Copper and Ice

I met the very cool Allegra Selzer at Gen Con this year. During a Twitter conversation about bullying, she agreed to write about her own experiences. You can follow her on Twitter @Penny_Dreadful or hear her as a co-host on The Walking Eye Podcast.

I am seven. A boy kicks me in the side, after pushing my face into the snow. I can taste copper and ice, and I feel sick.

Adults, including teachers, tell me maybe he has a crush on me. The boy stops when I tell my parents that he hurt me. They agree he probably just liked me.

***

I am eight. Two boys chase me at recess. When they catch me, they hold me down and try to kiss me. I hit them and say no. Their breath smells like milk.

We all get in trouble when an older kid reports it. A teacher asks me, “Why are you hitting them? That’s not what people do when they love each other.”

I start reading at recess after this. I never tell my parents.

***

I am eleven. I have developed a quick tongue in response to constant teasing.

A boy, one head taller and at least twenty pounds heavier, calls me a name and I bite back with an insult. He hits me as a rebuttal. I try to hit back, scratching his face. The fight goes on for several minutes before a teacher notices. My father pulls me out of school after I am given the same punishment as the boy.

When I return, the principal tells me I still have to do the same punishment as the boy who attacked me. I comply. I never tell my parents.

One of my friends slaps me in the face during class because she doesn’t want to be associated with me. The teacher doesn’t notice.

A few weeks later, I start pulling out my hair.

***

I am thirteen. I have trouble sleeping. Most of my bullies are in my math class, and some have lockers near mine. The administration tells me I can’t switch math periods or lockers and that I will be fine.

“Just ignore it. Bullies just want a reaction.” This is not helpful.

Classmates rip up my work in math. The teacher doesn’t notice. I get notes on my assignments asking me to be more careful or I will start losing points.

A boy shoves me into the wall when we are walking to class. I don’t know why. I didn’t even speak to him. I didn’t even look at him. I stare at the floor when I walk to class.

I tell my parents. My father has me record things in a journal. He has a meeting with someone. Suddenly my locker is moved and I have a new math period.  My math grade goes up.

The teasing, name calling, and snubbing gets worse. I don’t tell my parents.

I start cutting myself the same year.

***

I am in high school. Things are a little better. I put up walls and classmates think I’m a snobby bitch. For the most part I’m okay with this if it means they will leave me alone. They don’t. People steal things from me. I’m afraid to be alone at school. I still don’t sleep well.

Symptoms of what will be later identified as mental illnesses interrupt my life. Some of my friends tell me I should just “stop acting so weird.” Teachers tell my parents I’m “sensitive.”

I receive more than one death threat, in writing and in person. Even my shoes are vandalized when I change for marching band. Someone scrawled “I will jump up and down on you until you stop breathing” on the white rubber sole. I throw them away. I don’t tell anyone.

I’m afraid of how much worse it will get if I do.

***

I’m an adult. I have no contact with the people that abused me in front of teachers and school officials, but I still have trouble sleeping.

I have a strong network of friends, yet I still worry that they will turn on me, or spread malicious rumors, or that at least one of them actually wants me to die. I know this probably won’t happen, but I still think about it.

Sometimes, when I hear people joke “Oh, I want to kill you!” I remember the vitriolic death threats scrawled on my belongings and I feel sick. When a friend playfully pushes me, I don’t feel like an adult. I am seven, I am eleven, I am thirteen. I am waiting to feel the kick in my side, or have my head slammed into a wall. News reports on bullying can be too much to bear. They are often littered with triggers for my self harm behavior, something that I still struggle with daily.

I know this isn’t considered healthy behavior, but it is my reality. If I could keep myself from reacting this way, I would.

***

Bullying can leave deep wounds. Like a physical injury, healing can take a long time and often leaves a person fundamentally changed. The scars still ache, even years after the wound has healed.

Mine ache when people tell victims of bullying that they’re asking for it by being different. They ache when adults say “That’s just kids being kids” to a child who reports being targeted and harassed. They ache when I hear someone say “It gets better” and expect that to be enough to make a difference. Children’s and teenagers’ concept of the future is very limited. Dismissing my current problems as “a phase” or something that would make me “stronger” as an adult contributed to my silence as things escalated.

The pain is the most intense when the blame is placed on the victim of the bullying. It happens in news stories. I have heard it from parents and teachers. I have seen  social workers and direct care staff pointedly defend a bully’s right to torment someone. The reasons are familiar. They are too sensitive. If they don’t want to be teased they shouldn’t act that way. Bullies just have low self esteem, and the victim must have done something to make them feel bad. If the victim would just fight back, this wouldn’t happen.

I’ve been hearing these excuses for almost twenty years. The script hasn’t changed much.

So I’m asking adults who have contact with kids to listen. I’m asking you to believe the child who says they’re being bullied. And I’m begging you to not make the victim take responsibility for ending the torment. Most of the time, the victim doesn’t even know what they’re doing wrong. I know I didn’t.

I make sure I listen…because I still remember the taste of copper and ice.

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6 Responses to Copper and Ice

  1. Jess Banks says:

    I want to give you all the hugs and strokes, and wrap myself around the children you were at all those ages. Our eldest son was horribly bullied by his classmates–in kindergarten.
    They told him they wanted a party at his house. He was overjoyed. They said they would use him as the pinata and beat him until he broke open.
    They said they would come inside at night and light his bed on fire.
    They threw snowballs filled with gravel at him on the playground.
    They shoved him facefirst into a slide, and I had to tend the tiny stitches in his forehead and clean the blood off his tiny coat.
    And the teachers told us our son was a discipline problem and we needed to fix him.
    He still wears the scars of that horrible year, on his forehead, on his heart. There are so many ways schools can be safe or unsafe, but that most basic one, the one you achieve by just asking teachers to open their eyes and speak out, is the very least we can expect.

  2. I have few words to add to this, other than to say thank you for sharing this.

    As a parent and a human being, the response of those around you ENRAGES me. I see one of my largest responsibilities is protection, both of my child and anyone entrusted to my care. I wish the adults in your life had felt the same. :(

  3. Allegra says:

    I do want to clarify, my parents did respond when they could. They were both bullied growing up as well, and while thir responded weren’t perfect, I am grateful for the steps they did take. I am more furious with the school officials who outright lied to my parents and basically facilitated the bullying.

  4. Clark says:

    I’m glad adults are starting to recognize that bullying is not kids being kids. It doesn’t teach life skills. It doesn’t toughen people up in any way that isn’t ultimately tragic. It _breaks_ people and leaves smoking rubble in its wake, debris that the target has to gather up and cobble together a psyche out of.

    Thank you so much for this. You give voice to so many things buried deep in my own past.

  5. tracy says:

    I was bullied a lot in school, from elementary through high school. I still have a really hard time trusting people. One time in elementary school, some of the boys didn’t want to let me play in their game even though I had brought the ball outside. They dragged me all over the playground. I was yelled at; told I should have known better. In middle school, the kids with honor passes were allowed to go outside before everyone else and without teachers present. Some of the boys would make comments about the things they would do to my mom and to me just about every day. When I told the principal, things just got worse. Everyone thought it was “just a joke.” In early high school, someone threw a rock through our window with threats to kill me written on an attached note. It still hurts.

  6. Kate Kirby says:

    Very well said. I was also bullied, although not as badly as you, as a child, and yes, people made excuses for the bullies. So I just shut up and took it. It was humiliating and dehumanizing, but it beat trying to fight it all.

    Now I’m volunteering for the Trevor Project, so I can tell young people that they’re not worthless, that bullying isn’t okay, and there are resources that can help you. We’re starting to change the script for society. Bullying is not something someone should learn how to deal with. Everyone has a right to not be terrorized in school.

    We’ve still got a long road ahead, though.

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