Friday, March 16, 2012

When Does Teasing Become Bullying?

This morning I logged on to Facebook and saw a link to Cesar Milan's video about his experience being bullied. He recorded it as part of the It Gets Better Project to give hope to children and teenagers being bullied. I watched it, and my mind started whirring.

First, I asked myself this important question. "Was I ever bullied?"

When I think of being bullied, I think of kids taking other kids lunch money, giving them swirlies, or consistently intimidating them with threats of physical violence. If I look at bullying like that, then, no, I wasn't.

But, there's another type of bullying. It's more insidious. It's the teasing, the taunting, the ostracizing, the meanness, the emotional and verbal abuse people heap on one another. Now, that I experienced.

There's a normal amount of teasing that kids do that often gets completely ignored or dismissed as "kids being kids" or even "character building" rather than bullying. The question becomes at what point does normal teasing become bullying?

I was teased for several reasons. My breasts were slower to develop than some of my classmates, so I was labelled "Baby Boobs" by one classmate. The name stuck for quite a while. I often wore ill-fitting or well-worn clothing that came from garage sales or were hand-me-downs from aunts or cousins. I was teased about them. Later, I would skip meals so I could save my lunch money to buy new clothes. Skipping meals and being severely thin also resulted in some mean comments, but fewer since several of my classmates also often skipped lunch.

By the time I was in high school, no one really asked me to hang out with them though sometimes friends would stop by for a visit when I stayed with my aunt. I chose not to date because I didn't want to get trapped in the small town where I grew up. This, as well as my reluctance to drink, use drugs, drive around aimlessly or otherwise party, brought on teasing that included calling me things like goody two-shoes, prude, and gay. Some of my classmates questioned my virginity as well as my sexual orientation, or at least they teased me about it. I was considered "a stick in the mud" because I didn't do fun things like the aforementioned driving around aimlessly or sitting "over town" looking aloof. It wasn't until years later that I realized this was probably because those classmates didn't understand why I acted like that. I couldn't have explained it myself. At the time, I just felt like an outcast.

My school was small. When I say the school was small, I mean, my graduating class was something like 33 or 34 students. You could be part of the in-crowd one day and out of it the next and back in the next. Sometimes this happened in a matter of hours. Everyone knew everything. There was no hiding. I had a habit, whether good or bad, of talking to everyone, even the people who were "out" for some reason or the other. I liked to make peace between people. This often found me being disliked by both sides, at least for a little while.

In a small school like mine, one day you may find yourself the target of bullies, and the next day being expected to play the bully, perhaps even against the only person who befriended you while you were ostracized. And, sometimes, you give in, even though you feel sick about doing it, because you don't want to be ostracized again. While an apology afterwards may help, it doesn't change what happened. The only thing that helps is learning to stand your ground when you know something is wrong. At least then, you can feel good about yourself.

I studied hard. I read a lot of books, especially about faraway places. I wrote stories and poems. I got teased for all of these, but sometimes my stories and poetry made me popular, too. That was a double-edged sword. One day everyone thought it was cool that I wrote stories. The next day they all thought it was uncool. I never knew which I'd be facing. To be fair, I think I there were times in high school when I felt the same way about writing.

But, I had a goal to get out of that small town. I knew studying hard and going to college was a way out. I knew my writing could be a ticket out. I looked around me and didn't see anything worth staying for, so I dreamed about leaving. I worked hard to leave. I changed my strategy as often as I needed to. I didn't want anything to keep me there. When I graduated from high school, I severed most of my ties with my classmates and the small town. Only a select few friends stayed on my radar along with my family. By the time I graduated from college, that select few had grown even smaller and our contact became even more limited.

Since college, I've lived in four different states. I've pursued a writing career. I've been married to the same man for twenty years . I've published three books and some other work. I've learned that when I'm true to myself, no one can bully me unless I let them. They can try, but I'm strong enough to perservere. I reach out to people on a daily basis hoping to help others and invite others to help me as we travel life's path together. I stand tall. I still try to encourage people to see they have more in common than not.

Life does get better. It truly does. You have more power to walk away from bullies and create a life with people who cherish, support, and encourage you. You have more choice about who you allow a place in your life. You find your strength in building a life you want. I won't lie to you and say that everyone will like you when you grow up, but you won't like everyone you meet either. It will be okay though because it's a huge world out there. You will find your place in it! If I did, I know you can!

And, you will often find when you meet those same bullies as adults, life has taken the bully right out of them. They have learned compassion and understanding. Sometimes, you even find common ground that you couldn't find growing up. Not always but sometimes. Oddly, when I saw many of my classmates for the first time after more than twenty years, I discovered through the course of conversation that many of us saw those days very differently. This is because we are all growing and changing all the time. I realized the people I once saw as bullies were struggling to find themselves as much as I was. When we met on equal footing, no bullying could happen.

Even now, I hesitate to call my classmates' behavior bullying because I feel like so many out there suffer so much worse than I did. Still, this kind of harrassing behavior is a form of bullying. It's asking that question.... When does normal teasing step over the line and become bullying? I think it's when it persists and when it makes a person feel like an outcast. And, I did feel like an outcast whether that's what the classmates in question intended or not.
I encourage anyone who feels bullied in any way to hold on to who they are. There's only one you, and that makes you special. Reach out to supportive friends and family. If you don't have supportive friends and family, reach out to local organizations or online groups. Find support. Make a plan to set you on your path to being the best you you can be. That is truly the best revenge against bullies of any kind.

I've come to realize just how important the words we use are and how little responsibility most people take for their words. You may forget the words you say five minutes after they're said, but they may imprint themselves on someone else's heart for a lifetime.

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