friend of The Bully said (I will never forget these words), “She’s the one who is sneaking around with Tommy.” She was me. But who was Tommy? It turns out that Tommy had broken up with The Bully and Tommy and I were dating. Not. I was literally frightened out of my skin. I had nightmares. I couldn’t concentrate. This had been going on for weeks. Still, I told no-one.
The last time The Bully found me as The Victim, we were in a very crowed hallway. I saw her coming with a group of friends. I tried to be inconspicuous. Suddenly, I felt a pain in my side and put my fingers to where it hurt. A tiny spot of blood was forming on my white blouse. The Bully held up a compass, the kind with a point, high and happily.
That was when I knew I could no longer be The Victim. I went to the school nurse and pretended to be sick. Still, I didn’t tell. I waited until school was over and took the bus home. At dinner that night, I broke down and told my parents… and showed them the stab mark on my side. My parents were horrified. But mostly, they were upset that I didn’t tell them. I explained that I thought things would get worse if I told. I had every Victim excuse you could ask for.
The next day, my parents took me to school and I, even then, reluctantly told the vice-principal all that had happened. He called The Bully out of class. We went into a room with him… The Bully, the vice-principal and me. The Bully told him that I had tried to kill her and her friends with the light bulb. She told him that I “stole” her boyfriend. All I could say was, “NO, I DIDN’T” to each accusation. But what I remember most about that meeting was how calm the vice-principal was. How caring. Even to The Bully. I saw her demeanor change right before my eyes as he patiently explained to her that she was wrong. He didn’t yell. He didn’t chastise. He listened to her like she meant something. And he asked her WHY she would behave in such a way. The Bully broke down into tears. I just sat there. He made her apologize to me and he asked me if I could find it in me to accept her apology, after all I had been through. I did. We shook hands. And it was over. All the bullying. Over.
That meeting made me realize that The Bully was far more vulnerable than I had ever been in my life. She was the one who felt so threatened and so insignificant and so inferior that CONTROL was all she wanted. Many years later, as a teacher myself, I could spot The Bully, and most times a Bully-in-the-Making. And I dug in… I asked WHY… and I listened. Don’t get me wrong here, please. The Victim needs protection. The Victim is the innocent party. The Victim’s life can be turmoil and living hell. I know. But if there are no bullies, then there are no victims. The Bully, by bullying, is in most instances begging to be saved.
But I also know that The Victim must tell someone. Right away. Things will not get worse by telling. Things will get worse by not telling. When control is at stake, The Bully will always win in the game of silence. Silence escalates. Silence fuels. Silence feeds. I know.
After that meeting with The Bully and the vice-principal, I will say that I was still frightened. My parents were not all that happy with just an apology along with the puncture in my side, but I was ready to move on. I had promised the vice-principal that I would stop in to see him every few days, which I did. And The Bully had promised the same thing. On one of these days, The Bully and I were outside his office at the same time. She told me that I was not the one who “stole Tommy.” No duh. It was a girl who looked like me. Duh. (No, I didn’t say that to her. I just thought that to her.) And she told me that I could be on her volleyball team if I wanted to. Because I served good. I actually did join her team for the rest of that semester.
We would not go on to become BFF’s… but we would go on to have an understanding. She was no longer The Bully. And I was no longer The Victim.
I had told someone and ended her reign of terror. I think the telling saved both of us.
Kids must know that it’s not only OK to tell; it’s necessary to tell. I thank Jackie Hennessey today for this important reminder…