An Open Letter to the Weird Kids
This isn't going to be a funny post, or even lighthearted, but this is the post I want everyone to share.
I'll freely admit that I don't watch the news as often as I thought I would as an adult. The main reason is that mostly, it's horrible. Considering that I get fifteen minutes of NPR on my way to and from work on weekdays, and that I supplement that with the occasional non-fluff piece from Buzzfeed, my exposure to what's going on in the world is limited. Despite these limitations, I've seen three stories in the last two weeks that have made me sick, sad, and more than a little outraged. All involved bullied teens who took their own lives.
For most the millions of kids who are just now entering high school or middle school this week, life is probably pretty exciting. They're entering a new, more mature phase in their lives. But life is about to get a lot tougher for some, and I'm not just talking about the sudden increase in homework or even the awkwarness of puberty. Middle and high schools are some of the strictest social hierarchies around. Kids are segregated into cliques of like-mindedness, and for those who don't fall into a clearly defined social caste, navigating the teen years can be difficult or even terrifying.
I was bullied pretty severely in middle school. When I say I was bullied, I don't mean that there was this one girl who was out to get me, I was literally the class whipping post. Whether it was because I was tall and gawky, or because I wore glasses, or didn't wear the right clothes, there was always someone ready with hateful words. If I made the simplest of social missteps, it was always in front of a crowd, and I was tormented mercilessly about it for weeks afterwards.
And sometimes it was worse. I was beat up on many occasions for such crimes as wearing polyester pants, having broken glasses, reading a book, or simply sitting in the wrong place in the cafeteria. It sucked, and at the time I didn't have anyone to turn to. Teachers either ignored me, told me I was lying, or in the case of the gym teacher, who actually saw the bruises, refused to believe that I was beat up by students and instead assumed I was being abused at home.
Yes, it was a terrible point in my life that I would not want to relive if my life depended on it, but I did survive. The campaign against bullying does get one thing right, even if it sounds trite, it does get better. Although I just said that I'd never want to relive those years, I would go back, now, as an adult, and tell my preteen self a few things if I could. Since I can't, I'm writing them here, for the kids of today, so that they can see that there really is life after high school, and it's a hell of a lot more fun.
What you think is ugly, may be your best asset later in life.
I'm tall. I'd aways been tall, but in junior high I became awkwardly tall. I got called names like Bird Girl, Green Giant, and Too Tall Jones (apparently he was a football player back in my day). Aside from the general awkwardness my height also made me ridiculously clumsy (huge feet too). I'll admit, I'm still clumsy, but you know what? People envy my height! Yes, there's the occasional brainiac who will gawk or remark, and yes, finding clothing can still be a pain in the ass, but for every jerk, there's someone else paying me a compliment or expressing their jealousy. You know what else? As an adult, standing out in the crowd is kind of cool. Once I stopped slouching and wore my height like the badge of honor it is, life got a lot better.
Sure, being tall isn't so bad, you're thinking. But believe me, at twelve it was just as much of a curse as being too fat or too thin, or having bad acne (which, ironically, I have as an adult. Guess what, it doesn't make me a social pariah). But here's the thing: your physical looks probably aren't going to stay stagnant through life. If we only got as attractive as we are in middle school, the world would be populated by ogres. Fat kids slim down, skinny kids bulk up, acne fades, big eyes go from being bulgy to sexy, birthmarks become ignored or become incorporated into your unique look. Everyone thinks they're ugly in their teens, even the class beauty, which is why she's mean, she's just as insecure as you.
Which brings me to my next point: Your bullies are insecure.
Not that this helps you right now. Chances are you're too busy with math and social studies to become a teenaged psychologist, but it's something to keep in the back of your mind when your classmates pick on you. What they are doing is trying to deflect attention from their own flaws by pointing out yours. Now, I'm not telling you this because I want you to retaliate. Telling the guy who calls you a nerd that he's only doing it because his failing grades are causing him anxiety is just starting a fight, and you don't want to start a fight. What can you do? Everyone will tell you to ignore it. Sure, it's sound advice, but it won't make them stop. Your bully is trying to get a rise out of you. Own your shortcomings. Laugh it off. If someone calls you a nerd, come in to school with a big pair of glasses. Bonus points if there's tape on the nose. Chances are, you aren't going to completely diffuse the situation, but you might make friends with some other kids who appreciate your sense if humor. A bully is going to be less likely to pick on you if you've won over their audience.
Fashion is fleeting, and you all look dumb right now from your future self's perspective.
When I was in middle school, the fashion was skinny jeans, bright neon colors, and oversized shirts...hey wait a minute! That's today's fashions! See, it's all cyclical. As a teen, no one would be caught dead in 'bells,' which is what we called any pants that didn't require an ankle zipper to get our fat feet through. Since I couldn't always afford the skinny, acid washed name brand jeans that were in style, I would have to make due by pinch rolling the hand me down Wranglers I had, and yes, I got picked on for it. By the time I reached my senior year, the sixties were back and the same girls who picked on my bells were now paying top dollar for bellbottoms of their own.
And then there was college. Something happens in college. There's no such thing as fashion standards in college. You won't believe me now, but wait until the first night you and your dorm mates are at the grocery store in pajama pants, hoodies, and sloppy ponytails buying mac n' cheese. And after college, no one cares. You may work in an office that requires dressy clothes, and yes, there may be an office fashionista who comes in every day with $300 shoes, who will rave about the great deal she got. But your $30 goes-with-everything black flats will not earn you any scorn. Whether your t-shirts come from the Gap, Walmart, or the thrift store, no one is judging you. My thrift store sweaters are complimented just as often as my more extravagant coworker's mall sweaters. Your life is your own now. You get to wear what you want and do what you love.
The dorky interests that are keeping you from getting dates will make you popular in college (and will totally get you dates).
During the two years of torment, I had two escapes: books and music. My taste in music was unconventional at the time (I liked metal, which was considered dirtbag music) as was the concept of reading for pleasure. My friends didn't understand how I could spend the entire lunch period with my nose in a book. I couldn't understand their conversation over which Corey was hotter (I'm old, yes). And oh god, the sci-fi. Nothing was a bigger bully magnet than a sci-fi or fantasy novel in the hands of a bespectacled bird girl with greasy hair.
But in college, and well into my adult years, my group of friends was an eclectic mix of computer geeks, art snobs, theater geeks, Dungeons and Dragons players, Star Wars and Star Trek fans, movie buffs, and lit nerds. And we were many. Almost too many. I was forced out of my naturally introverted state and began a whirlwind life of hanging out with people who shared my interests. Interestingly enough, some of them turned out to be the very people I avoided in high school because I had mislabled them as mean because they were part of the popular cliques. People change when given a modicum of freedom.
Finally, the tools that make bullying easier today can be used to protect yourself.
Cell phones, the internet, Facebook, you see these pop up a lot in articles about bullying. Cyberbullying is so widespread that it makes me sick. But the one thing that bullys tend to forget is that there is no such thing as anonymous on the internet. Report them. Cell phones are another major player. If I had access to a cell phone on that day in seventh grade when two girls followed me home and made good on their threat to beat me with a pipe they found on the sidewalk, they would have been in juvenile hall because I would have called the police. No one has the right to physically or emotionally harm you. Tell someone. If they don't listen, tell someone else. If they won't listen, get the authorities involved.
I'm not going to lie, the only thing that kept me alive during those two years of hell was the knowledge that someday I'd be away from it all.
And I am.
I'm a lot older now (thirty eight isn't actually very old, but to a teenager...) and a hell of a lot happier. Yes, I have to deal with the normal bull crap of the adult world, but if something really really sucks, like a bad job or financial stress, I have options. And you will too.
It really does get a lot better. It may not have seemed like it then, but two bad years were just a drop in the bucket. Looking back, I barely remember them, whereas there have been so many moments since that I'll cherish for the rest of my life.
You will have them as well.