[Part 3 in a series]
Every morning when I was in the second grade, I begged my mom to let me stay home from school.
When I was 8 years old, I was bullied.
Tears flowed from my eyes every day as I sobbed, “Mamma, I don’t wanna go to school!” My mother ignored me, diligently helping tie the shoelaces on my black and white track shoes. I had run out of stomachaches, headaches, and fake fevers. I had to go to school, and I dreaded it because I just didn’t want to face what kids would say to me another day.
From first grade until about ninth grade, I was teased for a variety of reasons. My peers said:
• I was gross. (Truth: I had a gum disease that caused my gums to spontaneously bleed. This drew the disgusted “Eews!” jeers of my classmates.)
• I wore ugly dresses. (Truth: The dresses were discount-store-bought cheap, but pretty. I wore them with black and white track shoes and knee-high white socks—a big fashion no-no, but, come on, I was just a kid.)
• I was a nerd. (Truth: I was book-smart, and I loved learning.)
• I was a teacher’s pet. (Truth: I thrived on pleasing authority figures—and still do.)
Students also mocked my last name with a similarly sounding Spanish slang phrase that was a gay slur.
I played the part of a super-stealth ninja for most of my time in school. I tried not to cry when kids said hurtful things because I learned that if they didn’t think they hurt my feelings, they lost interest and went on to bully someone else.
That worked until the sixth grade, when an older classmate threatened to beat me up after school—for no reason. Again, I was scared and didn’t want to go to school. But while I didn’t breathe a word about the bullies before, I did tell my mom about this girl. Mamma’s solution? Wear jeans and loop on my sister’s thick leather western belt.
"If that girl lays a hand on you," Mamma insisted, "you pull that belt off and whip her with it!"
I snuck around school, changing my routes to avoid the bully, and eventually she forgot about me. For the rest of the year, though, I had a whole new group of kids making fun of me and that big leather belt, calling me “Hee Haw Cathy.”
Eventually, around 10th grade, my peers stopped picking on me. I still excelled in academics, except by the time of my induction into the National Honor Society, being smart was considered an asset. My classmates could call me “nerd” all day long and it didn't matter: I knew I was bound for college. (Stick tongue out here.)
Today I’m a grown woman who still loves to read and has made a career out of working with words as a writer and editor. I also have much higher self-esteem and inner strength. Studying martial arts has been a true gift. It saddens me and makes me angry when I hear what comes out of the mouths of today's bullies. But today through martial arts, I have a chance to help youths build self-confidence as a way to combat the bullies I know they run into at school. I get to give them the words I never knew to speak and the courage I didn't yet have to stand up for themselves.
Surviving bullying IS NOT a rite of passage. Bullying is WRONG. No kid should have to grow thicker skin or toughen up so that they can weather classmates’ taunts and torture. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Until our judgmental and violent-prone culture changes, though, the best I can do is to pass on the following wisdom to those who still suffer the wrath of bullies:
• Don’t listen to or believe your classmates’ hurtful words. The mean things a bully might say to you and about you aren’t true anyway. Imagine you’re Teflon cookware: Let nothing stick to you.
• Stand up for yourself—and others. Repeat this simple mantra: “Bullying is not O.K.—not now, not ever!” Then walk away.
• Stick with the winners. Find a good, solid group of peeps and stay close. Avoid those fair-weather friends who abandon you when the bully comes around or who join in on the bashing because they themselves are afraid of what the bully might do or say if they don’t.
• Talk to someone. Don’t suffer in silence. Adults can and will help if you ask—even parents.
• Give it time. Remember that school life doesn’t last forever. This, too, shall pass, so please hang in there.
• Avoid taking bully-prevention fashion tips from your mother at all costs.