Every time I hear of another bullying incident leading to a suicide, it brings back a lot of painful memories. I was bullied and had stories told about me that followed me right from elementary school through to high school. So were many of my friends, sometimes just for being associated with me, and worst of all, my brother, who was forced to change schools twice due to bullies. All I can think of when I hear these stories is but by the Grace of God go myself and my brother. This could have been either of us. Our bullies couldn’t do much when we left the school grounds (some did – more later). Today’s kids cannot escape simply by going home or even, like my brother did, switching schools. It is only through the help my parents got for my brother and my mom’s ability to put the fear of God into any principal or school board trustee, that it probably wasn’t one of us. I have no idea what we would have done in the age of Facebook and text messages, as I had stories about me follow me for I’d say 12 years, damaging stories, lies, passed from classmate to classmate even as we moved from one school to another. It made my life miserable right from Junior Kindergarten to Grade 13. It made me who I am today, both the good and the bad. It was the reason behind a major blowout I had with my mother over my refusal to apply to universities in Ottawa – a blowout so big my mom called and got my guidance counselor involved who convinced me to apply to one school to humour my mother.
I’m sure people wonder why I am such an advocate for youth with an ostomy and for the UOAC Youth Camp. It comes out of my own childhood experience. Some of my Facebook friends who I haven’t been in touch with from elementary school until recently may wonder if my ostomy is the reason for some of what went on in school. I am here to say it’s not- I only developed ulcerative colitis and had ostomy surgery 8 years ago. Kids are cruel, kids are crueler when someone is different due to health issues or birth defects. And it doesn’t stop with the kids, I had kids call my mom a hunchback – my mom whose spine was shaped like an S and fought tooth and nail to come back from the worst form of polio at age 14 and who had been told she would never walk again. They didn’t see that part of my mom, they just knew her back was deformed and she was different. Then there was me, this is my reason why the youth in our ostomy association inspire me. I was made fun of because of a birth defect – I had an enlarged bladder with pockets in it that would empty suddenly and without my ability to control it. The reason for these accidents was not discovered until I was 9 years old, and then only because the Kidney Foundation came in and gave urine tests to everyone in the school – it’s why my mom gave money to the Kidney Foundation for the rest of her life. By then the damage was done though. I was shy, withdrawn and very quiet when I started school – these accidents and the kids who tormented me over them made me even more so. I also had issues with my ankles that would cause me a great deal of pain when I ran or took gym – I hated gym, both for the pain and because it was just somewhere else kids could make fun of me. My parents talked to my doctor and I was excused from gym class. Unfortunately, this made the teasing even worse, compounded by the fact that someone I considered my best friend, was told of my test results for my bladder issue, and used that information against me later. The rumours went all over school that if I ran I peed my pants and that’s why I didn’t take gym. The kids were so cruel to me, that one of my mom’s friends confided in her that her son, who had major deformities in his feet since birth, and shouldn’t be in gym class, refused to not take gym because he saw how cruel the kids were to me. My issue was resolved with medication for many years until I outgrew the issue, but even though it didn’t happen anymore, that rumour followed my right into both my middle school (where someone asked me in grade 7 art class if it was true, causing me to scream at my former best friend who was the source of the original information, ending with both of us in the principal’s office) and high school and was spread to the kids who hadn’t gone to elementary school with me. So I’d get bullied and treated badly by a whole new group of kids. In high school it expanded to all the girls I was friends with – the boys at another table in the cafeteria, many of whom didn’t know me until grade 9, would throw food at us. I am forever thankful for Mrs Morgan opening up her classroom and allowing us to use it at lunch every day for the rest of high school.
My brother was younger than me, and I’m not sure why he started being bullied, but I can tell you kids are cruel and many of the bullies not only got away with it, but it was us that had to leave activities we loved instead of them being kicked out. My brother and I went to Day School Gospel League, an after school program. You would think a Christian childrens’ group would not put up with bullying, but they did. One of my brother’s worst bullies in that school was in the group with us, along with his brother who was in my class and who I blamed for an accident that broke my front teeth. He made both of our lives miserable and instead of the bullies being asked to leave the group, my mom was forced to take us out of a group we loved. The bullies won, they got to stay. While today’s kids cannot escape their bullies very easily, not being in school didn’t stop some of the kids who bullied us. One bully, started with my brother than moved onto me and by association, my friends, in grade 9. The only thing he had in common with us was he shared a first name with my brother. He was a year older than me, so he was in grade 8, I was in grade 7 and my brother in grade 5. No idea why he wanted to pick on a grade 5 kid, but he did. So much so, that another boy in grade 8, one I had considered on of my bullies when I was in grade 5, held him down one day at the bus stop while I hit him over the head with my math textbook :). Ironically, the guy who held him down is now married to one of my childhood friends. This boy took the bullying outside of school – he once chased my brother and I on his bike up onto a neighbour’s lawn where we ended up on their front step to avoid being hit by him. He was awful. When I went into grade 9, he had failed a lot of courses. I shared all my classes with two of my best friends, who sat behind me in biology. He sat behind them and tormented them because of their association with me. My parents did everything they could to stop this guy, so did I, ending up in the vice-principal’s office several times complaining, he was NEVER punished! Not once! His parents’ showed up at my house. The father wanted to fight my dad – we then knew where he learned to bully, both his parents were bullies too. If we’d been harassed by Facebook and text messages too, I don’t think we would of survived. My friends and I still bear scars and bad memories of school due to bullies. We survived because two of our moms could put the fear of God in any principal they encountered – we laugh about this part to this day. One kid called my friend a prostitute when we were in grade 7 – she had to go home and ask her mom what it meant. Of course, her mom freaked and called the principal. I think they shook in their boots every time they heard our mothers’ names :). Parents though can’t do as much about text messages and Facebook – going to the schools isn’t going to stop it. My parents learned that going to the parents doesn’t work either.
My mom hated Halloween because the brother of one of my brother’s ex-friends and his friends would do stuff to our house. They egged it and one winter they threw a big ice chunk at the window. My mom kept a baseball bat behind the door when it got late on Halloween and a light shining out our back window as we backed onto a field. My brother ended up switching schools twice, both times the year after I moved on to another school, as the bullying would get worse. I guess I must have kept some of it in check too :). At least for him, switching schools worked for several years. For me, leaving Ottawa after high school ended it all. In the age of social media though, things are not so simple. Things youth think nothing of doing, can come back again and again to haunt you (not that myself or any of my friends would have flashed someone). Stupid mistakes made as a child or youth can follow you forever. How do we stop this? At the very least, parents need to keep their kids off Facebook until the minimum age of 13 (I see 10 year olds on Facebook) and keep an eye on their accounts – it may not be a popular stance with some kids, but having your parents monitor your Facebook, blog etc. Some of these kids who committed suicide talked about it on Tumblr or other social media sites. It’s not that simple. I know it’s not. That’s why the bullying has to stop.
Over 30 years ago, my mom heard over and over again that the school and school board could do nothing because it didn’t happen on school property (they didn’t act when it was on school property either most of the time). It wasn’t an acceptable answer then, and it sure isn’t now. School boards and schools need to look at this issue and come up with policies on bullying from school that continues via social media. Bullies should be the ones paying, not the kids being bullied. Unfortunately, it’s still the bullied kids and their parents left dealing with the fallout. It’s been 25 years since I graduated high school and that hasn’t changed. It needs to change before another bullied kid commits suicide. A firm stance must be taken on this issue as even if a kid doesn’t commit suicide, bullying leaves scars, deep scars. Scars like those experienced by myself, my brother and my friends some 20-25 years later.
I just told a whole lot of stories I have never told most people. However, it was time. I survived bullying because my parents cared. My mom walked us to and from school for years. She spent hours on the phone with principals and school board trustees. She spent so many hours talking to the one trustee that she considered her a friend. This trustee said something once that summed up how my mom made sure we survived being bullied. She said to my mom one day “Mrs Penner, you’ve taught me something.” My mom asked her what and she replied “You have taught me that you can’t spoil a child with love.” We survived because my mom loved us and was tough as nails due to her own experience and wouldn’t put up with anyone bullying her kids. She had a voice and she used it, they couldn’t shut her up. She won a great deal of battles, but she also lost a great deal – we were still bullied, the bullies were never ONCE suspended or expelled from school or severely punished.
Everyone needs to take a firm stance on bullying. The bullied kids should not be the ones forced to leave or change schools and no bullying situation should get to the point where the child feels the only way out is to take their own life. This needs to stop now!