Apr 212011
High school ID photo, September 2000

High school ID photo, September 2000-- before the institution

It feels like it was yesterday. They opened the door and I walked out of the building. When I had entered the institution, it was under a grey autumn sky, overcast and foreboding.  Now, an April breeze caressed my lungs with my first breath of fresh air in seven months.

High school ID photo, September 2001

High school ID photo, September 2001-- after the institution

It’s been ten years, but it feels like it was yesterday.  Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the months I spent as a teenager imprisoned against my will in a “therapeutic boarding school” for “troubled teens.” Ten years ago, I left the facility.  I’d say that I haven’t looked back, but to be completely honest with you, there are still times that I can’t look away.

Let me tell you a secret.  Sometimes I still wake up at 3:48 am, thinking that I’m there, thinking I need to wait with my hand raised in the hallway for permission to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Some nights I can’t sleep because I can’t stop thinking about all of you who are still there.

I want you to know that you’re not alone. I want you to know that there are people out here now who know what you’re going through and are working to change it. It might not feel like much with everything you are enduring, but know that I am sending you strength and love and light to get you through.

I don’t know what you’re feeling. Maybe you’re playing tough, like I did. Maybe you’re resigned. Maybe you’re terrified. Maybe you don’t know how you’re going to make it through another night.

Don’t lose yourself there.  This is vital.  Keep yourself whole.  They will try to break you down, flatten, and destroy you.  Don’t let them. We need you in all of your vibrant passions and bright idiosyncrasies.  Do whatever you need to do to make it out of there, but keep your self close, wrapped tight in your ribcage between your lungs.  This is what kept me alive.

Breathe. Laugh whenever you can find the opportunity.  Even if you have to laugh silently, laugh.  This will keep you alive.

When you leave, you will shake off their punishments and structures, their shame and abuse, their taunts and bruises.  You will unfold yourself and stand tall and proud, surrounded by all of us who have walked these paths before you.  Stay strong.  We’re out here, and we can’t wait to meet you.

Photo by Syd London

Sometimes, all you can do is laugh. Photo by Syd London

Jan 062011

Would you bully this seven-year-old?

His name was Garrett.  He lived a block and a half away, and walking in front of his house was the fastest way to get to Shumway Elementary School.  Every morning, and every afternoon, I took the longer route.

Garrett was a bully, and everyone knew it.  Well, everyone other than his mother.  Isn’t that how it always goes with bullies? I can’t imagine what it was like inside his home, whether he just behaved differently to his family, or if his parents were bullies, too.  He must have learned it somewhere.

At seven years old, I already knew I was a nerdy kid.  Garrett also knew this, and he made sure that everyone else did too.  He would lead the other kids in what swiftly became a favorite playground pastime: making my life miserable.  I started staying in the classroom during recess to read.  True, I loved reading, but I also wanted to avoid his taunting.  It became a cycle.  My tactics for avoiding bullying made me even more of a target.

Toward the end of elementary school, my family moved to a new town and I thought I would be able to escape the bullies.  I thought I could turn over a new, non-nerdy leaf! Of course, I was wrong.  There were bullies in the new city, and now it was middle school.  I was a bookish, chubby pre-teen, and there is nothing quite as vicious as a middle school bully.

I never knew what to say to the bullies, so I tried to avoid them.  I withdrew into myself, into schoolwork, into books.  This did not make things better.  I became increasingly depressed and isolated.  Even when I avoided them— perhaps BECAUSE I avoided them— the bullies persisted.  I didn’t know what it felt like to not be regularly bullied.

The adults that I tried to talk to were almost as frustrating as the bullies.  It didn’t help to hear that the bullying would stop some day.  It didn’t help to hear that it would get better some day.  I wanted something to stop the bullies right away, not at some unknown point in the future.  I didn’t need promises.  I needed support.  It seemed like the adults were unwilling to help.  It never occurred to me that, maybe, they didn’t know what to do about the bullies either.

Some things never change.  A few weeks ago, I was visiting a middle school’s holiday showcase event.  A seventh-grade bully walked up to me, pushed my shoulder, and taunted “Why do you look like such a nerd?!?”  There were so many tempting, potential responses— so many things that would have felt vindicating to say to a bully, now that the insecurities of middle school are in the distant past.  However… I was also the adult in the situation, and needed to act like it.  I stammered something about it just being how I looked, and moved on.  In retrospect, maybe I should have asked “Why do you look like such a bully?”