In a world of sour lemons, be a pineapple

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“Be a pineapple: stand tall, wear a crown and be sweet on the inside.” After watching the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” (which I enjoyed but thought was flawed for reasons like these), I felt compelled to reflect on my own issues with self-esteem and bullying in my younger years. I hesitate to call myself a “victim” of bullying since the issues I faced pale in comparison to the ones others face these days. Although most bullying goes undetected, I saw some of it in my seven years as a public school teacher. Many people don’t know this, but I was homeschooled until fifth grade. I begged my mom to let me go to public school all through fourth; she tried to discourage me (“you’ll have to wake up early, you’ll get sick all the time, there will be so much homework, kids are mean,” etc.), but I remained undeterred. Envious of my friends in dance, cheerleading and Girl Scouts who all shared deeper friendships and experiences that I knew nothing about, I wanted to be a part of this mysterious place where kids got to learn and socialize together on a daily basis. I was desperate to go to middle school.

         I’ll never forget the electric current of nerves running through my 10-year-old body as I approached the big brick building for the first time during that summer. I had to take an entrance exam to determine my placement in classes for the year. Many people are critical of homeschooling mainly because they think the educational rigor is not very intense, so I felt the weight of that judgement on my shoulders and that I had a lot to prove. My mom emphasized how important it was that I do well, and I knew that my scores would be a direct reflection of her teaching capabilities, especially since she used to teach at that same middle school and she was going to continue homeschooling my two brothers. Surprisingly to some, I did well enough to make my mom very proud (and probably relieved), and we moved on to back-to-school shopping. That was one of the most exciting parts for me: I had never needed a book bag before. I felt like it was a rite of passage and I was being initiated into the “regular school” club. I picked out a bunch of new outfits that made me feel like Stephanie Tanner from Full House (my idol at the time in 1995), we bought all new supplies and my very own binder. I waited anxiously for the first day of school to arrive.

         I felt like I was going to vomit from a combination of nerves and excitement that morning. My dad was a teacher at a nearby school, so he dropped me off that day (riding the bus was out of the question according to my overprotective mother). My mom arranged my locker partner ahead of time. She was a girl from my neighborhood whom I already knew, so seeing her familiar face was a comfort that day. Most of the details of that first year are a blur. I know that it took a while for me to adapt to schedules and bells and bathroom passes and raising my hand, but eventually I felt like I had the hang of it. I liked most of my teachers and I made honor roll every marking period. I made some new friends and got invited over to their houses for playdates or birthday parties.

         What stayed with me, even to this day, are the memories of the mean people. No matter how many friends I made or how successful I was academically, those people made me constantly question my worth. My mom had warned me about mean kids and bullies, so I didn’t want to bring it up to her for fear that she would pull me right back out and homeschool me again. Plus, it was embarrassing. I was shy and quiet mostly because everyone already had their preexisting friendships and I was left on the outskirts most of the time. I didn’t understand why certain people didn’t like me or treated me like I was insignificant.

         One day, midyear, I was sitting in social studies waiting for class to begin as papers were being passed around. I never spoke much to other kids in class because I usually felt insecure, and I had seen how mean they could be to other quiet kids. But that day, I decided that maybe I should put myself out there to try to make friends. The popular girl who sat in front of me (let’s call her A-hole) was telling a story to the kids sitting next to and behind me—basically everyone around me. At the end of her lengthy joke/story, we all laughed. A-hole stopped abruptly and said straight to me, “Why are YOU laughing? Shut up. No one is talking to you.” That made the rest of them laugh even more. Of course, I shut up as instructed. I’ve always been overly sensitive, but I was frozen. I felt the color drain from my face. I wanted to sink through my desk, through the floor, through the dirt and crawl out of the school as a worm. I didn’t want to come back. I was eleven years old and I had never been spoken to with such repulsion and rudeness. I couldn’t understand it. I would never tell my mom, but I started to think that maybe she had been right all along. Maybe I should have stayed home forever to avoid people like A-hole and her follower friends. I gave up on trying to befriend the popular kids after that.

         At the end of the year, I told my parents that I wanted to home school again for sixth grade. My mom was thrilled. Later on, as I approached my teenage years, I decided to go back to public school for seventh grade. I briefly imagined that maybe I had achieved celebrity status during my year of absence as the girl who came and went, like some kind of mystical being with the ability to decide when and where to go to school. Instead, no one really noticed. If anything, the friends I had made in fifth grade were annoyed with me that I hadn’t returned. I had missed the sixth grade class trip to sleep-away camp. Who does that? They were over me. 

         Luckily, I had made one great friend over the summer who helped me through another tough transition into public school. We were in the same homeroom and sat together at lunch. We were both interested in boys and the same type of music (No boy bands, ever. No wonder no one liked us). We were both in concert band. And then we were both bullied to the point of needing guidance counselors and parent intervention. I won’t get into all of the name-calling and terrible things people said, but I will say that those kids who made me feel like I wasn’t worth talking to were now trumped by the kids who called me “the Wicked Witch,” “Big Nose,” “Schnaz,” and other hurtful things because of the size of my nose (which is not actually as big as they made me think it was, as it turns out). I wept openly to my parents and begged them to let me get a nose job. Whenever I would walk by those kids at school, they would hum the Wicked Witch’s theme song and touch a fingertip to their noses (groups of them, not just one at a time). Teachers ignored it, either oblivious or apathetic (many old-timers still consider bullying a rite of passage for kids, which “makes them stronger.” I’m not sure how hurtful treatment benefits anyone). After the guidance counselors got involved, most of that stopped, but it made some kids afraid to be my friend for fear that I would “rat them out to guidance” if they rubbed me the wrong way. It also made some bullies more aggressive in other ways. For instance, later that year, I begged my mom to buy me a pair of expensive JNCO jeans (they were all the rage in 1997), and I wore them to a dance held off school grounds. I was enjoying myself but I avoided the dance floor like it was shark-infested water until I had to use the bathroom, and so I ventured across (I think I was half running). Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the most beastly popular girls running toward me. As I turned, I saw that she had a black permanent marker in her hand just as she swiped it all the way down the leg of my brand new jeans. I know this seems trivial, but I wanted so much to be accepted and to fit in during that time, so this felt disastrous. Still, I had a better eighth grade year and not many complaints about high school, so I would say I didn’t have it so bad overall.

         Looking back now as a successful adult who refused to be broken by the immaturity and ignorance of her peers as a preteen, I do think those experiences made me resilient and helped to shape me into who I am today: confident, a teacher, a leader, aware of people’s bullshit, and uncaring of how most people perceive me. But I fear for my daughter who will undoubtedly deal with similar problems when she enters school someday. According to Sheryl Sandberg in her recent New York Times article,  “resilience is a muscle we can help kids build,” and as a society, the best thing we can do is show kids that they matter and make a difference to others. If kids feel like they don’t matter, “they become more prone to self-destructive (‘Hurting myself isn’t a big deal, since I don’t count anyway’) and antisocial behaviors (‘I might be doing something bad, but at least I’ve got your attention’). Others withdraw.” When children feel like they matter, they are “less likely to suffer from depression, low self-esteem and suicidal thoughts. They’re less likely to lash out at their families and engage in rebellious, illegal and harmful behaviors.” As parents, we can’t solve all of our children’s problems for them, but we can still “provide support by ‘companioning’ — walking alongside them and listening.” In Sandberg’s essay, she mentions that giving kids our undivided attention is key to building resilience, which we all know is sometimes difficult to do. I know that I can’t protect my daughter from every negative experience, but I will make sure that she knows the strength, the confidence, and the intelligence to stand up for herself and others who get hurt by the words and actions of bullies. I hope that we have the kind of relationship where she will talk to me openly and ask for help when she needs it. I hope that she won’t let the “A-holes” of the world get her down. But if and when they do, I hope that she will find the courage to build herself back up to be bolder, better and stronger than ever.

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