Sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never hurt you. We have all heard it, right? What a crock of crap that is! Words hurt. Oftentimes the hurt is longer lasting than sticks and stones. Physical wounds heal, but psychological wounds stick with us for a very long time. Harsh words are especially lasting when spoken to a child. Children struggle to find their identities and develop themselves, to find out where they belong in the world and harsh words, if repeated often enough, start to define a child.
In addition, as the child grows, they start to build on those harsh words, which are lies, and consequently what results is an adult with an identity skewed by lies.
I was bullied as a child. Not much of the bullying was physical, but my wounds are still with me. I can still remember the first incident of teasing as a child. It was third grade and I was the new kid in class. Up until that time, I had been pretty happy-go-lucky. I had gone to three different schools from Kindergarten through Second grade and I had never had a problem fitting in. I had friends in my neighborhood, in my class, at church. I was just a normal kid. I wasn’t the most popular kid around, but I certainly wasn’t an outcast either. However, something changed that third grade year and it wasn’t for the better.
My first day of third grade has etched itself in my memory as if it were yesterday. For whatever reason, my mom had gotten the start-time wrong and I was late. The. First. Day. I was always a shy kid anyway, and seeing 20+ heads pivot and 20+ sets of eyes boring into me as I walked into that class was nightmare inducing for me. I could tell right away that it was going to be a tough year. It was abundantly clear to me that day that everyone else knew each other and I was not one of them. I wandered around at recess that day like a lost puppy. It was probably the first time in my young life that I felt real loneliness.
A couple of days later, on the bus home from school, a couple of boys in front of me turned around and said “Hey ugly, what’re you looking at?” I was stunned. I probably did look dumb, perhaps even ugly, sitting there with my mouth agape, searching for some sort of coherent reply to a question such as this. They continued with rhetorical questions like that for the entire looooong, hot, unairconditioned, uncomfortable ride home on that bus. Luckily, they did get off a couple of stops before me, so I had a few minutes reprieve. Hot, humiliated tears streamed down my face that afternoon. I didn’t know which was more embarrassing, the fact that they teased me and called me ugly and every synonym for ugly they could think of, or the fact that I had let them see me cry. Either way, it was a horrible event and unfortunately it was only the first of many similar incidents.
As I struggled through elementary school, the teasing continued. On it continued through middle school. All the way through high school the teasing never stopped. It was constant. It is curious to note that I did make quite a few friends with the girls my age; it was never the girls who teased me, only the boys. Mainly the popular ones. The ones who everyone looked up to and thought were great. I always resented the fact that they could pick on me with impunity. They were football players (read, rock stars) in our small Texas town; no one was ever going to tell them to knock it off. And no one did. Not one other kid. Not one teacher or administrator. No one.
Luckily, I was able to cut and run from there a year early. I squeezed all my credits into three years of high school, graduated early and never looked back. I may never have intentionally looked back, but the wounds came up, unbidden. It is true that our pasts come back to haunt us. I left that town with a false sense of who I was. I was an ugly, fat, big-nosed girl with a stupid last name. Well, that is what I had been told for the previous 10 years, so that is the base on which I started my adult life. It was all a lie, of course, but my psyche didn’t know that. I believed every lie ever told to me and I buried them deep into my soul. It took me many, many years to shake those words off my sub-conscious mind. In some ways, I still haven’t gotten rid of all of the residual crap from those years of teasing.
Fortunately, those years of bullying were not the end of the story. I can’t say I am grateful for those years of torture, nor am I proud of the few years of self-destruction that came right after it, but I am grateful for the eventual outcome. I turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself. I am a compassionate, empathetic, caring person. I am not rich, or famous, but I do make a difference in my own small way. For instance, when I see a kid being bullied on the playground at my kids’ school, I can be that person for them that I never had in my life. I can be the person who stands in the gap and tells the bully that picking on others is not okay. I never had that, but thanks to my bad experience, I can do that for someone else and at the end of the day, that makes me feel good.