By Gayle Forman
Reprinted with permission from Seventeen Magazine, October 1999 issue
Whoever said names can’t hurt you obviously didn’t know how it feels to be on the wrong side of a mean clique. For those of you who are hassled, harangued, harassed, or just plain left out at school, here are some ways to deal and heal.
“Because of my own experiences with vicious in-crowd members, my sympathies lay with Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. I know that what they did was wrong, but in my gut I know I’m more like them than the jocks and cheerleaders they targeted.”
-Anonymous e-mail received after the Littleton, Colorado, shootings
In the days that followed the Columbine school massacres in April, everyone, it seems, was asking how this horror could have happened. As the adults droned on about Hitler, Marilyn Manson, guns, video games, violent movies and the collapse teen morality, teenagers themselves, like the one who posted this note on Seventeen’s web site, were cutting to the heart of the matter: Yes, all those factors may have had a role, but perhaps the real trigger was that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris-self-described outsiders-had suffered one day too many of teasing, taunting and bullying from their classmates. Because, as many kids know, if you happen to be too smart, too dumb, too sensitive, too oddly dressed, too fat, too thin, too weird, too anything-you pay the price for it. Especially at school. While teasing may be typical school-hall fodder, many kids endure what amounts to long-term harassment, physical abuse or emotional terrorism from their peers.
There are no studies that tally up the number of outsider kids versus their in-crowd counterparts. But there are numbers on the abuse those outsiders may suffer. In one1992 study published in School Psychology International, 77 percent of students reported having been bullied at some point. In a 1995 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, 12 percent of sixth through twelfth graders reported that they have been directly and personally victimized at school that very year. And, according to the National Education Association, as many as 160,000 kids miss school every day due to fear of attack or intimidation.
But despite those depressing statistics, there is hope. While it’s probably unrealistic to expect a school to suddenly transform from a bastion of enforced conformity into a Mecca of brotherly and sisterly love, there are constructive, smart ways to deal with taunts and threats from people who want to make you miserable because you are like you-and not like them. And if your situation is super-harsh (you’re being physically threatened, your life is unbearable), there are ways to get adults involved and to make school administrators take action on your behalf.
Try Not to Care
Justina is about as American as they come. This fifteen-year-old from Decatur, Alabama, was born in the United States, speaks with a twangy southern accent and plays on her school’s basketball team. She also happens to be half-Korean-and that put her in the line of fire at school. “I have really strong Oriental features, and when I was in middle school, I was made fun of constantly. Kids would call me names-gook, Jap, Chink. They’d come up to me and say, ‘Ching, chong, ching.'”
Aside from feeling annoyed at being bothered in this way, Justina wasn’t too upset by these kids’ comments. “My mom and dad said not to worry, that when kids got to know me they would stop teasing.” An attitude like this is usually the best way to cope, says Gery LeGagnoux, Ph.D., a professor of clinical services at the University of California, Los Angeles. “I find that most bullying situations would be relieved if the victim didn’t care what the other person thought,” says LeGagnoux, who holds workshops on dealing with bullies. “If you just think, Forget it, it doesn’t matter if they don’t like me, you cut off the bully’s power.”
Of course, sometimes it does matter what someone is saying-the most secure soul can find being called a slut or a freak hard to take. The trick is to not let on. When someone insults you, try to stay calm and to appear mildly bored (practice your look in the mirror), even if you really want to scream. (Then, afterward, scream to a friend.)
Stand Up For Yourself
Maybe it’s because Justina is such a firecracker that she simply wasn’t about to put up with ethnic slurs. When people harassed her, she gave as good as she got. “If they said, ‘Hey, Jap,’ I’d say, ‘Hey honky. Hey cracker.’ A lot of them were shocked. I think they expected me to sit there and take it. But talking back nipped most of the abuse in the bud.”
Standing up for yourself-especially to a jerk who’s bigger, meaner and seemingly more popular than you-might seem as scary as diving off a 50-foot board into a puddle, but it can work. To understand why, you need to know a little about the psychology of tormentors: At heart, bullies are really cowards who like to dominate, manipulate and control, and they usually prey on people they know they’ll get a rise out of , says SuEllen Fried, co-author of Bullies & Victims: Helping Your Child Through the Schoolyard Battlefield. “If you reward a bully by crying or exploding, he or she will find you an easy mark and keep it up. If you stand up to them, they’ll look for someone else to pick on,” says Fried.
While Justina’s in-your-face approach worked for her, it’s usually better to play it cool. If someone’s ridiculing your stylie homemade poncho, say something like, “What’s your damage? Why are you so obsessed with what I wear?” Don’t whine or cry. Once again, no matter how you feel inside, try to maintain a poker face and pretend you couldn’t care less what people say about you.
Jenn, 16, is a self-described fat girl. “I’m 5’7” and wear a size 28 and have been getting teased for it all my life,” she says. After hitting a low point in eighth grade when she took an X-Acto knife to her wrists, Jenn landed in the hospital. There she met others who, like her, didn’t fit in with the so-called norm. She also went into therapy. Since then, she’s come to accept her size, and although the taunts still fly, she deals with them by cracking jokes. “Someone will say, ‘You’re fat,’ and I’ll say, ‘Yeah, but you’re ugly and I can diet.’ By making a joke, I don’t act like a victim anymore and I don’t get so victimized.”
That’s exactly right, says Fried: “If you can figure out a way to make a joke, it shows that you choose not to take the bully seriously and that the nasty comments don’t bother you.”
Channel Your Angst
“In seventh grade, I was dorky. I was in all honor classes, had big glasses, wore plaid skirts and sweater sets,” says Kate, 18. “The ‘cool’ kids who smoked cigarettes started picking on me. They threatened to beat me up every day. They wrote mean things about me on the chalkboard, and the teacher just let them. I cried every day.” This went on through eighth grade-but the summer before freshman year of high school, something changed. Kate started Sneer, her own ‘zine. “The first issue was fueled by rage about those incidents,” says Kate. “It was so therapeutic.” She also began reading other ‘zines and corresponding with their creators. “That summer I realized there was so much I could get involved with. I could write a ‘zine. I could play guitar in a political band. I could make a statement. I used to think I was different in a negative way. That summer, I realized I was different-but in a cool way.
Finding a means to express what makes you unique is an excellent path to dealing with whatever irks you. The trick is to channel your feelings positively, even when you’re dealing with negative emotions. Write a novel, start a band, make an anti-bully Web site. Doing something creative with your anger and alienation will both help you deal with your emotions in a positive way and help you feel proud of your own identity, says LeGagnoux.
Find Your People
For Kate, starting Sneer plugged her into a community of kids like herself. “I got in touch with the punk scene and the riot grrls (punk feminists),” she says. “Everyone was so accepting. Freshman year, I found a group at school who had the same convictions as me. I still got teased. Jocks still called me a dyke, but I almost had fun with it.”
“Building a support group of people like yourself is a great idea,” says Lynn E. Ponton, M.D., author of The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers Do the Things They Do. There’s strength in numbers, for one thing. Perhaps more important, says LeGagnoux, is that being around people with whom you have a common interest (and who appreciate you) “will help you find your voice and give you security at school.” If you can’t come up with an ally at school, join a group in your community that appeals to you. That way, you’re likely to find people with similar values. Or you can embrace your soul mates in the cyber community, although LeGagnoux warns against having a 100 percent online social scene. “You need to find people you can interact with in reality as well as virtual reality,” he says.
It may seem strange to advise outsiders to form their own clique. Aren’t cliques a part of the problem? And wasn’t that exactly what Eric and Dylan were doing in the Trenchcoat Mafia? Yes and no, say the experts. For one thing-cliques-if you define them simply as friendship groups-are perfectly healthy. The problem begins when a clique turns cruel, or, as was the case with Eric and Dylan, violent. “When the Trenchcoat Mafia were getting together, they were looking for a solace, but it took a negative turn,” says LeGagnoux. Adds Dr. Ponton: “They had a support group, but instead of being about something positive, it was built around Hitler and hate.”
Don’t Bottle It Up
It goes without saying that it’s always a good idea to confide in someone during a rough period. When you’re being harassed, your first line of defense should be talking to your parents. They’re the ones in the best position to help you deal – whether it’s just by lending a sympathetic ear or lobbying the school on your behalf. If, for whatever reason, you don’t think your mom and dad will be sympathetic, find another adult who will, and talk to her or him. And don’t be ashamed or embarrassed to speak up about what’s going on. “For some reason bullying is not taken seriously,” says Fried. “But it’s a form of abuse, and the consequences can be devastating.” One more thing to consider: According to attorney Mary Jo McGrath – an expert on school violence and the producer of the video series The Early Faces of Violence: From Schoolyard Bullying to Sexual Harassment – if you were an adult, working in an office, and some woman started pulling bully moves (throwing stuff, calling you names), she’d likely to be fired, possibly even arrested. “But somewhere we decided this was OK at school,” McGrath says. “That’s ridiculous.”
Get Outside Help
If harassment continues despite you and your’ parents efforts to stop it (or if you feel you need extra support), you should involve someone at school. But as Megan, now 17, found out, getting the school to deal with bullies is not always easy. During her freshman year, a group of girls started harassing her constantly. “They would walk behind me and call me a slut and a whore. They followed me around, saying nasty things about me. I was scared. I’d look around the halls and wait for them to come and get me. I didn’t know what they were going to do.” After enduring this for a year, Megan went to the dean, who, Megan says, told her the school would help. The school did nothing, and nothing changed. When the evil clique started intimidating her with their cars (tailgating her, and so forth), Megan went to see the dean again, after which he finally called the prosecutors into his office to have a talk.
The dean should have done that right away, says McGrath. In the past, administrators have been slow to act. “But since Columbine, everybody’s woken up and schools are much more likely to take kids’ complaints seriously.” To make your school take you seriously, try the following steps.
First, start keeping a record of the harassment. “Be descriptive and specific about what happened and how it affected your life,” says McGrath. Second, call a meeting with a teacher, counselor or principal as well as an outside adult you trust. “Tell the school administrators what’s happening to you,” says McGrath. “Tell them you want them to make the bullying stop, and if they don’t, you’ll submit your complaint in writing.” If your teachers, counselors and principals aren’t doing anything, address your concerns to your school district superintendent. If that doesn’t work, turn to a member of your school’s governing board. And if you still can’t get anyone to act, it may be time to seek legal advice, McGrath says. “Then the school’s going to start paying attention.”
Realize Your “Weirdness” Is a Good Thing
I speak from experience on this one. When I was in elementary and junior high school, I was constantly taunted and shunned-presumably because I was brainy, sensitive and wore thrift-store clothes. Though I was miserable, I eventually realized that I liked the parts of me that made the other girls snub me. And as I got older I found other people who liked those parts, too. Today I’m still sensitive and analytical and have a quirky way of looking at things, and those attributes are key to being a good journalist. Plenty of people who were tortured in school say that the qualities that made them misfits brought them success in adulthood (see “Hollywood Squares”).
Have faith. It’s never worse than it is in your teens. “In school, it’s often a very narrow set of attributes that are recognized as successful,” says LeGagnoux. “All of a sudden you get to college and those who didn’t fit in are valued; they have a sensitivity that is recognized.” Kate-now a freshman at Bryan Mar College-agrees: “I hated being bullied,” she says. “But looking back, I’m glad that happened. Getting over it and becoming an individual gave me confidence. It made me my own person.”
Copyright ©1999 Seventeen Magazine