They had been her best friends – but when Molly Burke lost her vision at age 14, it was that same group of girls who committed an act of bullying so vicious she began cutting herself and contemplating suicide.
"They started walking me down this huge hill and into a forest near our school," Ms. Burke recalled. The walk was made that much more difficult by the fact the Oakville, Ont., teen had recently fallen down a flight of steps and broken her ankle.
Once they made it into the woods, one of the eight girls asked to see her crutches. Before she could answer, they were ripped away.
"And then they smashed them against the tree and they broke them," she said. "And that's when they all started laughing and ran away to class together, leaving me. I was alone, in a forest. I couldn't see. I couldn't walk. They took my crutches and my backpack. I had nothing. I had no one."
Ms. Burke, one of the rising faces of anti-bullying in this country, shared that story with a couple hundred students at Vancouver Technical Secondary School on Friday, in a speech highlighting the effects of bullying and her realization that life, ultimately, does get better. The speech was especially poignant following this week's suicide of a B.C. teen who had been picked on mercilessly.
Ms. Burke said 15-year-old Amanda Todd's death was a "tragedy."
"Four years ago I was definitely in a similar place. I had been self-harming, dealing with severe depression and seriously contemplating suicide," she said. "Luckily, four years later I'm still here. It's girls like her, and stories like that, that give me my inspiration to keep going. I am sharing my story to get the point across, but I am doing it in honour of those who don't make it to share theirs."
As she stood on the school auditorium stage, gripping the microphone in her left hand, the diminutive Ms. Burke didn't immediately look the part of a motivational speaker. The now-18-year-old in the purple pants was low-key, quiet even, as if wanting the story to tell itself.
She was four years old when she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that leads to loss of vision. By Grade 1 she was learning Braille – albeit halfheartedly, since she wanted to use her eyes like the rest of the kids.
It was the summer between Grade 7 and 8, she said, when things took a turn for the worse. Black started looking grey. Yellow became white. The chalkboard soon disappeared altogether.
Doctors told her they didn't know how much longer she'd be able to see.
"I just started to cry. That night, my mom was full of words of encouragement. 'It's going to be okay, we're going to get through this, it will all be all right.' But I knew it wouldn't."
As her vision faded, Ms. Burke started using a white cane, something that left her friends embarrassed. The bullying began, invitations dried up and some people told her to kill herself.
She got a guide dog, hoping it would draw people in, where the cane had driven them away. But when she broke her ankle the dog was of little use, and teachers would assign students to help her get around on her crutches.
The day she was led into the woods, the girls had been assigned to take her to lunch. The auditorium crowd sat eerily silent as she described the anger she had felt.
She switched schools, but a new group of kids continued the bullying. Things only improved, she said, when she alerted the principal and emerged from her "dark place" to realize how much the people in her life cared. When asked by a student what she would say to her 14-year-old self, she answered, "Be strong."
Ms. Burke, who works for the firm Me to We and is scheduled to speak at We Day in Vancouver next week, answered inquiries ranging from how she uses Facebook to how she can tell if a guy is cute. She received a loud ovation when, at one point, she said she's happier than she's ever been.
Ms. Burke was surrounded by students after the hour-long session, several of whom hugged her. "You give so many people so much hope," one girl said. "I cried so many times."