I’d like to share a story from my childhood. This is not an easy piece to write or post.
Please note: this post may be triggering to victims of abuse or bullying.
. . .
I am a victim of childhood bullying.
My story takes place over a couple of weeks in fourth grade. I used to be chased, hit, and spit on by three students. They were comparable in size, but then again, I was a pretty short kid growing up (and am now a pretty short adult). But they were first graders.
I used to get beat up by kids three years my junior on the playground.
They’d chase me to the edge of the playground and I’d pull up a loose chain link fence and run onto the adjacent soccer field that wasn’t technically our school’s property. For whatever reason, they never chased me under the fence. But they’d wait there, taunting me through the open chain links, fully prepared to kick my ass if I tried to wiggle back under and run away. So I’d just walk the length of the fence, these three boys walking with me on the other side, shouting at me, spitting on me, trying to grab my jacket if I got too close.
When the teachers would yell that recess was over, I’d wait until the playground emptied, then run back into the building. This went on for a few weeks.
I finally told my parents. I don’t think I ever told them all the details as I’ve posted up here, so Mom and Papa, if you’re reading this, here’s the whole story for the first time. I think I had said there were some boys at recess who were making fun of me. I’ll never forget my Mom telling me: “Keiko, it’s their problem. They’re the ones who have the problems and issues, not you. You can stand up to them without getting into a fight because you’re better than them and you know how to use your words.”
The next day at recess, I brought my camera. I took pictures of them through the fence. I told them I was taking their photos to show to the teacher, that I would have evidence. (In hindsight, I realize that was pretty astute for a fourth grader, but I suppose I got the idea because my father is a photojournalist.) Somewhere in an old picture box are these still photos of these hateful faces frozen in time, their faces overlaid with that grey chainlink fence, their fingers clawing, teeth literally bared, and anger flashing in their eyes. I will never forget a single detail of their faces.
Photo evidence captured, they remained undaunted. I put the camera away and told them that my Mom said that their making fun of me is their problem, that I’m the better person because I wouldn’t fight them, and that I would use my words.
I will never, ever forget the moment the one taller black boy looked straight at me and said:
“No, this is your problem.” And then he spit at my face through the fence.
It dripped off my cheek and landed on my pink winter jacket. Then they ran off.
. . .
It’s been twenty years since that day and I will never forget it.
I am 29 years old and I still can’t write about being bullied by first graders as a fourth grader without getting embarrassed, ashamed, and angry. I imagine people think that I should probably get over some silly little bullying problem from two decades ago. I mean, it’s not like they hit me or anything.
Their words haunt me.
I may have moved on emotionally, but that doesn’t mean that I can forget it. In that moment: a switch flipped. A scar was left.
I became permanently marked – and changed – by bullying.
. . .
Bullying has changed since I was a little kid. We didn’t have cyberbullying when I was younger. We were still using an Apple IIe in our classrooms and you were the child of privilege if you had Prodigy at home.
Today, it’s a different story. Fourth graders have access to the internet. There are plenty of parents who do very little to limit their children’s access to computers and cell phones, so it’s no wonder that even a 10-year old can receive harassing, threatening text messages.
But bullying doesn’t always happen under the veil of technology. It can be painfully overt like my experience. It happens in the halls between class, in the locker rooms before gym, or while you’re sitting on the bus on your way to school. Or even, like in my case, when you’re waiting for the bus to arrive.
. . .
When I was in fifth grade, there was a kid at my bus stop that I couldn’t stand. There was no misunderstanding about how much we hated each other. But he used to tease me every day. I’d try to ignore him or come up with a witty comeback. This winter morning, he didn’t say anything. He grabbed a fistful of snow with leaves, sticks, and ice shards in it, and formed it into a tightly packed ball. I thought he was going to throw it at me.
I was wrong.
He grabbed my neck from behind with one arm and with the other, shoved the snow in my nose and mouth so I couldn’t breathe. The leaves got in my mouth. The sticks and ice cut my face. I started choking and crying. He held me for a full minute while I struggled against him before he let me go.
I ran home, only 3 houses away and told my mom. By the time she ran out to the street, she could see my bus turning the corner. She called the school. He was called in to the principal’s office.
I learned at the end of the day he’d been suspended and kicked off the bus route.
. . .
I was bullied because I was the smart kid, a little goofy, a little weird. I asked questions (too many). I was chatty (too much). I did all the extra credit assignments when they were given out and even when they weren’t.
I was the goody-two-shoes, the brown-noser, the nerd.
Truth is, I was just really excited about learning and school. My parents had raised me to always remain curious, to apply myself, and to never take for granted for a second the miracle and wonder of the world around me. These are values I hope to pass down to my own children one day, because they’ve shaped who I am.
It was this love of learning that apparently was the equivalent of an invisible target painted on me that said: “Bullies: Have At Her.”
It’s taken me years to embrace these traits as opposed to the internal monologue I repeated over and over to myself as a teen: don’t be so different Keiko. Don’t stand out so much. Try not to be so smart.
Don’t get me wrong: I was still kind of a weird teen, but with a level of self-consciousness that bordered on the neurotic. I was perpetually worrying about what other people thought about me. Traces of this self-doubt still remain with me today.
Because, as those first-graders would be happy to remind me: it was my problem.
. . .
This has been an incredibly difficult post to write. I had actually had the first half of this post written for months, sitting in my draft folder because publishing it felt too painful.
Jamey was a gay teen who made an “It Gets Better” video. His video was widely-praised as he spoke with such optimism. He was about to start high school and even after years of being bullied about his sexuality, he seemed enthusiastic for the future ahead.
On September 18, 2011, Jamey committed suicide.
He was 14.
. . .
I’m writing this post today with courage found in reading this post by JW Moxie from last month. She describes a bullying experience where she physically fought back. Reading her post, it triggered a lot of memories and emotions. I never found the courage to fight back as a kid.
I think in many ways, my experiences with being bullied, have inadvertently shaped me into a strong woman today. I can pinpoint the exact moment I developed a fighter’s spirit.
I recognize that I am one of the lucky ones who made it.
. . .
With all of my attention focused on MS 26 earlier this week, I completely missed everything about Michigan’s disgusting anti-bullying law that passed in Michigan’s State Senate on Tuesday.
Wait a minute, how can I call an anti-bullying bill disgusting?
Because conservative groups lobbied to have additional language added to Senate Bill 137 – also known as Matt’s Safe School Law after another gay teen who committed suicide as the result of bullying - to allow bullying in cases where the bully’s actions are the result of “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.”
Critics of this bill have dubbed it the License to Bully bill, claiming it provides a blueprint for bullies. If a bully can claim that they bullied someone because they were offended on religious or moral grounds, they are exempt from this law. It boggles the mind that a piece of anti-bullying legislation actually paves the way for… more bullying. This was the final prodding that I needed to share my story.
I hope you’ve found this post useful. I hope this post has raised awareness about bullying. I hope you’ll share it with others to continue to raise awareness about bullying, particularly with regard to Michigan’s absurd new law.
And if you’ve been bullied, I’m so sorry we share this in common. I hope you’ll share your story with others too so that something can be done about bullying on a national level.
That’s it. That’s all I’ve got to share on this matter. No clever final sentence.