A teenage relative posted a status to Facebook recently following her attendance at a high school basketball game.
She said she enjoyed attending the events, but doesn’t understand the rules of the game, so she spent her time reading ten chapters of a book from her phone during the breaks. “I was being a nerd tonight … I think I was getting weird looks,” she wrote.
I commented under her status that I hoped that she was always a nerd, and I meant it with all of my heart and soul. Once you leave high school, I wrote, nerds rule the world.
I confess that I don’t know the particular dynamic of her social status at the high school, but I believe that she is good and moral and intelligent and artsy and musical and probably doesn’t sit with the cheerleaders or basketball players in the lunchroom.
We had a brief discussion today at work on high school, and I caught myself vocalizing something I don’t think I’ve ever said out loud. I confessed that I was bullied.
I always hear folks say if they had it to do over, they’d go back and change things. There are plenty of things in my own past I’d love to change, but you couldn’t pay me a zillion dollars to go back to high school. Mean girls are mean.
The summer I turned 13 and entered 8th grade, my parent’s divorce and my mother’s subsequent remarriage carried me from a small rural school to another, smaller, more rural school in another county and into a group of kids I’d never known. Talk about uncharted territory. I look back and I don’t know what my mother was thinking when she decided to move a hormonal teenager 30 miles away from the only school she’d known. I had developed long-standing friendships among a suitable and respectable group of children in the town I’d always lived in. I was an exceptional student. I was active in extracurricular things. I was just entering that defining age where some of those friends were dropping, others were sticking, and I was figuring out what niche in school I’d fill for my remaining years. Would I play basketball? Would I be a cheerleader? Would I sing in choir? I loved singing and the teacher was my favorite ever, but choir wasn’t necessarily comprised of “cool kids” back then. And those were the things I was contemplating entering junior high. Fast-forward a few months to August, and de -rail.
The first day of 8th grade in my new school, I was dropped off outside the building in my mother’s red sports car. I recall distinctly the immediate stares and whispers, and to this day I am certain I wasn’t making them up. I hoped the cream-colored blouse and floral skirt that I’d spent days choosing was acceptable to my peers. I started making eye contact, looking around for a friendly face. Immediately, a really nice girl came to my rescue. She began introducing me to other students, and all of my fears were allayed. I was certain in that moment that this school would be a great fit. I was wrong.
Within weeks, I was on the receiving end of cruelty, for no other reason, I can figure, than that I was the new girl in a new school. So maybe I always had my nose in a book. But I think I was a pretty child. I believe my parents kept me groomed and fashionably up-to-date. I was kind to everyone because I loved all people. I wasn’t petty. I was intelligent. Still, kids were mean.
One day, I wore a new, designer, expensive long-sleeved, multi-colored shirt to school, and two hours into my day, I found a note in my locker. “You look like a f****** clown,” it read, referring to my multi-colored shirt, among other stuff. I tucked the note into my backpack. No one was going to know about it and I was never going to wear that shirt again. I contemplated burning it, wondering if my mother would notice it was missing. In fourth period, a kind, intuitive teacher pulled me aside to ask me about my glum disposition. I confided in him because I believed in his sincerity. A great teacher simply knows in a way that only a caring teacher can know. He was a great teacher, and he was a longtime friend to my new stepfather, so he watched out for me. He sent me to talk to the school counselor. I had quickly learned through a circle of gossip who had authored the letter, and at the insistence of the school counselor, I revealed her identity. I was mortified. I knew that any reprimand sprung forth from that meeting would only make things worse.
These incidences occurred, ad nauseam, for years. I developed a few close friends, though even they seemed torn to commit to a friendship with me because of their longtime loyalty to some of the mean girls. Still, I insisted on fitting in. I was going to make them like me. I caught on quickly that in order to be somebody in that school, you had to be something. Jocks, of course, were tops. But I didn’t enjoy running unless I was being chased. I was mostly feminine. I was a closet nerd. I liked reading and poetry and essay writing. But those things didn't get me in the "in" crowd, so I joined the cheerleading squad, and over time, successfully cultivated a few more friendships.
Still, I met resistance.
When the older, football-playing boyfriend of an older basketball player said hello to me on the sidelines at a junior high football game one season, it did not go unnoticed, and I was chased down by a large group of basketball girls at halftime during the next high school game. Cool kids stood at the sidelines during the game; when I wasn’t cheering, I sat in the bleachers with my parents, where I was safe from the mean girls. At that next high school game, I got up at halftime to go get a drink. As I did, half of the bleachers emptied behind me, my mother later told me. Instantly, I found myself face to face with the basketball-playing girlfriend. I was outnumbered by what seemed like 500:1. Just as I was sure I was about to get KO’d, an older male student stepped between us and attempted to talk her down, and he will likely never know what that meant to me. My mother showed up shortly after that, and we left the game. That was the first time she was made privy to any of the bullying. She had married a state trooper, and he was a popular, likeable, important guy in our small town. I never told my parents about any of the conflicts because I didn’t want them to know. I wanted them to think I was liked and accepted, and I was afraid that somehow the actions of the mean girls would reflect on him and I didn’t want that, too. Another time, a girl confronted me outside of our lockers and threatened to “kick my a**.” This time, I had had enough. A kid can only be pushed so much. My adrenaline was pumping. People were watching. I wasn’t going to be nice anymore and enough was enough. I threw my backpack down in the hallway and told her I was ready for her. I guess I said it loud enough, because a teacher overheard and broke it up pretty quickly, sending me on to my class, and so much for tough Megan.
Over the years, I almost got punched a lot, and I honestly can’t tell you, among the many times, why. I don’t know why no one liked me. I was a likeable gal. I wanted so desperately for people to like me, and I realized that if I were someone else, I would have befriended me.
Something magical happened late in my junior year and the bullying mostly let up. I graduated high school with four awesome friends and with another handful of people who weren’t so bad, and even won the friendship of a few former mean girls who (thankfully) were maturing and admitted to me in private conversations that their disdain for me over the years was all “high school drama.”
I had been raised by good parents who hugged me and loved me and told me that I was pretty and smart and instilled within my being lot of confidence. None of the mean girls ever, ever saw me cry, and I kept my chin up and my head high.
But I never told. And if I never told, I bet a lot of other kids never do, too; and in that silence is a world of pain, and without a great support system, its effects can be devastating and long-lasting.
Luckily, schools are recognizing that bullying is a problem. Luckily administrators are implementing programs addressing the issue. Hopefully, children are talking with their parents about bullying, and maybe some day, confiding in an adult won’t be considered the weak thing to do.
It is the responsibility of every parent to teach his or her children that being mean, in any capacity, is NOT okay. It is the responsibility of every parent to teach compassion and kindness.
It is the responsibility of every parent to teach that other children who are of a different race, or are poor, or are mentally or physically challenged, or are gay, or abused, or overweight, are real people with real feelings and deserve to be treated as such.
It is the responsibility of every parent to teach his or her children that social status and “cool” is often a foolish concept and every child possesses a unique quality that makes them special and worthwhile.
It is the responsibility of every parent to convey the value of every human life.
When I think about high school, my greatest regret is that I spent so much time trying to fit in and less time getting to know students from all walks of life. If I could write a letter to me at 13, that’s what it would say.
Today, I’m grown and have school-aged children of my own.
I’ve taught them that if they are bullied, they should tell an adult. I’ve taught them that if they see someone else being bullied, they should step in as a friend. And I’ve taught them that the children who do the bullying are likely the product of a bad environment, or are having a bad day, and probably need a friend and a hug more than anyone.
I tell them, “Always extend to kindness, to everyone.” Every life is valuable.
Thanks, mean girls, for teaching me that. Nerds of the world, unite.