Sometimes you just have to write…
I just watched this film based on a spoken word poem by Shane Koyczan, about people who grow up bullied, excluded, depressed.
My first thought was “I understand this. I felt the same way.”
But then I thought “Wait a minute! I was never bullied. Teased, sure, but never bullied.”
The clip made me think of my junior high and high school days, and I realize that the Rachel I was in junior high and high school had a completely different view of myself than I do now. When I look back at her, the secondary school me, it’s a much more positive view than I had at the time.
Here’s how I would have assessed myself and my social status at the time:
That film describes me exactly. I’m so alone. I’m not popular; I’m not pretty. I get good grades, and I tell myself that that’s good. But they tease me: “You’re such a brain!” (said in a tone of disgust).
I’ve never fit in. I’m clumsy. I never know what I’m supposed to say, never have the right comeback. I’m book smart, not clever or witty. I always think of the right response later, too late.
And I’m ugly: overweight, frizzy hair, bad skin. I can’t seem to lose the weight, nothing makes my hair look better, and no amount of pimple cream helps my acne.
The popular kids look at me, if they see me at all, with scorn – literally, they sneer in disgust when they look at me. Mostly, though, they just ignore me. I have friends, and they always make me feel better, but even with them I never feel like I entirely fit in. I’m not quick-witted or cool enough.
Pretty pathetic, wasn’t I? I spent hours in front of the mirror wishing what I saw was prettier, cleverer, cooler, different.
I was smart, or at least I was good at school. What I’ve realized since then is that probably some of them were too. They just didn’t let everyone see it. They were more socially clued-in than I was and realized that it wasn’t going to win them any popularity contests if they were too smart. I must have seemed like a show-off and it annoyed them.
And, in my adolescent head, I greatly exaggerated the situation; in fact, I see now that I wasn’t ugly or fat, and my skin was no worse than anyone else’s. Now, when I look at my old pictures, I think, What I’d give to have that body again!
I wasn’t popular, or pretty, but wasn’t unpopular either, or ugly. I really didn’t get teased that much or that often, and not at all about my geekiness or looks, just about my good grades. I was not a victim of bullying, but even the tiniest bit of teasing made me feel that I was.
And there’s another thing I’ve realized since. Every single one of those “popular” girls, at least once or twice, probably felt exactly the same way I felt: ugly and unwanted.
At some point early in high school, I had a bit of an epiphany. I watched some of the popular kids and observed carefully, in my geeky way, how they behaved. I noticed that some of them weren’t very pretty at all, yet they were in the popular crowd. I didn’t want to be in that crowd, but I studied them to try to figure out how they did it.
I realized that people respond well to self-confident people. Well, I wasn’t at all self-confident, obviously, but I could act as if I was. Once I put that conclusion into action, by consciously, purposely, acting as if I was brimming with self-confidence, people seemed to like me more. For the first time, I felt seen, and it helped.
Looking back on it, I think that the only difference between the popular crowd and me was that self-confidence. I think something about how they were raised, or maybe their inborn personalities, helped them radiate self-assurance. And that made them shine. Or maybe they just had the same epiphany I did, only earlier. I don’t know.
But acting self-confident, even though it worked, didn’t really translate to actual self-confidence right away. It stayed just an act. I didn’t realize until years later that I could stop acting. Or maybe I didn’t stop. Maybe the act became real…
How many of the more than 11 million people who have watched that video feel like it describes them, like it describes their own childhood or adolescence? How many watched and thought “Yes, I felt that way too!” Probably many viewers identify closely with what Koyczan says, just like I did. And that probably includes the kinds of “popular” kids I watched as a teenager. Yet I also wonder how many of them were actually bullied, and how many just felt like they were, inside their prone-to-exaggeration self-absorbed adolescent minds.
And if that’s so, if we all think we were bullied, how do we tell which kids are being bullied now? How do we know when a kid’s being bullied, unless we witness it, or it involves violence? What’s the difference between “Kids can be mean,” or “He was just teasing,” and serious, long-term harmful bullying?
By asking this question, I don’t mean to underestimate or belittle the very real experiences of bullying victims, who are sometimes driven to such despair that they commit suicide. I just wonder how our own experience with bullying is reconsidered and reinterpreted as we grow older.
There is a difference in quality and quantity between teasing and bullying, but where’s the line? How do we tell the difference?
And I wonder how we can use this knowledge to help children who are really being bullied.