As I write this, I am at home, berating myself for catching feelings because I was left out of an outing that a bunch of coworkers are going to after work today. Would I have gone if asked? No. Does it still hurt to know I was left out? Yes, but why does it hurt? Why do I, and so many of us, have the incessant need to feel included and liked by our peers? Why do we let what people think of us affect us?
We all grew up with cliques. My generation was just before the “anti-bullying” trend. It was before vintage thrift shopping was cool and grunge became a fashion statement. There were the cool girls who told you what was okay/not okay to wear, the cheerleaders who we all wanted to be like whether we admitted it or not, the jocks who only dated cool girls and cheerleaders, the athletic girls who could kick most of our asses, the goths everyone thought were bazaar on an “Allison from The Breakfast Club” level, and finally the outcasts and nerds. Of course, with a little life experience, people realized later that not everyone fit into those categories. There was a small group of us that I referred to as “the invisible ones.” The kids that faded into the background, that weren’t considered or really cared about — the kids who were too boring to fit into any said groups. The kids who, ten years down the road at a reunion would get the, “What was your name again?” or “Woah, I didn’t know we went to school together.” That, in a nutshell, was me.
“I’m sorry I called you a gap-toothed bitch. It’s not your fault you’re so gap-toothed.” ~Mean Girls
I was bullied for my clothes, my seemingly undeserved self-esteem (which vanished pretty quickly), my lack of makeup (I wasn’t allowed), and for my sheer naiveté. There are many vivid memories of teasing, hazing, and tearful walks home in West Seattle. I chose this one because today, as a 41-year old, I was brought back to this childish feeling so easily.
In middle school, I would ride the bus home and sit near the front because, of course, the cool kids sat in the back. I would often look back to where they were sitting, because it was such a Narnia world to me. I wanted back there so badly, I would glance back and smile and gaze, sometimes daydreaming. Maybe the next time I looked back, they would ask me to join them! Maybe they would randomly decide they liked me today! I was truly that naïve and that much of an idealist. One day, one of the cool girls decided she didn’t like it. Anytime I turned around, she would say, “Turn around ugly, no one wants to see your face!” loud enough that everyone heard, and the whole bus would laugh.
“There are two kinds of evil people in this world. Those who do evil stuff and those who see evil stuff being done and don’t try to stop it.” ~ Mean Girls
I was so embarrassed, trying to figure out what was wrong with me. Was it my hair? I did have a weird bob haircut that was not very cool. Was it my shirt? It was Hypercolor and I was so excited about it, but maybe it was too bright. Was it my braces? They did make my lips chapped, maybe I should put on some Carmex. I wanted them like me so badly that I continued to turn around and sneak peeks, hoping that the next time I turned it would be different, but it never was.
When my stop came, I felt all the eyes on the back of my head as I walked down the center aisle, my face red with embarrassment and shame. As the bus passed me, I glanced up at the open windows, tears streaming down my hot red cheeks, only to see the girl – and her friends who all cheered – yell, “HAHA, LOOK SHE JUST HAD TO LOOK AT US ONE MORE TIME! SUCH A LOSER!” Everyone started to cheer and clap as the bus drove away; one of the band kids even accompanied them with his trumpet. It felt like something out of a movie. This was my middle school experience and why I started walking home.
“I wish we could all get along like we used to in middle school. I wish I could bake a cake filled with rainbows and smiles and everyone would eat and be happy.” ~ Mean Girls
It got worse in high school. I was hazed, beat up, tied to a flagpole, jocks pretended they had crushes on me as jokes, I was made fun of for my thrift store clothes and lack of makeup. When I told my parents, they said to just ignore them — “They should be so lucky to be your friends, they’ll stop once you ignore them for long enough.” But it didn’t really stop. So I told myself I would never let my child be bullied. I would be that warrior parent who would stand up for her kids, and show them how to stand up for themselves. I would slay the dragons.
My daughter Madison’s first bully was a boy in grade school. She came home stating that he took food from her lunch and made fun of her big beautiful eyes. She wasn’t crying, but she was angry and hurt, looking to me for assistance and guidance. My reaction was visceral. I wanted to rip his head off. The rush of blood to my head made me want his full name, address, and phone number. It was a reaction I wasn’t expecting, but knew I had to redirect, and who better to help me do that than my other half? A man who wrote a rap about the principal speaking up against her new school policies, and performed it onstage at the school dance, and had his parents taking his side and supporting every word. A man who’d been the kid in school everyone liked, who had gorgeous girlfriends, who deejayed all the dances and was a friend to practically everyone.
“I would rather be a little nobody, then to be an evil somebody.” Abraham Lincoln
Together our advice and guidance for her was in harmony. I was able to give her that immediate satisfaction of someone reacting emotionally, someone to be supportive and fired up because she was hurt. The person who says “They did WHAT? I got your back,” and even though we don’t need them to intervene, it feels good to know they would. Ryan was able to give her the level-headed reaction, teaching her ways to respond intelligently and still come out on top. He taught her to never swing first and never resort to violence — HOWEVER, never let someone disrespect who you are in any way, shape, or form. The baseline we always tried to teach Madison and follow ourselves: What people say about you does not define you.
One day, when Madison was about seven years old, a neighbor girl came to our screen door. She was an acquaintance, but kind of a bossy, rude kid from the block. She yelled through the screen, telling Madison to come out and play. Maddi came to the door and told her she didn’t feel like playing but would possibly be out later. The girl got sassy, said FINE, and SPIT on the screen in her face. Stunned, Madison just stood there. As the girl walked away, I stood up, ready to handle it, anger making my blood boil. Ryan then said to Madison, “Either you handle this or I will.” She proceeded to go outside where the girl was sitting on Maddi’s bike. My daughter, with every bit of confidence, snatched her off that bike and said, “DON’T SPIT ON MY DOOR AGAIN.” She then walked back inside, high-fived her dad, and resumed coloring. I just stood there, mouth open and in shock. I just witnessed a mini-warrior. In that moment, she embodied the kind of confidence I’d only dreamed of having.
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. “ ~ Eleanor Roosevelt
Over the years, her growth and confidence with this issue has ebbed and flowed with the times. The rise of social media and the internet has increased the chances of being bullied, not to mention how one is bullied. You aren’t just judged at school for wearing the same pair of jeans two days in a row, or talked about in writing on the bathroom wall. Now you are judged in photos, videos, texts, tweets, and snaps — and the hate and gossip travels so much faster than it used to. As a parent, it’s overwhelming to watch your pride and joy question their worth because someone devalued them for whatever reasons on as many public platforms. With every test, she grows, and I feel like I also heal a bit more. As I give her advice, I realize what I’m saying is exactly what I needed to hear when I was dealing with these issues as a child. I have also made a lot of mistakes in how I have tried to help her at times. I have made girls and boys cry because of my momma bear roars and exposed fangs that instinctively come out when something deeper is touched. Watching her become this secure, confident, kind, good-hearted and forgiving person, when dealing with hateful people, has taught me a lot about my own anger and helped me file down those fangs.
“Be Kind. For Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
I’m reminded of the tale of the baby bear who growls at the big lion and scares him away. Unbeknownst to the baby cub, Poppa Bear was behind him on his hind legs, also growling ferociously. That is the image I think best explains our way of teaching this lesson. All kids want to be protected and supported. All kids want someone to stand up against those trying to be hurtful — it feels good, even as an adult, to see people defend or protect you. However, that baby bear growled not because the parent was growling behind him, but because he felt like his roar was powerful enough on its own.
Over the years, we’ve tried our best to give our daughter the level of support to instill the courage in her to stand up for what she believes in, to have a voice when she sees injustice or in support of a friend in need. To not be scared to look someone disrespectful square in the eyes, or to challenge authority with intelligence and reason when it lights a fire in her. The best way to do that is to let her see us do it ourselves and lead by example. To battle our own challengers with a level of integrity and self-respect that inspires her to do the same for herself. To know our daughter can fight her own bullies and disappointments, to know she can growl on her own two feet, is a great reminder that I can, too.
This has been the essence of guiding her to find her inner fierce, and in turn, I am rediscovering my own.