What Makes the Bullying Stop? Maybe This.

4 years ago

Last Saturday, I packed my bag, drove to St. Louis and attended the young adult literature/anti-bullying Less Than Three Conference hosted by New York Times best-selling young adult author Heather Brewer.

Credit Image: DBDuo Photography on Flickr

I knew it would be interesting, but I didn't know it would be life-changing. The sessions ranged from cyber-bullying to self-bullying to school bullying to LGBTQ bullying and were led by young adult authors who had written novels discussing -- in some fashion -- bullying. By the end of the day, I learned every author up there had done what I myself have done: They wrote around the thing that hurt them.

A.S. King: "All bullying is embarrassing to the victim."

Heather Brewer gave the keynote address. "Fourth grade is the first time I remember wanting to die," she said, and the air in the room expanded in an instant. My daughter is in fourth grade. A little piece of my heart broke off and floated away imagining a fourth-grade Heather.

She told a story of trying to hang herself in her closet as a teen. When the bar broke, she didn't tell anyone, because she was unsupported at home and didn't have a friend -- not one friend -- until she was a freshman in high school. When she made that one friend, everyone said they were lesbians, because the only reason someone would hang out with her had to be sexual favors. Her teacher laughed at her the day someone wrote "LESBO" on her folder. She carried the folder all year to show it hadn't hurt her. She didn't care about being called a lesbian if she had a friend. All she wanted was a friend.

T.M. Goeglein: "Never think no matter what you say, it won't help -- if you have the chance to say something positive, do it."

Heather wasn't the only one. Every author had a story. They could remember the exact names of their bullies and see the faces of their bullies in their mind's eye. That these talented and successful people shared that shame drove home how universal the experience can be and how powerless anyone can feel at the hands of a bully.

Carrie Ryan: "The reason it gets better is that we make the choice to make it get better."

At the end of the day, I left St. Louis and drove back to Kansas City wondering how my life might have been different if I'd been one of those teens attending the panels, if I might not have fallen prey to anorexia, if I might have learned to love myself more and ignore the voices in my head telling me the rules were different for me. And I wondered if kids who bullied other kids in my high school might have thought twice if they'd heard Heather's story. "In every school, there is 'that kid,' and it is acceptable to pick on 'that kid,'" she said. "I was 'that kid.'" I remember several "that kids" I knew while growing up. I remember standing by. I remember joining in. I'm so ashamed to say that, but it's true. I never was a ringleader, but I was a follower of leaders. And really, there's no excuse for any of it. There are reasons but not excuses. By the time I was in high school, I knew better and I don't remember being mean, but by the second half of high school I was lost to the voices in my head forcing me to run bleachers and eat fewer than 800 calories a day even after it grew painful to sit and I grew fine hair all over my cheeks as my body tried to protect itself from my mind.

Ellen Hopkins: "You have to ask the person, "What is the reason behind self-harm?" Because there is always a reason."

Maybe I would've been different if I would've had the chance to hear successful adults talk about overcoming, surviving, moving forward. Maybe I would've been different if I'd had my nose stuck in Heather's story. "I'm in every school, and I'm usually quiet," she said. "Give me something to hold onto."

Give me something to hold onto.

Posts on Bullying Anti-Bullying Resources

Teach kids to speak up when they see bullying.

Cutting and Self-Harm Resources
  • S.A.F.E. Alternatives (Self-Abuse Finally Ends): 1-800-366-2288.

  • Mind Infoline – Information on self-harm and a helpline to call in the UK at 0300 123 3393.

  • Kids Helpline – A helpline for children and teens in Australia to call at 1800 55 1800.

  • Kids Help Phone – A helpline for kids and teens in Canada to call for help with any issue, including cutting and self-injury. Call 1-800-668-6868.

Support for LGBTQ Teens Eating Disorder Resources

In an increasingly mean world, it's up to all of us to embrace compassion, think before we speak or write and show kindness to our peers and our kids. Let's model compassion. Other ideas?

Rita Arens is the author of the young adult novel The Obvious Game & the deputy editor of BlogHer.com. Find more at www.ritaarens.com.