I learned to speak English from Sesame Street and my immigrant parents.
Between The Count, The Cookie Monster and my very Greek mother, I had serious pronunciation issues. In second grade I was placed in remedial reading and sent home with flashcards which I practiced daily, repeating after my mother: I am a leetel gril. I live in a howze. Please apolodzize to Dzohnny.
My father moved us into a suburban neighborhood so we could assimilate and take up bowling. My next-door neighbors were blond, wafer-thin girls with hairless bodies. I was the kid perennially dressed in long sleeves and knee socks trying to hide the dark coat of hair on my limbs.
My family was definitely not white bread; we were more like sprouted grain. Here's the thing about sprouted grain: kids don't like it. My classmates regularly asked: Does your family make togas out of Kmart bedsheets? Do you wear them on weekends? Why is your father so hairy? American mothers all around me were baking chocolate chip cookies while my mother was feeding me a daily diet of thick yogurt made from imported sheep's milk. Fage and Chobani, where were you when I needed you to make me cool?
Things got bad in sixth grade when two girls (let's just call them Life-Ruiner 1 and 2) decided to make me miserable because my skin was not the color of a peach crayon, it was the color of an olive. In the white-flight suburbs of the early '80s, this meant I was the color of barf.
Some Bullying Highlights From My Life-Ruiners
- They regularly put dead bees inside my desk, lunch bag and pencil box.
- They summoned the entire sixth grade class to surround me at recess chanting "Kill, Kill, Kill" in unison until I fell backward and hit my head against a metal door.
- They threatened to leave bowls of anti-freeze in my backyard for my dog. And when my dog did die (from a tumor) they gave me a card that said, "We're glad your only friend in the world died." Everyone in the class signed it.
- Some of their parents joined in the fun -- one dad called me Gorilla Toes for years.
- On bus trips they would invite me to sit next to them and then push me into the aisle.
I can't imagine how I would have survived if cyber-bullying existed. Once the day ended, I was home safe with doting parents who had no idea I was suffering. They believed I was the smartest, funniest, prettiest most wonderful little girl ever. How could I tell them the world thought otherwise? I was embarrassed and ashamed. Worse, I believed the kids were right, and that my parents only loved me because they were as pathetic as I was.
My Life-Ruiners often had sleepovers, during which they prank-called my house. I escaped their torment by taking the phone off the hook and stretching the receiver into a drawer to muffle the busy signal. Bullied kids today can't unplug. Is this why they're committing suicide? They can't escape. My Life-Ruiners couldn't get to me while I was home reading, writing stories, creating a world where Life-Ruiners didn't exist. On school nights I went to bed with a pit in my stomach dreading the morning, but evenings and weekends were happy, not because they were fun, but because the Life-Ruiners didn't have access to me.
The chit chat among parents today is that cruelty is an unfortunate but normal part of childhood. Anyone who says this was not bullied. Maybe they were frequently annoyed but they were not bullied to the point of wanting to die like Rebecca Ann Sedwick, the 12-year-old girl who jumped to her death after relentless texts and online posts like, "Why are u still alive? You're ugly." I remember wanting to die in sixth grade. It eventually got better, like the popular "It Gets Better Campaign" promises, but it took years. If the message to children is, "It gets better" then the message to parents has to be, "Hurry up and make it better."
Rebecca's mother took her phone away, moved, homeschooled her, did everything she could but the torment didn't stop. Where were the parents of Rebecca's Life-Ruiners? Did they think their daughters were incapable of such cruelty? Yes, because no one believes their child is unkind. But "kind" is not something you are, it's something you become. Look around, most adults have yet to master it.
Parents, Do Something
If you have a daughter, don't just talk to her about being a good person, get all up in her business the way you do with grades, sports, nutrition and safety. Every morning say to her: Be someone's discovery of kindness in the world. Say this over and over again. Say it so much that when eye-rolling makes its debut as an Olympic sport, your daughter will compete for the gold.
Scroll her phone. Check her apps. She will not like this, but that's okay. She didn't want to be potty trained either. (Peeing where you stand is a convenience not easily parted with.) If you had not insisted on swim lessons, she might still be terrified of water rather than the strong swimmer she is today. Half of what we do as parents is met with kicking and screaming. Children do not instinctively eat dinner before dessert. In the wild, they eat cookies and cookies alone.
If she accuses you of not trusting her, explain that middle school is a team sport, so is high school, and she is only as strong as the weakest player. Until all bullying stops, every player is subject to scrutiny. She will say: That's not fair! You will say, neither is menopause and male pattern baldness.
Do not fear the mean girl, but rather inspire her to greatness. Explain that by isolating other human beings and keeping them in intolerable situations, she is a modern day slave holder. Offer to hang out in the children's cancer ward with her on Friday night. Cancer is a bully. Does she really want to be like cancer? If all else fails, when she does her mean girl thing, look at her as if she just licked a urinal. Let us live in a world that finds mean repulsive.
Daughters, your enemy is not another girl, it's misogyny. It's all around you, dumbing you down, trying to make you small in size and spirit, using your body to sell products like beer and bacon burgers and television plots that feature women being raped and murdered, telling you that women are bitches, especially to each other. Quick reminder: it was "bitches" that won you the right to vote, to wear jeans, get divorced, own property, obtain contraception, get an education, run for office, work for equal pay, and above all, without those "bitches" your parents might have already married you off in exchange for a hearty goat. Your true allies are, and always have been, other women. Never lose sight of this.
Do this for Rebecca, in memory, and for any girl whose first waking thought is, What will they do to me today? Make her your sister. Build a bond that is as strong, if not stronger, than the bond of brothers you see all around you.