Once upon a time—in the late 90’s—I was sitting in math class at my Christian high school. We had some free time so I was working on homework when a student in the back of the room began harassing me. “You’re a lesbian, you know that?” he taunted.
One of his smirking friends joined in pointing out that I must be a lesbian because I didn’t have a boyfriend. At least they didn’t call me ugly or fat—that day.
Finally, unable to stand it anymore, fighting back tears I told them to stop, which just encouraged them to continue their torment. My teacher was standing at the front of the classroom, no more than 15 feet from where I was being verbally abused. I looked straight at him and asked, “Aren’t you going to do anything about this?”
I’ll never forget his response. It’s one I’ve heard used by educators, parents, and adults everywhere when they talk about bullying. Dismissively, he said, “If you ignore them, they’ll stop.”
If you ignore them, they won’t stop.
I know because I tried that, too. The bullies only jeered more loudly. Other joined in or laughed, while a few girls sometimes giving me pitying glances.
Back in those days I didn’t cry nearly as much as I do now. I would hold it in knowing that they could never see you cry. You can never let them see that they got to you. I knew I would come home and drag a razor across my wrist or thighs or stomach and somehow that would release my pent up rage. No one called it “cutting” or “self-injury” back then, just para-suicidal behavior.
Sometimes during middle school and high school, I imagined I would stand up and give an impassioned speech, which would change everything, like I was staring in some sort of Hollywood blockbuster. I would tell them how much it hurt to be called names, to be pushed into my locker, and to be left out. They would finally understand, apologize, and we’d all become best friends like on “Saved By the Bell” episode where Zack dated the fat chick.
I couldn’t wait to grow up because I thought there wouldn’t be bullies anymore, or at least I wouldn’t have to go to school with them every day. When I became an adult or at least went to college everything, I assured myself that everything would be OK.
When I went to college, everything was OK. I met and befriended real lesbians on campus and wondered what those immature high school boys would say about that. I excelled in my classes, like I usually did, and felt secure in my environment of friends who accepted me. Finally, I was part of the “in” crowd or maybe just in a crowd.
They (whoever “they” are) say that bullying is just one of those things kids do and the victims will survive. Students just need to toughen up, educators say, because kids will be kids.
I wish I could say it still didn’t hurt. I wish I could say the kid who made fun of my voice every single say in sixth grade science class hasn’t affected why I sometimes feel awkward when my voice is amplified over a microphone. So many of these lies still rattle around in my brain and the lies have become my truth. It is something God and me are working on together.
The truth of the matter is that words do hurt. The far reach of social media has made bullying even worse. I recently watched a documentary called The Bully Project and I cried through much of it. I couldn’t even watch the entire thing. Emotions I thought long dead resurged.
Finally, it occurred to me that no matter where you are, what age you are, or what you do, there will always be bullies. Work bullies, neighborhood association bullies, church bullies (who do it in the name of God), road rage bullies, mommy group bullies—and you know what? Ain’t nobody got time for that!
Frankly, I’m sick of bullies. They’ve taken too much from me and I’ve let them. I don’t have any deep answers on how to solve the bullying epidemic. I don’t know how to make teens stop sending stupid text messages or posting ridiculous nonsense on Instagram or Snapchat. All I know to do is to tell them over and over again the effects of bullying. I can’t change them, but I can change me. I can stop giving their words meaning and move past the hurt they inflicted.
I refuse to be like my math teacher, who incorrectly told me they would stop. They never stop. Instead, I work with students as they deal with conflicts and teach them about who they are in Christ so the truth can overcome the lies, so the light of God can overcome the darkness
In this work, I have found redemption for my own middle and high school years eaten by the locusts. There is healing in ministry—something that makes the scars bring forth His light.
My junior year of high school was more than half a lifetime ago and I still remember the words of the students and my teacher. I still feel the sting because I am human. But I don’t let it consume me because I am redeemed.