Mamatoga: Let's Talk About Bullying

Be nice to people. It's something I say to my kids all the time, usually without thinking about it. "Be nice!" But it isn't just a little phrase to toss off to your kids when you don't want them to kill each other, it's something that we don't always take to heart. It's something that we need to though. Be nice, be decent, be kind. When I was a freshman in high school, I was bullied. There was a group of junior year girls, led by a ringleader, let's call her "Brandi", and they would follow me in the hallway on the way to class and would make fun of me, every day. They would make fun of my outfits always, call me a "slut" sometimes, laugh at me, banned me from the cafeteria, and generally made my life miserable. I'm not sure why they singled me out, there were a few of us they picked out in my freshman year class. Most of the girls that picked on me I had never even met before, one or two were daughters of family friends of ours and I had known since I was little. Mostly it was just random that they chose me, but I was their target. I wasn't really different from my peers, nothing set me apart to make me an obvious target. They would travel in a little pack behind me, saying things like "Can you believe what she's wearing?" and telling people walking with me that they shouldn't be friends with such a loser. I remember clearly this pair of bleached jeans that I just couldn't wait to wear (it was the early 90's, bear with me). I had found them at this great vintage shop everyone went to and I felt pretty good in my new outfit, a little more "out there" than I would usually dress. Once the older girls saw me they ripped my new outfit to shreds, in front of a packed hallway. I was crushed, and when I went home I rolled them in a ball and hid them in my closet. My mom found them one day cleaning my room, and I lied, I told her they didn't fit me the right way, and I never wore them again.

If you dared to enter the lunch room they would dump things on you, they would force you to leave from their perch on the radiator. They would laugh, all together, if you cried. Otherwise, these were nice, normal girls. They got good grades, they came from "good families", they were involved in the community and played sports and had nice boyfriends and after school jobs. These weren't delinquent girls, they were the most popular girls in the school. People liked them.

It wasn't something I talked about at home too much, mainly because I was embarrassed. I didn't want to tell my parents the names they called me. I wasn't sure why they targeted me, and in a weird way I felt like it was somehow my fault. I was scared to fight back, and I thought that I would be blamed for not standing up for myself. And so I never once fought back. I never said anything. I thought maybe if I just ignored them they would go away. But they didn't. It lasted all year. When it got really bad I would go to the nurse's office, I would complain about phantom stomach aches and basically did whatever I could to get sent home. The nurse knew why I was there. But we all just didn't say anything. She would let me go home, knowing I wasn't sick. She would even lie to the attendance office and let me break the rule of having to have a parent pick you up and would write me a pass so I could just walk home alone. She was my one major ally, but we were in it together in silence.

She knew about it, everyone knew about it. Teachers saw it, my fellow classmates would see it, everyone knew. But we all just let it go. Hoping they would stop. Just girls being bitchy to each other, no big deal. A couple comments were made here and there to try to make them stop, but mostly it was brushed under the rug by pretty much everyone, including me. I felt like if I could just be quiet, if I could just not rock the boat, if I could disappear just a little bit, it would stop. Starting high school, I had visions of how it would turn out, I wanted to be popular and have a ton of friends just like everyone else, and I couldn't wrap my head around why these girls who didn't know me at all would hate me so much. I thought that things were bad enough as it was with me staying quiet, it would be so much worse if I tried to do anything about it.

I got through that year with my little group of friends. I was "banned" from any parties the older girls were at, not that I would dare to show my face there anyway. I made friends, I played sports, I made it through without ever really knowing why they chose me to pick on. I had a supportive home life, and great close friends, and when I was home away from them all I could try to let it go. And then in my sophomore year, it was like it never happened. Poof, they just stopped. No one ever acknowledged it, no one ever apologized. It was just over, mercifully. And I was so glad it was that I just tried to forget it ever happened. They never picked out any new girls to pick on, they just went on with their senior year like nothing ever happened, they graduated and moved on. And so did I.

Then one day I got onto the bus on campus when I was in college, heading home after my classes in the first week of school my sophomore year. A familiar voice called out to me, "Jenny Witte? Is that you?". And I froze. It was Brandi. I stood there, looking at her, unbelieving that she was HERE. ON MY BUS. In this little upstate New York college town. I had no idea we even went to the same school. "Hey! I didn't know you went to school here! We should drive home for breaks together!" Drive home from breaks together?! Was she for real? I think I must have smiled weakly, she rattled off her phone number, told me to call her, asked me where I hung out. She got off the bus a few stops later and I sat there, filled with anger. It was as if it all never happened. She had somehow erased it all and I helped her by not ever saying anything. After I never called her she actually called my mom to ask for my number. At this point I had been more open with my parents about what had happened, and my mom, remembering who she was, said she made up some feeble excuse about not knowing my new number. After that I never heard from Brandi again. The sad part about it is that she was there to study to be a teacher. This person. This girl who had tormented me for a year, SHE was going to be a teacher.

Even to this day, I'm embarrassed by it. It's not a story I share with people, it's something I have forgotten about for the most part. Did it change me? Probably. I'm not quick to make friends or trust other people easily. I'm more of a "close group of two or three friends" type of person. And in a lot of ways I'm lucky, mainly that we didn't have the internet back then the way we do now, which lets this kind of bullying happen freely, without consequence in many instances.

I wanted to share this story to just put an extra bit of awareness out there. When it happened to me we somehow, collectively, got locked into this "It's just girls being girls, let it blow over" kind of thing. The idea seemed to be that it never got physical, so what was the real harm? It also wasn't the "norm" in my school to have that much focused bullying, so I don't know if anyone really knew what to do about it, especially since these girls weren't the typical "bullies". So, I just wanted to share the awareness, it being National Bullying Prevention Month.

Last year, Finn got off the bus and the bus driver told me his "friend" had punched him in the face. Finn wasn't going to tell me about this incident because he considered this boy to be his friend and he didn't want to get his friend in trouble. He shrugged it off, telling me it was "fine". That this boy was just "being bad" but it was okay. Of course seeing my five year old want to shrug off getting punched in the face by a friend made my heart break into a thousand pieces and made my blood boil. But, we got it figured out. I think I took the right steps, and I've opened up a dialogue with Finn trying to explain that friends don't do those kinds of things. It's an instance I will not soon forget.

These tips here are useful even if your child has never had an instance of bullying. Learn about it now, in case they do. Learn about it now, in case they are the bully. Educate yourself so you can help someone, so you can help your child or someone else's. Education can be a powerful tool in prevention. Don't think it can't, or won't, touch your child in some way. Here are some resources to check out: