A recent survey indicated that 77 percent of elementary and middle school students reported that they had been the victims of a bully at some time. The information also revealed that more than half of bullying incidents go unreported.
The recent suicides of several teens that had been tortured by bullies because of their sexuality have prompted a flood of media attention to the problem. I am concerned, however, that the public and the media are forgetting about other groups who have always been the targets of bullying including those with physical and mental disabilities, the impoverished and various ethnicities. I can relate to these issues – I know how they feel.
I was born with a serious congenital birth defect that had me in and out of the hospital for the first 20 years of my life. A multitude of medical issues combined with just being physically smaller than other kids my age made me the perfect target for bullies.
Oddly, none of my health problems were openly visible to anyone around me. Virtually everything people knew about me was total conjecture and inaccurate rumors with no factual basis. Unfortunately, facts and reason rarely work with people who are terrified of anyone who is different – whether the differences are obvious or not.
As if I didn’t have enough to contend with at the hospital, at school I was pushed, called names, kicked, hit, had my book bags ransacked, my lockers vandalized and my musical instruments thrown around on the school bus – all to the complete oblivion of school officials. In fact, some stood right there while it all happened, literally choosing to ignore it.
While the majority of the adults around me were supportive and helpful, there were a few who were downright cruel. Teachers, coaches and bus drivers are in a unique position to bully under the guise of maintaining order and discipline.
A perfect example of this kind of ignorance came in my sixth grade year. I was out of school with a simple case of chicken pox. Noting my absence during roll call, the teacher told the rest of the class they shouldn’t get too attached to me because I had a serious disease and wouldn’t live to see my 15th birthday. With that thoroughly incorrect announcement, the rumors went viral.
So why don’t parents get more involved? Most of the time, parents have no idea what is going on. I never talked about it much. I doubt my parents ever knew how bad it really was.
In the end, I won. Eventually, I realized that it wasn’t my fault that people couldn’t deal with me. At the ripe old age of 43, my health is good, I’m a successful writer and entrepreneur and, despite my sixth grade teacher’s prediction, I am still here.
I carry no anger or malice towards the kids who spent so much of their time trying to better themselves by humiliating me. In fact, I feel kind of sorry for them and genuinely hope they grew up to succeed in life. The adults, on the other hand, were the true villains.
It was nearly impossible to keep my personal issues private in a tiny farm town where everyone gossiped about things they didn’t even understand. I can’t imagine what kids today are going through as every detail of their lives are posted online for all to see – especially those struggling with personal identity issues.
Sadly, bullies are not just in school and, as I pointed out, adults can be just as bad as kids. A bully can be someone who abuses or oversteps his authority as a supervisor at work, a civic official or a teacher who ignores the academic struggles of a student in class because he or she is not one of the star athletes. Bullies are everywhere but you don’t have to take their abuse.
If you have been the victim of a bully, try to forgive them. They are small, sad and hopeless people who have nothing but pain inside. Forget trying to reason with them, it never works.
Whatever you do, don’t lower yourself to their level. Walk away. Turn off the computer. Seek out help and surround yourself with people who care and who will support you. None of these pathetically insecure people is worth your dignity … or your life.
Columnist Gery L. Deer is available for keynote speaking engagements. Visit www.gerydeer.com