I see this girl, wearing the pink sweater. I look at the freckles and big eyes and remember growing up in an average small town and in an average family. That seemed like such a long time ago, but even now some of those memories of what she went through make my muscles tense and my stomach nauseous, because I know what happened to that girl just a couple of years after she was pictured in that pink sweater.
You see, that girl? That’s me. And I was bullied. Not just the brunt of teasing, or teenaged mean-girl stuff. What I went through was far more vicious than that. It was being systematically and deliberately targeted over a period of years. I can’t remember what started it all, but I know that once the bullying started, a cycle was set in motion that didn’t stop. I became the joke of the school, the punching bag. And yes, I did try to tell people. Over and over again. But the answer I got was; It’s not really so bad, everyone goes through it. It’s just a phase they’re going through. Just take your lumps. So I will never have the answers about why it happened to me or understand why no one stood up for me when they knew it was going on. That bit hurts the most.
Can I forgive? Perhaps. I don’t want to guilt any of my classmates who I am in contact with now (thanks, Facebook) about what happened because I want to be the bigger person. And besides, what would be the point of dredging up the past? And if I dared to confront the perpetrators after all this time, I’m not even sure whether they would remember what they did, never mind care. But though that girl is now a woman, I can never forget. I remember everything that was done to me. I remember the pall of fear I felt every day going to school, wondering what fresh hell would be inflicted on me that day. I remember feeling that nobody cared about me or thought I mattered and therefore I didn’t even deserve to be on this planet. My inner tape recorder continually played these messages and it took years of effort after the bullying stopped to create positive new ones. But the negative messages can never be fully erased, and they still occasionally pop up even now, when I’m in my 40s. I can never forget what happened because the bullying I experienced during my childhood and teenage years is an indelible part of my narrative of growing up. It will always be there, and perhaps something will always trigger those memories no matter how old I am.
Yes, I am a bullying statistic, but I survived. With the utmost effort of my entire being,I survived. I may not have a Ph.D or a successful career in the worldly definition of success, but I am proud to say that healing has happened. I never thought I’d find a partner and start a family, but I did, and my supportive husband and wonderful son have healed me. I have worked hard to create a safe home and loving family despite feeling the brunt of so much hate in my earlier life. I want to use my experience to encourage others and say to them, you can survive it too.
It’s difficult to have that conversation. There is always that taboo. In the back of my mind, society still doesn’t know what to call those who have experienced bullying, so I am labeled as a victim. As such, there are connotations. For one thing, being handed this label has taken a bit of my power away forever. Some of my innocence and sparkle from the girl in the pink sweater was removed, and it can’t ever be returned. I know that I can’t just bring up the subject of my bullying at dinner parties or in casual conversation. I always fear being judged all over again, that people would say it was down to something I did or said that made my peers turn on me so viciously?or really, I shouldn’t be bitter about it. But that is part of the “victim” label. It says that the bullies won, because my feelings became relegated to being not a big deal.
My son is now a bit older than that girl in the pink sweater, and I am so thankful that he has a strong self-esteem and is still carefree and innocent. Yet I worry about what he will encounter during his teenage years. I have not told him what happened to me. Maybe I will at some point. The best legacy I have to give him, despite my emotional scars, is to raise him with kindness, tolerance, acceptance, and love, and to encourage him to treat others the same. One thing that I am grateful for is that the Internet and cyberbullying did not exist when I was young. God only knows how that would’ve affected me if it had.
I am so glad that the cover is being lifted about bullying and that people are talking about it a little bit more than they once did. After all, bullying thrives in secrecy. It loves hiding in the dark corners, never daring to be spoken about, so the silence gives it the freedom to carry out its ugliness with impunity. Bullying is ultimately about holding power over a person and holding their spirit captive. It is about creating fear. Once that fear is gone, some of its power disappears.
To be honest, I have a lot of mixed feelings about Pink Shirt Day, a recent creation designed to stand up to and ultimately eliminate bullying. I see the sea of pink worn by both staff and students at the elementary school I work at. I wear my own pink shirt as a pledge to do my bit to stand up to bullying. But I am wary that Pink Shirt Day will reduce anti-bullying to something to “celebrate” one day out of the year. I worry that a pink shirt with jaunty slogans on them purchased from a corporate retailer will reduce the seriousness of bullying to just a catchphrase.
What I want to emphasize, in the midst of all the pink shirts, is that bullying is not just a concept. It is a face and a person. Both the one doing the bullying and the one who is the “victim” are real people. The sad thing is, despite the new awareness, bullying is still happening today–perhaps worse than ever now. Bullying still likes to hide and it is terribly crafty so it just gets pushed into other corners and finds dark new environments to thrive in. Social media is a great place for bullying to exist because there are so many methods to be virtually anonymous. And within the maze of cubicles in workplaces, bullying still finds a way to happen.
So how can bullying be stopped, if not by wearing pink shirts? The solution will be found when people stand up whenever they see its ugliness in action. It will be stopped when indifference to injustice ceases to be an option. It will be stopped when people adopt the mindset to willingly and consciously treat people with respect and kindness in the big ways and (most importantly) the small ways–no matter what the environment and circumstances are. It’s ultimately about who each individual decides and chooses to be as a person. Pink Shirt Day is not just for schoolchildren. It is for everyone, and we need to let everyday be our Pink Shirt Day.
Many local and national organizations in Canada are recognizing the seriousness of bullying and are working to take action by implementing programs and strategies to educate citizens on the issues and assist those who have been affected by bullying. Among them are The Red Cross, Canadian Safe Schools, Pink Shirt Day as well as local school districts and chapters of the Canadian YMCA.
Carla loves paper. She has far too many books, compulsively buys craft supplies, has several boxes of cards and letters from years back years that she just cannot throw out, but feel free to say hi to her on Twitter @LunchBuster.