The girl was tormented relentlessly by her classmates. Verbally and mentally abused for months, she was humiliated and traumatized, some mornings pleading with her parents not to have to go to school for another round of abuse. In some of the darkest moments, her self worth had been eroded to such a point she thought she didn’t deserve to live at all.
Amanda Todd was one of those kids. The 15-year-old girl took her life last week after months of vicious attacks and assaults at the hands of her peers. Except this story isn’t about Amanda Todd.
This story took place in 1993. And that young girl was me.
Over the course of several years, starting at the age of 12, I was bullied by my classmates. They threw things at me, verbally abused me and harassed me by phone.
They called me “Rat.” They would yell it at me every time they saw me and made up songs about it.
When I was feeling lonely and tried walking up to a group of classmates during recess, they would count to three and run in different directions. Eventually, I hid in a bathroom stall during any breaks, pinching my cheeks when the bell rang to make it look like I had been outside. Until they caught on to me, and came into the bathroom to taunt me.
Bullying permeated every aspect of my life. It didn’t matter that I had a family that loved me and told me not to pay attention. Being rejected by an entire peer group at an age when making friends is so important was one of the hardest things I’ve ever endured. Their hurtful, hateful words were unbearable. I suffered extreme anxiety, panic and uncontrollable shaking over a months-long period when I should have been worried about studying for my math or science tests. Eventually, I started to believe what they were telling me: that I was worthless, that I would never have any friends, that my existence was useless. After my parents waged a battle at the school board level, I was allowed to change schools, which helped, for a time.
Sadly, this is not a unique story. Thousands of Canadian children and adolescents are pushed to the brink every year as a result of bullying and a culture that too often refuses to recognize the extent of the problem until it is too late.
Across the country, people are asking how such a horrific incident could unfold and are trying to make sense of how an entirely unnecessary, preventable situation reached such tragic proportions.
Resist the temptation to rationalize her death as an extraordinary event or anomaly perpetrated by singularly monstrous individuals who have nothing in common with our own sons and daughters. Don’t explain her death as the result of social media, lack of awareness, mental illness, family problems or her own social mistakes, explanations that are all too often levelled against young people who commit suicide after prolonged abuse by bullies.
Amanda Todd was a child, one who came to believe that life had no purpose and that the only way out was through death because she was stalked, verbally and physically abused, harassed and made to feel she had no sanctuary and would never escape the barrage of abuse. Most adults would have an extremely difficult time making it through a similar situation. So why are we still surprised when bullied children reach the point of suicide?
Aermis Kolke, a 13-year-old from Estevan, Sask., killed herself in April, 2011, as a result of intense bullying. Mitchell Wilson, an 11-year-old with muscular dystrophy from Pickering, Ont., committed suicide in September, 2011, months after being physically attacked by bullies. Marjorie Raymond, a 15-year-old Quebec girl, killed herself in November, 2011, after being tormented by bullies.
Amanda Todd’s name is now added to the list. And chances are, there will be others after her.
In coming days, there will be talk of the need for anti-bullying education, awareness programs and legislation. But 20 years after my experience with bullying began at St. Bernadette school in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., it occurs to me that this isn’t an issue that can be legislated away. Perhaps the solution rests much closer to home.
When I was in the schoolyard being mocked and taunted, all of my classmates took part, forming a circle around me. Years later, one of them apologized for her involvement. She told me she didn’t speak up at the time because she was too afraid of what might happen to her.
When my mother had to call the school and explain that her daughter, who loved learning, was too agitated and upset from the previous day’s episode to get out of bed, the secretary said she would list me as being sick. My mother insisted she write down the real reason: I was bullied.
When I was surrounded in science class by a cluster of classmates who disrupted the lesson by shouting obscene insults at me, the teacher never intervened.
Everyone gets upset when they learn a child has killed themselves because of being bullied. But why do we allow things to reach that desperate point?
In every instance, there are people who know when someone is being targeted and abused by a bully. But how do we respond?
When our children tell us about a classmate who is being picked on, do we tell them to rise to his or her defence? Do we teach our children not to laugh at the expense of others? When a co-worker is being singled out and bullied in the workplace, do we simply avert our eyes?
Are we going to tell our children to stand up and do the right thing, or to watch in silence?
How do we have a hope against bullying if so many of us are complicit bystanders?
To the young people who are going through this right now, allow me to share some advice I wish I could go back and tell 12-year-old me: It does get better. Your peers may spew insults and make you feel worthless, but you are not. You will go on and persevere because, even though it might not feel like it when you’re in the eye of the storm, you are strong. And you will be a better person for it, someone who is filled with empathy, humility, generosity and kindness. One day, you will no longer wake up filled with dread and anxiety. You will go on to have adventures, find love and acceptance, and be thankful for every day that you are alive. Hold on to that hope, and never let it go.
And to everyone else: It’s time to recognize bullying is not about a headline or an isolated incident or a tragedy you heard on the news. It is a problem that affects all of us. There are bullies. There are victims. And there is everyone else watching from the sidelines. It’s time for us to take a long look in the mirror. It’s time to speak up, say something, and refuse to be the complicit bystander.