October 13, 2012

Today, I learned about the heart-breaking suicide of Amanda Todd. Another young life that comes to a tragic end because of bullying. 
I wish I had known Amanda. I wish I had heard about the video she posted on YouTube before she took her own life. I wish I had reached out to her, and told her there is hope, there is strength, which you can find in yourself, first and foremost, and then in others.

The thing about bullying is that as you’re looking for reasons for why people are doing all this to you, and why it is you, it makes you think that you did something wrong, you deserve what is happening, and you’re a freak. It makes you hate the person you are. Add this to loneliness and lack of understanding from the people surrounding you, and the next thing you know, you are feeling so miserable the only way out is to take your own life.

How do I know that, you may ask?

I know, because I, in fact, have been bullied when I was in school.  

It started when I was very young, growing up in Lebanon. I went to a very small German private school. In each class, there was about fifteen to twenty students at the most.
In that country ruled by contradictions, you are first and foremost taught to fear the different and the unknown. I was the more “French” one. I was raised with French as my native language, and I only learned Arabic at six. When I joined that school at four, there was a lack of communication due to the language barrier; I had no idea what the kids I was playing with were saying, I was unable to follow game instructions and such because they spoke Lebanese Arabic on the playground.
 As we grew, I remained more isolated than the rest.

I was pushed around by older children, boys and girls. I was sometimes hit. Most of the time, teachers or staff came over and took care of the situation, scolding the offenders while I cried. Many times, they ignored it. More than once, my parents got involved. 

One day, when I was eight, there was an accident. It was on Monday, December 6th, 1999; Saint Nicolas Day in German culture. A man dressed as "Nikolaus" would come to classrooms and distribute a gift bag to each child. We were left alone in the classroom, with no adult watching us. A kid suggested we sneak out to see where "Nikolaus" was. It was forbidden, and thus extremely exciting. I snuck out with three boys and we went in the hallway. Then we heard footsteps; a teacher had heard us and was coming our way. The four of us ran back to the classroom. They were faster than me, and decided to lock me outside so I would take the blame. I pushed against the door to still get in, and as they, on the other side, pushed to close it, my right hand got stuck in the hinge part. 
The pain was unbearable. I thought my fingers would fall off. I was taken to the nurse's, and my parents were called to the school. I was hospitalized, wore a cast until Christmas. This was the only instance in my entire life when I wore a cast anywhere on my body. The boys responsible were punished. Ever since, I cannot stand to see a child carelessly put their finger near a door or play or fight near one. 

Fourth grade, school year 2001-2002, was the worst year I spent in that school. There were eight girls and eight boys. While physical aggression became much less frequent, those children discovered how much damage words and actions could cause. Many times, I was the one on whom they tested that. I was constantly mocked, insulted, made fun of. So on the rare instances when I was shown friendship, I took it with no caution, and became reliant on it. Then it was taken back, and the taunts became more and more cruel and vicious.

Also, the fact that I was much taller than the other children and more fair-skinned than the average Mediterranean person achieved making me the freak.

I made a friend, but because she wanted to keep her popularity, she had to pretend she disliked me in front of the others, and only act like a friend when we were in private.

They mocked me and insulted me during class, and many times, the teachers did nothing. During Arabic class, they made fun of the way I read, because I was unable to roll my Rs. Many times, I ran out of the classroom in tears. Many times, I was alone, facing sixteen ferocious kids who needed to do harm. I dreaded the moments when family members and friends of my parents would ask me about school; since I went to a German school, I was the “exotic” curiosity that everyone wanted to know about.

During all that time, I found my salvation in books. My grandmother had taught me to read at around three, so I always read faster than the children my age, and I enjoyed it. I always had a book with me, and during free time at school, I would sit somewhere and plunge into a different world where I found solace and pleasure. It was a different type of loneliness, the better type.

My French teachers praised me for the good vocabulary I had acquired from all this reading, and for reading for fun, not because I was made to. Soon, I found my passion for French literature, and I found my drive in excelling in French class. I finally had a goal, which was to have the best grades possible. And I did. As the years passed, I gained some respect from the other children, whose (overly-competitive) parents encouraged to follow my example. I made friends with those very kids; we would go to each others’ houses, have sleepovers, go to the movies on week-ends and such. Sometimes we would fight, and during those fights, each person would try to hurt the other as much as possible.

In February of 2006, before I turned fourteen, I discovered that the boys in my class, assisted by some girls, had written a degrading and sexually explicit “poem” about me, and had been distributing it and posting it on the internet. I was devastated, and didn’t go to school for days. Then my father, livid with anger, took me with him and went to see the principal, a German man who had recently taken that position. He, and a lady who worked in the administration, were shocked, even more when I told them I had been bullied for years. The students who did that “poem” were severely punished.
At that school, in each grade, there was two classes: “A” and “B”, with not more than twenty students in each. From very early, teachers encouraged an unhealthy rivalry and competition between the classes in each grade. I had always been in “B”, with the same kids. Two months before the school year ended, I transferred to “A”, where I made real, better friends.

In summer 2006, I left Lebanon and moved to the United States. A lot of things happened that summer. One of them was the messy collapse of my parents’ marriage. In most countries, the basic thing to do when a husband and wife are having problems is to keep the children out of it. In Lebanon, however, the children are the parent’s accessory, whether it comes to bragging, needing a scapegoat for your anger, or blaming the end of your marriage on them. I was stuck in the middle of my parents’ messy divorce, which happened literally overnight. And each tried to use me to hurt the other. I felt torn, and objectified, and more than anything, extremely alone.

It was in those circumstances that I began studying at another tiny, private school in the Washington DC area, French, this time. The school was in Bethesda, MD, and then, I lived in Arlington, VA. I had a long commute which put a crimp on my social life. I also lived with a very controlling parent who, claiming to “protect” me, isolated me even further.
That year, ninth grade, I found happiness in pursuing academic excellence. In the French system, you need to pass an exam called the “Brevet” to pass from middle school (9th grade/3eme) to high school (10th grade/2nde). It was supposed to be a challenge because I had been in a different system my whole life, but I dedicated myself to studying for it, determined to have at least a “mention Bien” (a type of honours). And I did.

The year later, 10th grade/Seconde however was when I went through a very difficult personal crisis involving my very controlling parent. In the fall, I felt so lonely and so hopeless that I became dangerously close to taking my own life (which is a lot to say, because I have always been more or less a practicing Catholic). I was depressed, and unhappy, and people saw it. The crisis was solved by Christmas thanks to the intervention of school staff, to whom I will eternally be grateful. One lady in particular held me up when I was sinking and I am so thankful for the coincidences that put her in my life.  
That Christmas, I also moved to Bethesda, MD, in a larger house where I finally had the space and privacy of which I had been deprived for a year and a half. Now living ten minutes from the school, I was ready to start a new life, and I was determined to make the best of it. 10th grade however remained difficult. My problems at home had been more or less taken care of, but in the meanwhile, I was undergoing attacks at school, again.

There was a girl who arrived, that year, and who was crazy. As in really damaged. She began dating another girl who then was my closest friend and who constantly stuck by me and supported me through the hell I went through the first three months. The Damaged Girl was jealous of my friendship with her girlfriend, and when the latter temporarily broke up with her, she spread a rumour that I had seduced her and it was my fault; she also said we kissed.
All hell broke loose that winter of early 2008. People hated me because they thought I was a girlfriend-stealer, even though I constantly denied it.
All the friends I had made abandoned me. I received harmful notes in my locker, insulting me and criticizing my appearance and fashion sense. I had a blog, on which I constantly received degrading comments from people at school. Someone also got hold of my phone number, and constantly called me from a “private” number and left voicemails, some insulting, some sexually explicit, some mocking. I was so lonely that those phone calls affected me very deeply. I was terrified, constantly having panic attacks because that person (or this group of people) made it sound like they were watching me from my window. I couldn’t speak to the Parent because whenever I tried, she’d say I brought this upon myself, or worse, minimize it and brush it off.

The worst day that year was my sixteenth birthday, Friday, March 14th, 2008. I organized a big party and bought a lot of food and supplies. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but when I went to school that day, in lieu of birthday wishes, people who had confirmed they were coming cancelled, one by one.

I was all alone that night, and Parent Dearest couldn’t find a better moment to cause a fight, making me wish that I wasn’t born.

But somehow, what kept me from giving up all hope was, again, my quest for academic excellence. I made it my goal to perfect English, as our teacher introduced us to the works of Shakespeare. In other subjects, also, I dedicated myself to only get the best grades; something less than perfect not being an option. And I did.

The next year was when things got much better. I was in the Literature section, and I had only three classmates which became instantly very good friends. They were also smart enough not to let themselves be influenced by the talk that was going on around me, but by who I was as a person and as a friend. They became my support group, and even though I wasn’t as popular as others, I finally understood what an older girl had once told me: it is better to be alone than badly surrounded.
The ridiculous kids had not stopped their attacks, but I responded to them with indifference because I wasn’t alone, but I was surrounded by great people. And it remained so until we finished school; the bad memories were replaced by very good ones, of which I am still extremely fond.  

This is my story.

By telling it, I am not trying to say that I am better than bullying victims who took their own lives. Who knows, if I didn’t have this drive for academic excellence in me, I would have definitely sunken into alcohol and drugs. What I have been through is maybe nothing compared to the hell Amanda endured. But someone’s untimely death, even someone that until today I did not know of, is terribly upsetting. And the most infuriating it that she was blamed for the nude photographs, and for being manipulated by boys, instead of being comforted and taken care of. She was violated, then blamed. It’s like telling a rape victim that she’s a whore and she’s responsible for what happened.
I wish so much that I knew her before this happened. I wish I could have told to hold on, that she is too young to feel so hopeless. I wish that I could have given her some of the strength that I found in me through the years.

Every time something like that happens, there is an uproar about “stopping bullying”, which is incredibly naïve and ridiculous because violence is in human nature, and some simply don’t know how to tame it. There is no such thing as “stopping bullying”. Kids who beat you up and do things that are “illegal” will get punished, but then they’ll discover passive aggressiveness is much more effective, and you can’t pinpoint that behavior at the principal’s or even to a confidant. I was blessed to have wonderful people to confide in, including an excellent school therapist, but not everybody has this chance. 
The thing is, you can’t stop bullying, but you can survive it by channeling the strength and survival instinct you have in yourself. The thing is, resilience is also in human nature, and you have it in yourself. 

Amanda, dear Amanda, may you finally rest in peace. 

1 comment:

cheryl denise said...

these stories make me so sad. i just don't understand how kids can be so cruel :( i'm glad to hear you were able to stay strong. thanks for sharing your story...

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