I stood on the edge of the cornfield. I felt hands swoop me up, throw me into the mud. I landed on my face in the furrowed Pennsylvania earth. I spat dirt. They also threw my hat and mittens, my coat. Later, I was still so mud-soggy the nurse wanted me to change into school-issued pants. Bullying means you never know what’s coming up behind you.
I walked to the classroom’s coat closet. My sister had lent me her special coat, the red one with the fur inside. I had sworn to take good care of it. A few rows of desks away, I saw Anna swipe something—the coat!—off a hanger. It puddled to the floor, and I watch her regard it for a moment, then stomp. Her boots left dusty footprints on the puffy red fabric. I told the teacher. She didn’t much care. I cried while I rubbed the footprints off, while I made sure the fur wasn’t damaged. My sister was going to kill me. I’d talked too much about how special it was, and the bullies got to it. Bullying means you can’t have nice things.
I didn’t have any friends, really—no one to sit with or talk to when it wasn’t by necessity. Because I had no friends, I had no one to tell me to shave my legs. We all wore skirts. Sarah and some of the boys said I looked like a gorilla. I shaved that night and had to come to school with a giant gash down my shin bone. They laughed and laughed. Bullying means you can’t win.
One summer, I had a gray shirt with an English Setter on it. We had one, and I loved her. I liked the shirt. But I knew that someone would call me a dog if I wore it. Bullying means you start to self-censor.
That same summer, I played with a friend who had a brother my age. He always tormented me when I went over to their house. One day, he started hitting me between my legs with a stick. I held my hands there to defend myself. “Why are you touching yourself? Why are you touching yourself?” Sean jeered. Bullying means when you help yourself, you lose.
High school was more of the same. Some girls developed an elaborate ruse that I was dating the hottie of my dreams. I thought I had a cool boyfriend for two days, though of course he didn’t talk to me. The girls feigned concern. They sent a deputization to the boy’s table. They came back with one of the hot boy’s friends, who loudly proclaimed, “Ryan isn’t dating you, Lizzie. He never was.” The girls laughed behind their hands and set me up, for real this time, with the most unpopular boy in the class. They egged me on to kiss him. I didn’t like him. But I felt like I had to. They laughed and laughed and laughed. I finally had the sense to find another lunch table. Bullying means you can’t trust anyone.
One morning, I was sitting in class, talking to a friend. Allen suddenly yelled, “Shut up, Lizzie, you’re ugly!” As if someone’s appearance dictated their right to talk and as if I fell into that category. There’s nothing worse for a 14-year-old girl than being called ugly. Bullying means you live in self-doubt.
Another afternoon, we were preparing for a Latin test. Michael, the boy in front of me by dint of fate and alphabetical order, turned around and wrote “LEZZIE” on my paper. I slapped him across the face, and we were both sent to the office. Bullying means it’s not OK to be gay, even though I’m straight. Bullying means you can’t defend yourself without repercussions.
This was part of a concerted campaign. Spitballs flew across the classroom—how typical and how brutal! I was called ugly all the time. One boy and his friends had zeroed in on me as a target. Bullying means one against many.
One friend said that another was mad at me and no longer liked me. I spent days thinking I’d lost one of my best friends. I’d have done anything to make that end, and it did, in the form of a purple-penned letter with idiosyncratic high school penmanship. The letter didn’t address the past few days. It pretended they never existed. Bullying means you never know when your friends will turn on you.
I was regularly victimized from the time I was 7 through high school. One of the only people who dared defend me was Derine Teal—who did so at great risk to herself. I’ve always remembered her courage, especially against the faces that turned away, the teachers who told me to stop tattling. Derine helped. Bullying means you don’t have to stand by. Bullying means you can speak up.
The world needs more Derines. We need more people to speak up and say, “That’s wrong, this is unfair, that’s hurting someone, stop, stop now.” We can be that change. We can be that person. Because more than anything else, bullying means you don’t have to be silent.