There are things that stick with you for your entire life, even if you no longer believe them. One such thing is a taunt I heard from a boy in summer school, the year I was entering eighth grade at Hunter Middle School in Harrison, TN. Not bothering to lower his voice, he faux whispered to his friend “what do Amber and Mr. Brittingham have in common? They both look like men!”. I am ashamed to say I cried over that. It was a frankly shitty insult. Of course the vice principal looks like a man… he is a man. If someone said that to me now, I would have a barrage of witty comebacks that would shut them up quickly. Back then, I was a timid, scared kid that just wanted to be left alone.
I wasn’t doing anything to these kids, the handful of boys on the football team that singled me out because a “friend” spilled the beans about a crush I had on one of them. They made my life hell for two years– starting in seventh grade, my sixth grade year was when all my friends abandoned me because the cool kids said I was “weird”– such hell that I believed that changing schools wouldn’t have helped. I thought there was something wrong with me, that wherever I went I would be insulted, called a cross dresser, a whore, a fat dyke. I tried wearing makeup, doing my hair differently, carrying a purse, whatever I could do, but it didn’t work. I was an outcast. I would remain one until I stopped caring about being an outcast.
Until then, though, I wanted to die. I didn’t want to commit suicide, that honestly never occurred to me. I just wanted to suddenly become extremely ill, maybe a stress induced brain tumor, so they would be sorry they ever picked on me. I frequently imagined falling and hitting my head, killing me instantly during one of their bullying sessions. When they’d circle me like jackals, I’d think “I’m going to faint and fall into this trophy case/ these lockers/this table and die. They will be arrested for murder and I will be at peace, and maybe someone will take this seriously”.
I tried to tell the principal, the secretary, the vice principal, the teachers, everyone. I tried so hard to get them to see what was happening to me. They all brushed it off. I heard “I think someone has a crush!” or “boys will be boys” so many times, I wanted to puke. These boys did not have crushes on me. They did not think I was desirable at all. I was told they would rather make out with a girl from the special needs class than even sit next to me for five seconds. I was pinched, prodded, verbally assaulted. Still, nothing was ever done. Ever. Not even a stern talking to. The only time the principal ever had them in his office, I’m sure he gave them a nod and a wink, indulging his little football heroes, saying something along the lines of “she just wants attention, boys”. This has never been confirmed, but they left his office looking smug, not scared.
I was laughed at, multiple times, by the secretary. She was always there, not allowing me to see the principal, even after I had a carton of milk dumped on my head. She suggested I did it to myself, to get the boys in trouble. She thought I was a little troublemaker, probably. I was in the office weekly, begging my mother to come get me. It got to where she wouldn’t let me use the phone because my “poor mother needed peace”. She also shook me one time, hard, and told me to stop faking it. These were the people put in place to protect kids from bullying.
How bad did it need to be before they took me seriously? These were not harmless little jokes. These were vicious barbs that stuck with me for years. Verbal and psychological abuse, not just by classmates but by staff, as well. When no one believes you for so long, when they just brush you to the side, you start to think maybe you deserve it. If I didn’t, they’d do something.
The times I did try to stand up for myself, to throw an icy comeback at one of them, it would get shot down mid air. Yeah, one of them was short. Yeah, one of them had a weird last name. All it did was get me more trouble. So I stopped. I stopped sleeping. I barely ate. I had this insane notion that if I was just ten pounds lighter, they’d leave me alone. Maybe I thought I’d become so insubstantial, they’d cease to see me. You can’t bully what you can’t see.
As I grew older, I learned what forgiveness was. It wasn’t just something you throw out after a hasty, never meant “sorry”. You forgive for yourself. I’ve forgiven the boys that taunted me, that made me want to die. Maybe they were just kids. Maybe they had problems at home, as the self-help books say. I’m an adult now. I’ve come a long way from that kid in hand me downs from a cousin she never met. She’s still here, though. She still looks up to girls like me, the strong willed girls at their computers late at night, writing the truth even when the memories hurt so bad they wants to scream. For her, for all the kids getting bullied and finding roadblocks in people they should feel safe with, I’m writing this. For them, I haven’t forgiven the staff. You had one job, to ensure the wellbeing of every kid in that building, not just the ones that hung out with your daughters. Not just the ones that won you championships or made you look good. Every other job you had was secondary. You failed me and you’ve probably failed countless others before and since.
The same thing is happening right now in a small town not far from the creaking chair where I’m writing this. In Copperhill, TN, though, two kids have died. One not even a week away from her fourteenth birthday. She told the administration that she was being bullied, and I’ve got every penny I’ve got bet on the fact they told her the same thing they told me. They didn’t want to deal, and now two kids are dead, both suicides from bullying. Both times the school knew about what happened.
What has to happen before people take kids seriously? If death doesn’t do it, then what? Why is it so hard to believe that bullying happens, that it isn’t “harmless teasing” and that “kids these days need to have tougher skin”? One woman interviewed by a local news outlet even said the girl who died was suspected of witchcraft! If she was, ma’am, don’t you think she would have done a spell to protect herself, maybe one to make them forget they hated her so badly, simply because she was different? If it was that simple, she would still be alive.
I’m tired of martyrs. I’m tired of kids dying to make an example of themselves, to make something happen that wouldn’t happen when they were alive.
If you’re reading this, you are not what they’re saying you are. You aren’t fat or stupid or ugly. You aren’t a faggot, a whore, a freak. You’re better than them. You’re so much more than your weight or you appearance. You’re a constellation spelling out your strength, a siren screaming your importance. Don’t let them put out yours stars. Don’t let them silence you. Be you, only you, and live. Please, please live. This isn’t forever, I swear it isn’t, but you have to stick with me. You have to be here to see it, okay? It’s not always going to be insults and pain. You’re going to meet someone someday, romantic or not, and they are going to look at you like you’re a human being. They’re going to love you, all your faults and fears. They’re going to make you feel so stupid for ever believing the taunts that those kids threw at you.
And to the various staffs of various schools: please take these kids seriously. That’s all you have to do. Don’t assume it’s not as bad as it seems. Don’t assume that they’re doing it because they have a crush. Just take it seriously. You’re saving a life.