My father died when I was eleven. He was my protector and defender. My mother was raised not to go against those in positions of authority. So when the teacher started picking on me in eighth grade, I just had to endure it. I was a fat kid. So many people who are “normal” make life hell for those of us who aren’t – by their measure, “normal”. Is it just because they can or because they’ve learned it from their parents or other family members? I don’t know. I only know how it made me feel.
In 1973, my eighth grade teacher made remarks about me daily. Called me “Big Mama”. Called me an elephant. Nicknamed me “Jumbo”. He said the trailer tilted when I walked in. He said, “Big Mama has to buy her clothes from Omar the tentmaker”….among other things. Those are the ones that I vividly remember. He also encouraged the class members to make fun of me. I recall one girl (a cheerleader) saying “no Janet, don’t sit on me”. The class exploded in laughter and I was humiliated. This happened pretty much every day. He was my TEACHER. I was thirteen. I had no ideas about what I could do to make it stop. In class, I pretended I didn’t mind – laughed along with the rest of the class. But it broke my heart. It taught me that how you look is more important than anything else and that any other achievements you make can never make up for being ugly and fat.
This harassment that I endured daily caused me to withdraw from people. I spent a lot of time alone in my room. I just didn’t want to risk being in any position to have to listen to comments about how ugly I was. It caused me to hate myself. Praise for my good grades and good behavior did nothing to negate the abuse I suffered. I didn’t deserve anything because I wasn’t “normal”. I knew I was loved by my mother and sister, but the pain I carried for feeling like such a grotesque, repulsive person is etched in my soul forever. A lifetime of loving and caring family and friends cannot take away that pain.
When I started seeing a psychologist in 1998, I tried to describe my feelings of depression, which had become almost unbearable since my mother’s death in 1994. When he asked about my childhood, I broke down in tears when I talked about the harsh emotional abuse I suffered in eighth grade. My doctor wanted to know why it was that I thought that I didn’t have a right to be as happy as everyone else. Well, it all started when I was a kid. My teacher and classmates TOLD me I was ugly and therefore worthless, daily. There it was. I was taught in the same place where I studied English, History and other subjects.
I have two daughters whom I have trained since they were little not to make fun of anyone. They were taught to defend those who others make fun of, and to stand up for themselves. I could never live with myself knowing I had made someone else feel the way I felt all those years ago. The old saying “sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me” is an absolute lie. Words can lead to feelings of depression, helplessness, hopelessness and a life of torment and pain. As we now know, words can be the breaking point for many of us who suffer from low self-esteem and even self-hate. So many have taken other lives or their own after enduring this kind of emotional abuse. I’ll never understand the lack of empathy for others among so many people in the world. It’s like a disease.
Stand up for your friends and family. Get involved – use your voice. Let’s not allow bullying to ruin another life. The BULLIES are the ones who should be ashamed, not those they prey on. We are making progress. I recently read that anti-bullying laws have been passed now in most states. We have to keep going. We can make a difference. If we spread anything – let it be love!
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