Due to the most recent tragedy, there’s been a lot of talk about bullying lately, and it’s brought back some memories for me. One memory, in particular, I thought I would share because there’s someone I’ve always wanted to thank. I never did tell him the extent of what he did for me, so I guess I’ll try to pay it forward.
For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a small-sized person. Not teeny-tiny, but small, and I was also incredibly thin in school (people always asked me whether or not I was anorexic, and then didn’t believe me when I answered no). I was shy, wore baggy clothes, and hid behind my hair. All this, instead of making me invisible as I hoped it would, turned me into an enormous, red and white target. Throughout my K-12 education, I have memories of boys holding me down in the mud, physically restraining me, sexually harassing me, repeatedly drawing attention to me when I just wanted to be left alone. I told a teacher about one instance, just so I could maybe switch seats in class, and his response was, “Eh, boys will be boys.”
Girls will be girls, too, by the way, in case you think bullying is a male-dominated sport.
Every day was miserable. I hated living—hated it like you hate a person who’s betrayed you. I was afraid to wake up in the morning, afraid to attend certain classes, afraid to eat lunch in the cafeteria (which didn’t do anything to quell the anorexia rumors). One of the worst classes I had was a P.E. class. One boy there was very good at convincing everyone else in the gymnasium that I was worthy of daily public ridicule. He hated me, and I didn’t even know his name. One day, I finally got fed up, and after taking his abuse in silence for almost a year, I finally asked him, “Why do you hate me so much? What did I do to you?”
His answer blew me away. “You were born,” he said.
That was when I realized there was no reason for any of it. There was nothing I had done to cause it and nothing I could do to stop it. I was just there to give some pathetic ass a target to practice on so he could get the attention he craved.
That being my history, I hope it’s understandable that I had a particular loathing for sports. I made a point of avoiding any elective participation in them. But when my only ride home from school joined the track team, my choices became either sit around and wait for them to be done or join. So I joined.
We had one day to try everything, and then we could pick our events. For me, the most awesome event of all was the high jump. I loved it! I admired people who did it well. So I signed up for it, with complete disregard for my decidedly non-high-jump-esque body. I am not competitive. I just wanted to learn to do it, and even if I lost, I didn’t care. I knew I would have fun. I mean that’s what they teach you in grade school, right: the goal of sports is to compete, but mostly, to have a good time?
Nope. Welcome to reality, youngsters. First the coach tried to talk me into doing a different event. But I loved the high jump! Then she told me I would not be allowed to compete. My job would be to right the bar when it fell at meets. Great! I was happy to do it. I didn’t need to compete. I just wanted to learn how to do the jump. Finally, she said it would be a waste of time to coach me at practice, and refused to do so.
So here’s where the story takes a turn for the best-ever.
The best-ever was an awesome high jumper. He was tall and confident (by confident, I mean real confidence: not loud, showy cockiness, but a quiet strength of identity). This isn’t the twerp who needed to tease me in P.E. in order to feel good about himself. This kid was the real deal. And he volunteered to coach me after practice. I didn’t even know him; that’s the part that gets me. He stayed late every day and taught the high jump to a near-stranger. He even discovered that my strong leg was not the one I’d been using, so I was able to switch legs and improve to almost the minimum competition level.
I was so happy! Sports were fun! I could watch myself get better and better, thanks to the help of one kick-ass person who took it upon himself to teach me. If I could find that person today, I would tell him what he did for me and owe him forever. He may not have aided the track team by helping one sadly inadequate athlete, but he restored my faith in people, and he gave me a reason to get up in the morning. He couldn’t have known that’s what he was doing, but it was.
I guess what I’m trying to say is it isn’t enough to oppose bullying. There will always be people who don’t give a shit and need that rush they apparently get by kicking those who are already down. If we want to make a difference, we have to tip the scales in the other direction.
I’m not suggesting anyone walk up to a bullied person and start complimenting them out of the blue. They’ll be suspicious of that anyway, as they’ve probably already had someone ask them out on a dare (yay, memories). But if the opportunity presents itself, don’t hesitate to show miserable, downtrodden people they’re worth something. Just a little extra time and effort, maybe a sincere smile—that’s all it really takes. Because some people have nothing but negative interactions every day of their lives, and just one shift from that heartbreaking routine can change everything.
Lastly, don’t be offended if your smile isn’t returned at first. The person you acknowledged is likely just in shock. But know they’ll go home tonight and remember that smile, and maybe they’ll even remember it tomorrow morning. And maybe, eventually, they’ll get the courage to smile back or say hello. And then you’ll know you’ve changed someone’s life for the better.