You Can Sit Here With Us is an arts-based project on bullying. And stepping up. And offering hope. And being kind. You Can Sit Here With Us transforms the negative energy of bullying into the positive energy of inclusion and respect through story, art, and community involvement. It’s about the bullies. The bullied. The bystanders. And, the heroes. This performance presentation on bullying, You Can Sit Here With Us, is a collection of stories, a series of monologues.
Kim Joris (see her You Can Sit Here With Us website) moderated the presentation during Patti Digh’s Life is a Verb Camp 2014 in early November. Five women told their stories about bullying – stories about friends and families and co-workers. The stories were sometimes difficult to hear, sometimes heartwarming, always memorable.
I wrote a personal story of bullying and submitted it to the project earlier this year. Then Kim asked if I would tell my story.
Own my story. A chance to speak and be heard.
And so I did. And now I share it here, in hopes that by sharing the negative impact of bullying, people will consider its impact, and practice inclusion and respect.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” ~ Plato
I survived my childhood. But just barely.
It wasn’t the frequent threat of physical and emotional abuse that nearly caused me to take my life just past my thirteenth birthday.
It was an act of taunting and teasing, and a small act of cruelty nearly beyond my endurance, that pushed me close to the black edge of despair and giving up.
That was all? Teasing? Unkind words? Being shamed by girls I thought were my friends? A cruel gag gift disguised as a birthday present? Yes. That was all. But it was enough for me to want to end my life.
It is impossible to know when an act of unkindness, or teasing or bullying, will be the kerosene that finally ignites the hidden kindling and flares it into a life threatening inferno.
In this case, the spark was a package of extra-large rubber pants for infants, the kind once commonly worn to cover baby diapers.
That’s all? A package of rubber baby pants?
I was in the eighth grade, two weeks shy of my thirteenth birthday. I attended a Catholic grade school. The nun taught a combined seventh/eighth grade class and was also school principal. She had over 50 students. She was overworked and I suspect, often overwhelmed.
Sister C. spent much of her day acting as disciplinarian or administrator, not as an involved or hands-on teacher. Copying from the blackboard, rote memorization and test taking were her most used educational tools.
But even under these less than ideal learning conditions, I was happy in school. I was a good student. Obedient. I seldom drew attention to myself. And I had a few friends.
There was little that could keep me from attending school and so on a sunny October morning, even though I didn’t feel well, I never considered staying home from school. But during class, I had the urge to use the bathroom repeatedly, and by 11 am, I’d asked for a bathroom pass a half-dozen times.
I raised my hand again an hour before the lunch break, but this time Sister C. reprimanded me for “being disruptive” and denied me permission to leave the room. After an another half hour of discomfort and agonizing fear, I wet my clothes.
Perhaps if I hadn’t been wearing a dark green cotton uniform, I could have hidden my embarrassment. But the lunch hour bell rang and so we assembled in line for lunch. My shame easily became evident.
I was teased through out lunch, during recess, and after school. Chants of “Betsy Wetsy” and worse echoed in my ears as I walked home from school that afternoon, alone and ignored by my peers.
I dreaded going to school the next day, but surprisingly, nothing was said, and so I believed that my friends had forgiven me. I was overcome with relief and gratitude.
Two weeks later, I turned thirteen. I brought the traditional cupcakes to school, everyone sang Happy Birthday at the end of the day, and I left the building with a smile on my face.
Typically when the school bell rang for dismissal there was an overall state of frenzy as the eighth grade girls split off to walk home. Questions lingered until the last moment. Who would walk home together? Would I walk home with a friend or walk home alone?
If I was lucky, I walked home with Laura or Ann. We lived only a few blocks from each other. Or perhaps I would walk half way home with Kathy or Mary. And sometimes I walked alone.
But on my birthday, I was incredibly delighted. Not only did both Laura and Ann ask me to walk with them, but Kathy and Mary said they were heading my way. We walked as a group of five.
Even more unbelievable, Kathy carried a small shopping bag and I glimpsed a wrapped box inside.
We walked the thirteen blocks to the corner where we split to go in different directions to our homes. I was laughing, talking animatedly, nearly skipping with delight. When we got to the corner, the other girls made a circle around me.
“We have a present for you,” one of them sang out. They laughed and cheered.
I was so happy, thrilled by their unexpected generosity.
Eagerly, I untied the ribbon, tore off the wrapping paper, opened the box.
Inside was a three pair package of baby-sized rubber pants.
They all laughed. I joined in the laughter, too, hiding my horror. It was better than crying like a baby, and further proving that I deserved their shaming. I walked home the last blocks, barely able to breathe.
Perhaps this was something most thirteen-year-olds could have brushed off or ignored. Just a gag gift. Teasing done in the spirit of a joke.
But it wasn’t something I could ignore.
I was already living on the throes of depression.
I couldn’t bear to think that school would no longer be my safe haven.
I stopped talking to my friends and family. When I came home from school, I sat for hours at a time on the back porch, rocking in an old rocker. Lost and feeling alone, I started thinking obsessively about suicide.
But I was one of the lucky ones.
I lived with my extended family and my grandmother noticed the changes in my behavior. She asked if there was anything I wanted to talk about. When I refused with vehemence, she still offered her presence and her acceptance.
My grandma didn’t ask again if there was a problem, but every afternoon she watched for me to come home. When I headed to the porch, she offered to join me. I loved my grandmother dearly. I nodded, barely.
Then she’d gather a sewing project to work on or the afternoon newspaper, and come out to sit with me. She’d offer me a slice of bread with strawberry jam, even though I usually refused to taste it. Occasionally she would reach out and rest her hand on my arm, or brush my long hair from my eyes. Her way of saying, I see you, I know you are troubled, I am here.
Eventually, after much silence and much porch swinging, the shame lessened. I chose living.
Do you think this sounds like melodrama? A girl just crossing the threshold to teenager, suicidal because of a joke gift, because of teasing?
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” ~ Plato