|On turning pain into purpose . . .
“I try to visualize a box. Sealed inside it are the
darkest emotions from my adolescence. Immediately before every
speech, while I’m waiting offstage to be introduced,
I say a prayer. God, what I’m about to do is hard. Please
don’t let it be for nothing. Help me get to those who
need this message the most. Then I rip open the box and unleash
the toxins inside. When my talk is over, I take a deep breath,
suck all that rage and fear back into the box, and put it
away until next time.”
On being An Adult Survivor of Peer Abuse . . .
“I don’t know it yet, but I’m far from
alone in my inability to shake off the primal hold the popular
crowd from school still has over me. In fact, I will soon
discover that there are millions of others who are just as
ashamed and embarrassed about it as I am. We work, we dream,
we marry, have kids and grow old, and rarely does anyone ever
suspect the truth. Our classmates put a hole in us, and our
self-esteem keeps falling out. We’re constantly scooping
the broken pieces off the floor and stuffing them back inside,
like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, hoping no one notices
. . . we are Adult Survivors of Peer Abuse, a ghostly population
of individuals struggling to break free of your influence.
And the worst part is that most of you never meant to hurt
us. You probably don’t even remember making fun of us.
Every time you rolled your eyes as we passed you in the hall,
snickered at our attempts to win your approval, or made us
the butt of a joke, you may have believed it was all in good
fun. And when you see us today at the mall or the grocery
store, you smile and make small talk, unaware of the damage
you’ve done. The bully never remembers. The outcast
On being an activist . . .
“I begin to have doubts that I’m as strong and
unselfish as I thought, and that maybe I’m like the
bride who elopes, then discovers that she was never cut out
to be a wife. The problem with being an activist is that people
expect courage and selflessness from you all the time, and
when you need some privacy, not only do they often think less
of you but you think less of yourself, too. Then one day you
wake up with a chip on your shoulder the size of a cue ball.
I don’t want to become that whiny author-activist I
often had to work with during my publicist days, who resents
how much she’s had to sacrifice. The night before my
first talk in Baltimore, I come crashing into this realization,
only to have the angelic hands of hope wrap around my throat
and choke the fear out of me. Will I get to the point where
I’m more afraid of hope than of doubt, because hope
is guaranteed never to let me out of this relentless race?”
The scariest question the author continues to ask
herself . . .
“Every time I talk to my former classmates about our
shared past, I always end up pondering the same disturbing
question: What part did I play in the drama of my own ostracism?
And how many other kids today are coming home from school
as I did, confused and in tears, desperate to unravel the
mystery of why, no matter how hard they try, they don’t
fit in? The victims of bullying always want to believe that
it was never their fault, that they were shunned and tormented
simply for being different. But is it that simple?”
The truth about school bullying today . . .
“The public sees only the surface of what’s going
on in our schools. The media does the occasional story when
there’s a dramatic or tragic angle that justifies the
airtime. The government gets involved only when the threat
of bad press leaves it no choice. But as I’m going through
these e-mails, I’m starting to realize that not even
I fully understood the extent of the problem. I believed what
happened to me was extreme. I’m finding out now that
it wasn’t. Based on what I’ve heard these past
few weeks, my experience was typical. How is that possible?
And why are so many kids telling me they’re afraid to
go to their parents? What’s wrong with everyone?”
A mistake too many parents and teachers make . . .
“My parents and my teachers told me to ‘ignore
the bullies, don’t give them the satisfaction.’
Today, I think of all the adults who give kids the same advice.
I still don’t understand the logic. We preach to our
children not to be bystanders, that if you see someone getting
picked on, stand up and defend that person, but if you’re
the one who’s being harassed, ignore it. Isn’t
that a mixed message? It always made me wonder, why was I
less worth defending than someone else?”
Why some adults in the school system need to quit their
jobs . . .
“Those who make it harder on all of us are the battle
weary professionals in a system where compassion has been
eclipsed by cynicism. Disillusioned with their jobs, they
use the same tired old psychobabble on students, who then
respond by shutting themselves off even more from adults.
These are the kids who are turning to me, and they deserve
more than clichés and empty promises. Looking back
on my own life, I know exactly where things went wrong: the
innocent but costly mistakes my parents, teachers and other
adults made and how to avoid them; what I could have done
differently to improve my situation; why the schools I attended
were a breeding ground for peer abuse; what all those therapists
who were treating me never understood, and what many doctors
still don’t understand about their adolescent patients.
I have insights, answers, real solutions that only a survivor
can know. But will people listen?”
On feeling overwhelmed by too many desperate students
. . .
“One after another, they keep coming: the quarterback
of the football team who says he’s always been a jerk
to anyone who’s not popular and wants to know how to
change; a sixth grade girl whose friends turned on her because
they found out her father was serving ten years in prison
for selling drugs; an obese student in foster care who begs
me to adopt her . . . At one point, unsure I can take any
more, I get up and peek through the doorway to see how many
more students are waiting to see me. The line is still extended
to the end of the hallway.”
Why traditional punishment doesn’t work and may
even contribute to school
shootings . . .
“All we’re doing with traditional punishment
methods like detention and suspension is making angry kids
angrier. And where are they going to release that rage? Not
in the direction of the popular students or their friends,
because that would be too much of a social risk. Instead,
they direct it toward the most socially expendable kid at
school, the outcast. And then, when the outcast finally snaps
because he’s tired of being the scapegoat, everybody
is scratching their heads wondering what happened. Our faulty
system is what happened. If these schools thought I came on
strong before, if certain principals and superintendents were
wary of my unconventional ideas before, watch out America,
because I’m just getting started!”
Why so many principals feel cheated by the American
school system . . .
“I never really thought about how tough certain principals
have it. The way most districts work, the principal has the
authority to hire faculty, but not fire them. The most he
can do is make a recommendation to the superintendent and
the school board, but they have to approve the dismissal,
which can be an elaborate process. I wonder how many teachers
have gotten tenure that don’t even belong in a classroom
because a principal who feels helpless and has convinced himself
there’s nothing he can do looks the other way. Districts
that don’t empower their principals lose in the long
run because a tired, discouraged leader is no good to anyone.”
On being diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder
as a result of chronic school bullying . . .
“But what am I supposed to do? I can’t just walk
away from this cause, especially now. Think of all the adult
survivors like me who are also going through life worried
they’re crazy. At least letting them know they too might
have post-traumatic stress disorder gives them something concrete
to work with. Half the time, these people are told they’re
just being overly dramatic, and they need to forget the past
and move on. I can’t quit now and abandon them or the
kids who need me. I just can’t!”
On damaged families . . .
“One bullied girl who confessed to me she’s been
struggling with her mom reaches out and squeezes her hand.
Another girl rests her head on her dad’s shoulder while
he gently strokes her hair, his expression a mix of remorse
and relief. Watching these parents and children finding each
other again is overwhelming. School bullying just doesn’t
damage kids, it damages whole families.”