Yesterday, I met with my son's fifth grade class to talk to them about bullying. I had them do a simple exercise where they crumple up a piece of paper and then try in vain to straighten it out again and rub all the creases out. I told them that that's what my bully did. He crumpled up my heart and now I can't get the creases out.
It's been fifteen years since my bullies terrorized me.
I couldn't tell those innocent fifth graders everything that happened to me, but I could tell them to be gentle with each other, and I could tell them the power of words. "You see," I told them, "My bully scarred me forever with his words, but I changed things forever with mine."
I told those kids a very simplified version of my story yesterday because the whole thing is too horrifying for a child to understand but we adults need to know the truth.
Bullying isn’t teasing. I’ve been teased and teasing is bearable, surmountable, common, and even socially necessary. Bullying isn’t bearable, feels insurmountable, is all too common and is not socially necessary. Bullying is a social illness, an assault on the soul...
For me, it began with a penthouse style cartoon that was passed around my freshman science class. In it, I had big balloon breasts and the caption read, “Sarah is the town bicycle, and everyone gets a ride.” When my science teacher confiscated it, he said nothing, he slid it in his pocket and after class he held me back.
I stood in front of his desk with my portfolio of work for the semester, and attempted to turn it in. He slid the cartoon across the table toward me and said that if I would “give him a ride,” then he’d accept my work. I dropped my folder on his desk and walked out the door, but not before I heard my folder hit the trash can.
I told a friend, she laughed. I told the school counselor, she said that “boys will be boys” and that perhaps I should be more careful in choosing my outfits each day. I remember crying in the bathroom only to raise my eyes and see “Sarah Wilson is a slut” carved into the paint on the stall walls.
Over the course of my freshman year, bullying took many forms. I’d go to the lunchroom and the guy I thought I was dating, or the girl I thought was my friend, would scoot over and block me from sitting at their table. They’d tease me for thinking we were friends. In band, the brass section shot spitballs in my hair. At swim team, the girls fought over who had to let me swim in their lane. I was once cornered in a stairway and kicked with steel toed boots till my legs bled. To this day my shins have dents in them from this experience.
When I changed schools halfway through sophomore year, I was hopeful to have left it all behind. I was actually excited. I knew many of the students there, and had known at least three of them since early childhood. One young man was my very best friend in the whole world and I told him all my secrets, I shared with him all of my pain.
I wish I could say what happened... I wish I knew what made things go so terribly wrong. All I really do know is that one day I came to school and he, my best friend, had dumped a can of escargot out on my first period desk, using the snails he spelled out the word slut.
This young man knew how much this word hurt me, and he chose this word, like a sharpened knife, as a weapon against me. What followed was perhaps the most absurd mess of high school drama that I or anyone that I've shared it with has ever heard of.
This young man, and our three best friends, chose to use their knowledge of my weaknesses in an attempt to destroy me. They called me names, they hit me, they tripped me in the hall and gathered to laugh and watch as I picked up my things... once, as I picked up fallen papers, my former best friend kicked me in the stomach.
A particularly dirty trick that he came up with was saying that I was in fact harassing and threatening him. He and three friends began telling lies. They didn't just say stupid things to teachers or the principle either, they went to the police, and to local judges with their lies. They acquired temporary restraining orders that lasted for three weeks until the judge would review them, find them baseless and dismiss them, at which point the group would often just respond by going downstairs in the courthouse and getting a new temporary order.
These shenanigans proved so successful, and amusing, that they didn't stop at filing orders of protection against me, they spread out to my family as well. One boy got a restraining order against my father for yielding to him at a crosswalk. One girl got one against my mother for shaking her finger at her and scolding her. Eventually my parents were legally restrained from dropping me off at school, I had a specifically assigned route to walk between classes, and a city police officer was permanently stationed on campus to help enforce the multiple orders in place.
This group used their orders as weapons instead of shields. Knowing I had to leave wherever I was if I saw them, they took to going to my little sister’s band concerts, the grocery store where we regularly shopped, my lawyer’s office, my drama and swim team practices. I couldn’t go to school assemblies or sports events. It eventually became necessary that for every order that was filed against me, I had to file one back, enabling me a legal right to attend my own classes.
Once, my school band went to an away basketball game. After the game I climbed on the dark school bus for the trip home and walked passed a girl who had a restraining order out against me. I didn’t even see her, but within minutes the police lights were flashing and the bus was stopped. They dragged me off the bus in front of everyone, and arrested me for an alleged assault, eventually sending me home on that school bus to face charges in court at a later time.
Perhaps the scariest moment of my life was when I answered my front door one evening to find the man who had raped me three years prior standing there grinning. He was a family member of one of my bullies, and had been hired to deliver a restraining order to my home. No one, not one person, knew of this man's terrible assault on me, except my bully... my former friend, the person who hired him to deliver the order to my house. This message of intimidation was almost as damaging to my psyche as the original assault had been.
Over the course of my junior year, I cannot recall one single day in which I didn't live in fear. They planted drugs in my flute case in my band locker and tried to turn me in. At a school football game, the boy elbowed me in the face, blackening my eye as he climbed the steps in the stadium. They came by my house and knocked over the trash cans, they called my father's work and left threatening voice-mails. They blocked my entrance to the school cafeteria. They pulled my hair in the hallways. They beat up a friend for supporting me in testimony at court date.
Some days I would refuse to go to school. Some days, as the buildings emptied and we all filed out to the football field to wait for a bomb inspection, the school staff would find me and usher me away into a “safe place” because the bomb threat specifically mentioned my name. Some days, the school board would call and offer to deliver my homework because "it wasn’t safe" for me to attend classes that day.
The principle once told the faculty that they shouldn’t attempt to do anything to help me because I was a “black hole.” During french class, a student who was supposed to be restrained from me came into my classroom, my teacher covered her eyes. Literally, she covered her eyes with her hand. I got up and used the classroom telephone to call the police and report the violation of the order. As a result, I was sent to the principal’s office for using the phone without permission.
After two years of private investigation into the matter, a report was issued that declared that I was a victim of bullying and sexual harassment. That same report cleared my name of all the accusations against me. The school was found negligent in protecting me, my harasser was found to be a liar and it was recommended that he needed extreme punishment. The school district's final decision was to tell him to apologize or change schools.
After several days I was alerted to the fact that there was an apology waiting for me in the school district office. The letter I received was one line long. It read, “I regret the can,” referring to the can of escargot which had kicked off the whole thing. After weeks of considering my refusal to accept this apology, the school district finally agreed that this was not actually an apology and expelled him.
Bullying led me to skip school for fear of the abuse. It led me to numb my pain with drugs, to engage in acts of self-harm, and to fight low self-esteem. It made me miss my junior year of swim team, a semester of drama, a year’s worth of school dances and assemblies. It resulted in my picture being omitted from the school year book, like I was nothing. It cost me thousands in legal bills, it nearly caused my parent’s to divorce, it took time and attention from my little sister.
At that time, when I was being tormented every day, I considered suicide. I considered homicide. I hurt myself with drugs and bad friendships, and I lashed out at my family. Fortunately, I never gave up. I went to a friend, to a teacher, a school counselor, the principle, the school board, the police, the courts... and when those things didn't work I still didn't choose violence. I chose to pick up a pen. I wrote a letter, and I poured my heart into it, and I begged for help. I took that letter straight to the capital building in Olympia, Washington and I hand delivered it to the governor's secretary. In this way, was able to change the policy and law and help, instead of hurt, myself or others.
Governor Gary Locke called me himself when he received my letter. He helped me find state senators working on school safety. He gave me a chance to speak up for myself and others like me. After 2 years of lobbying the state of Washington, just weeks before I graduated from high school, I met with the governor and watched as he signed the safe schools act into law. If another person is faced with the struggles I had, at least they’ll have the law on their side.