Every Friday morning, NPR airs a short segment called Story Corps. I often catch it on my way to work. Last week, it was a story told by a father whose 14-year-old son committed suicide after being bullied relentlessly. In recent years, there have been a lot of stories of kids killing themselves after being bullied. My heart goes out to these kids and their parents, of course. But this past week’s story got me thinking about bullies and the effect their victim’s suicide has on them. Does it make them stop bullying? Do they even realize how their actions have so drastically affected someone else’s life? Do they even care?
When I was a kid, there were bullies at my school whom I avoided as much as I could. Even now, my stomach sinks to think of how insecure and helpless I felt in their presence. At the time, I didn’t give much thought as to why they would be treating me the way they did. I took the burden of blame on myself. I was an unusual looking kid with a funny little voice, so I accepted that they had reasons to make fun of me. Of course I wished they would find some other way to pass the time, but I just assumed they were wholly mean and bad kids.
Now that I’m an adult I am aware that oftentimes bullies are bullies because they’ve learned this behavior as a way of raising their social rank, to make up for their own shortcomings and insecurities. They bully to establish dominance and control. They’ve often been bullied themselves. So I wonder, if a bully’s victim commits suicide, does the bully feel vindicated because it proves (to them) that the person was weak and worthless? Or do they suddenly realize that the kid they were always picking on was actually a whole person, with feelings and potential, and had a family that loved him?
I tried being a bully once. At recess one day I noticed that a chubby Italian boy was wearing a football jersey with the name Meatball across the back instead of his last name. I poked him and jeered “Ha-ha, it says Meatball because you’re fat!” totally failing to grasp that that was the joke. He raised his eyebrows before rolling his eyes and walking away. While I’d initially felt an adrenaline rush for having stepped out of my comfort zone, I was left feeling like a jerk and definitely did not gain any power from the interaction.
Whenever I hear of a bullying-induced suicide, I think back to my own experiences and how, no matter how much crap was dealt, I never felt compelled to kill myself. I certainly did have days of feeling worthless and despicable. There were a lot of times where I would feign illness in order to stay home from school so I wouldn’t have to deal with another day of being told I was hideous, freakish and unlikable. I was fortunate to have a stable home life and siblings who loved me for who I was and who never looked at me with disgust because of my physical appearance. I was also lucky to have friends outside of school who were able to see past my outer appearance and who appreciated my wild imagination and sense of humor. And while I was at school, my wild imagination kept me company even in the worst of times.
So if you are reading this and you are a victim of bullying, please hang in there. You can grow up to be so much stronger than your peers because you have put up with this. Don’t let other people determine your worth. Remember your strengths and keep pushing ahead with them, whether it be academics or art or music or sports. Do what makes you happy, and be yourself. There is so much more to life than what happens in school. It’s hard to realize it now, when it seems all that matters is who you sit with at lunch, or that your clothes have the right label. It may seem like an eternity before you will be out of school, but one day it will come and life will open up to you. In the real world there is a place for everyone, and thanks to the internet, you can find people all over the world who are “just like you” in one way or another.