An Open Letter to My Eighth Grade Self
As a teacher, it’s hard to define what motivates kids to bully others, and what keeps bullied kids from standing up for themselves. Those who stand by and watch are probably the biggest problem, though, and sometimes its teachers as well as students who are the bystanders. As a bullied kid myself, I found it much easier to identify the bullies, the bullied, and the bystanders in my own classroom, but that’s only because of my personal experience. I wish I had spoken up when I was a kid and told someone what happened to me. If I could, I’d tell my eighth-grade self the following advice:
March 24, 2015
Dear Eighth-Grade Self,
The last four years of your life have been hard to endure. You live in fear, constantly paranoid about when the next attack will come. They come in all forms—mental, emotional, and physical. The only place you are safe is at home.
When you were in fifth grade, your family moved to that house right across the street from the elementary school. There wasn’t time to make many friends before the school year started, so bullies found an easy victim in you. Soon, school became torture, and getting away from it was the foremost thing on your mind. This felt weird, though; you loved learning, but you wanted to avoid lingering around the school because that’s when they would strike. You learned to time it just right so you didn’t have to be at school any more than necessary: you’d leave home one minute before the morning bell (better to be marked tardy than to be stuck outside the classroom any longer than possible), then run home during lunch and immediately after school to sanctuary. Recess was a nightmare, because you couldn’t get away, and they always struck when the teacher wasn’t watching.
You confessed to your family that you were being teased at school. “Just tease back,” was the response. “We tease each other in this family all the time, so just do it to them.” Your older brothers gave you an arsenal of snappy comebacks like, “Up your nose with a rubber hose.” Their rationale was, if other kids said something mean, make others laugh with your response; then the teasing will stop and you’ll get a reputation as a comedian. Well, that was all in the delivery, you discovered. You tried a snappy comeback once and were mocked so badly you were terrified into never trying again. So much for that, and so much for confiding much else to your family.
Mom and Dad asked if you were interested in going to church. Living on the corner with the school to the west and the church to the north, it seemed natural to say yes. You got involved in the children’s choir, Bible camp, and youth group. Ah, youth group. The one place bullying wasn’t allowed. Pastor Rudolph, gentle and kind man that he was, modeled the way Jesus wanted us to treat one another. I guess neither Pastor Rudolph nor Jesus saw Mark’s eyes burning into you with scorn from across the table. There he sat every Tuesday evening, transmitting silently that although he couldn’t do anything that night, just wait until tomorrow at school. You’d never see it coming, his eyes would say. Just wait.
And then came seventh grade. After two years of having your every weakness inventoried and exploited, you were a nervous wreck. And now you had a mile walk to the junior high every day. Everyone from elementary school remembered where you lived, so it was easy for them to follow you home, taunting, throwing rocks and snowballs, and occasionally lying in wait behind some shrubs to jump out and pound you down. They didn’t have to do it every time they threatened to, oh no. Just the threat was enough to keep you in line. Sometimes following just far enough behind so you could hear the awful names they called you was enough. You never knew what was coming when, and they had you right where they wanted you, day after day. You were still immature and physically smaller than most kids, and every day you got smaller inside, balling up within yourself to protect the few shreds of dignity you had left. God forbid if they ever took it all.
The shoes! They were supposed to be the answer to all of this. The constant picking on you for not having breasts or curves, for having the wrong clothes, for not having feathered hair (it’s too straight: you should grow it out long, and stop trying to perm it). But the shoes! A pair of Nikes would make you fit in and the mean comments, the cruel jokes, and the disdainful looks would all go away. So you pestered Mom until she relented, but even in 1980 a pair of Nikes was $35—a lot for a pair of shoes on a modest family income. Mom promised that if you paid for half out of your allowance, she’d get them for you. You went into JCPenney’s three months later and walked out proudly wearing a navy blue pair with a baby blue swoosh. Perfect. Now you were bulletproof. . .
. . . until you got to school. The response you received was 180 degrees from what you expected. Instead of quiet acceptance and approval, you heard, “Oh, so you think you’re hot shit, now, do ya?” Then they stomped all over your shoes and made sure you got stuck way out in the brambles in right field during gym class. You walked home on painful toes, completely defeated. What made it worse was accidentally cutting one shoe wide open with the shovel as you were helping in the garden that weekend. Now, not only had you spent three months’ allowance and ruined your perfect shoes, but you were no closer to solving the problems at school.
The more you tried to fix the problem, the worse it got. You were quickly reaching the lowest point, and you despaired of ever getting free of it. You were stuck, and everyone knew it.
But there are a few bright moments now that you’re in eighth grade. You love band class because Mr. Kraud makes everyone laugh. He picks fun music to play, like the Wrigley’s gum theme song and “The Long and Winding Road.” You choose to be in the third flute section because that way, the stuck-up first flutes are far enough in front that you can pretend not to hear them talking about you. That’s why you have never put much effort into becoming better musically. Why would anyone want to push herself to be a better musician when she has to share space in the first row with girls who constantly put her down? Later this spring, these same girls will write in your yearbook, “You are the cutest, sweetest girl in the 8th grade! I’m really sorry I was so mean to you. Thanks for bein’ my friend! Take it easy on the guys! Call sometime. Love, Jill.” Or, “I suppose you’ll be a good friend in the future, and sorry about everything I said bad to and about you. Hope we can be friends. Stacy.” These girls probably have no idea the long-term impact their hurtful words have had on you, but you try not to wish evil on them. They are eighth grade girls, after all.
Your life will get better soon, I promise. In the summer, your parents are going to move to a new house in a different neighborhood. You will go to a different junior high school and melt blissfully into the mainstream of high school, happy to be a sheep among the herd. You will remain in the background in the flute section, but the marching band will be really good! You will make friends there who will remain close 30 years later. You will finally be accepted as a part of a group, contributing to the “awesome” that will be the DHS Marching Spartans. You will even take State your junior year and fifth at Nationals later that summer, and the pride you feel will give momentum to your social life. In your senior year, you will be invited to not one but three parties given by the popular crowd at graduation (you’ll only go to Monica’s, though. She’s the nice cheerleader who will be your biology lab partner).
And you will have learned. Your immaturity, which spawned the ridicule, will be left behind. Your memories of junior high will make you much more cautious about people. You will know to first observe them before extending an invitation to friendship. Your ability to read facial expressions, tone of voice, sarcasm, and implications will be honed to perfection, and you will make much better decisions about whom you allow into your life. You will also become much better able to gauge how to behave in social situations so your esteem does not get compromised.
You will use your experience as a bullied teenager in your future job as a teacher (yes, I know you don’t want to copy Mom’s career, but you’re made for it, really). In fact, being a bullied girl will define your teaching style. Your student teaching assignment will be easier because you can intuitively identify and de-escalate problem situations. Your career will be centered on your students, not the content of your classes. Over the years, you will refine your ability to identify bullies before they get their claws into their victims. No one in your purview will be stuck in a self-esteem-killing rut like you were. Later in your career, you will pioneer the first anti-bullying program in your school district, way before it is fashionable (or required) to do so. You will teach your students to respect one another and themselves.
I know it hurts right now, fourteen-year-old me, so much. And nobody really understands, because even your brothers and parents only know a fraction of what goes on. Even when you tell your family about what happens at school, you don’t tell them everything because you are ashamed of yourself for letting it happen, and for failing to make their suggestions work. Please know that your feelings now will make a difference in kids’ lives in the future. Many of your future bullied students will gain strength enough to confront their nemeses, grow stronger as a result, and begin to advocate for other bullied kids. YOU will make that happen.
So raise yourself out of the pit of despair you’ve been dwelling in. You’re better than that. Every time you feel powerless when someone says, “just ignore them” because you know you can’t, know that every day of suffering is an investment in a stronger you. All your pain is not wasted. Most important of all:
It was hard to write this letter. Doing so made me feel that same old vulnerability that I thought was long buried. Publishing this letter opens me to criticism, and that old fear of reprisal rising up again after 35 years. I can handle it, though, because I’m so much stronger than I once was. I wonder what happened to all the people who bullied me? I wonder if they think about me and wonder where I am and what I’m doing? Part of me hopes they felt guilty enough for the way they treated me to change their ways, but I suspect many of them don’t even understand that their systematic deconstruction of my self-esteem had a profound impact on my life (not to mention the same effect on others they also bullied). They probably don’t even remember my name, but I can tell you theirs. You bet I can.
When I looked at the autographs in my eighth grade yearbook last week, I looked with fresh eyes on the words I have avoided for all these years. And then I found the note from Mr. Kraud: “DeLyn, Thanks for not giving up with music. You have great desire and ambition. Don’t lose it. Thanks for a neat year!” I saw Mr. Kraud in a restaurant last summer. I went to him and thanked him for teaching me (I think we all should do that, just as we thank those in the military for their service to our country). Yes, I said, I still play the flute. I told him I was president of the Pikes Peak Flute Choir and was a writing instructor. He was surprised…and he wasn’t. Having re-read his yearbook message, I realized he wasn’t surprised at all—the surprise was mine. I am sure my eighth-grade self would be shocked to hear me say: I am proud of the person I have become.