After 15 years of being homeschooled, I donned my favorite
Blossom-style hat, pulled up my knee-high socks and entered public high school.
My parents homeschooled all eight of us, but after the
birth of my youngest brother (who was born with multiple special needs) my mom
didn't have the bandwidth to give us all the attention we needed. So, she
enrolled me and my older sister in the public high school. We lived in a small
town in South Dakota, where the high school had around 600 students. I already
knew some kids there from summer camps and acting classes. It didn't seem that
Plus, I was excited. At 15 (there I am, pictured far left in the photo), I loved learning. I knew
everything about the Brontës and could quote entire Shakespearian sonnets. I
was sure that school and I were going to be a hit. I'd read all those novels
about girls lugging their heavy books from class to class, in ivy-covered
buildings. I had seen Dead Poet's Society, and I was ready.
For those of you who were raised worldly-wise in the public
school system, you know what happened next. You've seen the fates of several
exuberant, nerdy, imaginatively dressed teenagers. You don't need a crystal
ball. The moment I walked into that school, I was alone with nothing but my jaunty jean hat to save me.
I was spotted as prey by a kid named Jake (which is not his
real name, because I'm sure he's grown up to be an awesome person and doesn't
need this part of his life proliferated all over the Internet). Jake sat behind
me in speech class. I don't think professing
my love of the oratorical style of Bill Clinton did much to make me not
look like bully-bait. Jake smelled fresh meat, and every time the teacher's back was turned, he whispered awful things in my
I found solace in the debate team, where my inner nerd came alive and no one cared about my hats, because they were way less weird than the kid with the cape.
What were those things? Well, even now as a 30-year-old who has spent a lot of my professional life managing a love and sex community on the
Internet, I still find those things too horrible to write. Suffice it to say, I've never heard anyone talk like that since.
Even in YouTube comments.
To make matters worse, Jake wasn't the only one. One of his friends, Kyle (also not
his real name, but I have less hope for him), sat behind me in biology and
kicked me every time I raised my hand to answer a question, which was frequent
enough that after one week of class, my legs were too sore to manage the 1-mile walk to school. It's also important to note that Kyle liked to wear
steel-toed boots, still allowed in schools in those pre-Columbine days. One
kick made me bleed. Kyle also thought it was hilarious to tell everyone that I
was sleeping with my brother every time he saw me in the halls. My bruised legs
reflected the state of my heart.
I know now that I wasn't alone. According to Bully: An Action Plan for Teachers, Parents,
and Communities to Combat the Bullying Crisis, 75 percent of children report
being bullied at some point during their school years, and after reading some of the
stories in the book, I realize that what I experienced was
relatively tame. I still had friends. I found solace in the debate team, where
my inner nerd came alive and no one cared about my hats, because they were way
less weird than the kid with the cape. And these friends stood up for me. One
friend, Darryl, was in my biology class and sat by me until the shin-kicking
stopped. Another girl, Vani, told Kyle
to "F*ck off!" when she heard him chanting in the halls. I also had Matt, my
gay friend and my date to most dances. There was also Jon and Rhiannon, who
taught me how to survive—to swear, to be weird and not care, to learn to love
the outcasts and how not to judge.
As for Jake? I took care of him. My sophomore year, when Jake
walked into my composition class and took up his position behind me, I wanted
to throw up. I realized that this was going to happen again and again for what
felt like the rest of my life. One week into the semester, the teacher started
a movie and left the room. That was Kyle's cue, he leaned in, "Hey, c---
I didn't let him finish. I stood up and dragged his desk to
the other side of the room. "SIT THERE AND SHUT THE HELL UP!" I yelled.
It was as close to swearing as a 100-pound home-schooled, 16
year-old could muster.
The teacher walked in. "Is there a problem here?"
Yes! I wanted to
yell. This jerk is a menace and you can't do
anything about it! Instead I looked at Kyle, "No. No problem. I was just
helping Kyle move his desk. Right, Kyle?"
Kyle said nothing. But he sat in the spot I chose for him
the rest of the fall semester.
In the spring, I sat next to Kyle in study hall and together
we watched panicked students stream out from their Colorado High School on the news. Even
though he was sitting behind me, he said nothing as we listened to news anchors
tally the dead and wounded.
Not long after that, backpacks were banned in the halls. So
were capes, jaunty jean caps and steel-toed boots. All those
things we carried, the things that made us nerds, dweebs or goth, were taken
away. Up until
that day, our daily burden had been containable by the black zippers of our
brightly colored Jansports. We now carried
the knowledge that we were no longer safe; that we were the enemy.
According to Bully, 30 percent of children who report being bullied said they sometimes brought weapons to school.
When I think back on that time now, I realize how incredibly lucky I was—I had
a Daryl and a Vani, a Matt and a Rhiannon and a Jon. Not everyone does. I moved
from that school in the middle of my junior year. A year later, I learned that
a boy from the class behind me committed suicide. I never knew him or knew that
he was lonely or hurting.
Now, I have a daughter. She's blond and blue-eyed. She's
vivacious. A people person and a people pleaser. I doubt she'd ever wear a
jaunty jean cap to school. But I hope I raise her to know all of those things
that my friends taught me—to brandish your weird and love those who do. If she becomes
a target, I want her to have the balls to let people know and haul a desk or
two across the classroom if necessary. If she see's bullying, I want her to be
that Vani, Daryl, Jon, Rhiannon and Matt, and know that we're all so much more
than victims and victimizers, that her peers aren't the enemy. Or, at least,
they don't have to be.