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I Was Bullied as a Teenager

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 menacing.

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.

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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 ear.

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.

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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--- licker…"

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.

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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.

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