When I heard about the death of Phoebe Prince, the student at South Hadley High School, who was bullied to death, I experienced the same anger, frustration, and grief as I have at the reported death of all the others who have been bullied to death. At the same time, I identify strongly with these tragedies, since, I, too, was bullied from the day I started kindergarten at C.S. Elementary to the day I graduated from high school. I felt the same despair as they did, and seriously considered suicide myself on more than one occasion. (Why didn’t I commit suicide? In retrospect, it was probably due to 2 factors: first, committing suicide requires effort, and that was energy I didn’t want to expend; second, I clung to hope that one day things would get better.)

When I was in high school, I reviewed my record with a counselor. She said that my elementary school teachers recorded that I cried a lot. I did. I came into school naively believing that the other students held on to the same values as I did (that is, to follow the Golden Rule to the best of one’s ability). When they taunted me, I cried to show that they had hurt my feelings, because I innocently believed that once they saw they were hurting my feelings, they would stop.

I was completely bewildered as to why anyone would bully me. After all, I had done nothing to them. I didn’t taunt them. I didn’t try to make their lives miserable. In fact, when they did bully me, I did not retaliate.

A pattern emerged: when a new person came into school, that person would be friendly to me, and maybe we’d be friendly for a while. Then the rest of the group made it clear that I was not to be associated with, and that person would drift away. One particular sign that this was happening was that my peers addressed me by my last name, and always with a sneer. In our local school culture, you called your friends by their first name, you called those you had contempt for by their last name. New students more than once expressed surprise to me that my first name was “Joan” and not “Verba.”

My parents knew what was going on. When I complained about what was happening, my parents said, “just ignore them.” This didn’t work. Nothing did. In junior high, other students taunted me for carrying my books in a briefcase. I got rid of the briefcase, believing that they would stop bothering me. They didn’t. The girls in junior high taunted me because I didn’t wear nylons (I wore socks). I started wearing nylons. They found something else to find fault with. I was always “ugly” and (until I lost some weight in high school) “fat.”

Once, my father offered to move to another state, to escape the bullying. I strongly vetoed the idea and we remained where we were. My reasoning was that as long as I stayed in that school system, I could console myself with the idea that nothing was wrong with me; I was just in a school full of losers. If, however, I went to another school and was bullied again, that would be proof positive that something WAS wrong with me and I knew the idea that I was at fault would have destroyed me.

I did have a handful of friends. These were largely students from outside my school district, daughters of friends of my parents. Our family went to a church outside the school district. My peers in Sunday School didn’t bully me, but they weren’t friendly with me, either. I had the perpetual feeling that they just wished I would go away.

I did gain one friend in junior high, who remained friendly with me until high school, when we split because we had no classes in common. She told me that the other students thought I was stuck up. I was stunned. I remember blurting out, “I always thought it was because I was ugly!” She said she didn’t think I was stuck up, and I certainly didn’t think I was stuck up, and thereafter I desperately tried to figure out what it was I did that gave people that impression and what I might do differently. (No one would tell me, and whenever I asked others to explain what it was about me that annoyed them, I’d get answers such as, “You know.” No, I didn’t. What I know now that I didn’t know then is that I had Asperger’s, and I definitely did not know that non-Asperger’s people get upset if you don’t look them in the eye, and they also get upset if you don’t say “hello” or “how are you” to them—things that were not at all obvious to my Asperger’s brain.)

I gained a BEST friend when I was a junior in high school. She was new, and a senior, and popular, and therefore immune to the pressures of my fellow students in the junior class. Once I graduated from high school, and went to college, my freshman year was astonishing. People liked me, they really liked me! They liked me a whole lot! I had never, of course, been asked out on a date in junior high or high school, but wonder of wonders, I wasn’t far along in my freshman year when not one, but two, men asked me out! That confirmed to me that I was just fine, and the others in my high school graduating class were indeed a bunch of losers.

When I got a summer job after 1 year in college, I ran into one of those rare classmates who treated me decently. She sat me down and offered an apology for not doing anything while others of our classmates bullied me. I said there was nothing to forgive, because I fully understood that the bystanders feared (and probably rightly so) that they, too, would become targets for bullies if they interfered.

Those who did torment me were still a bunch of losers when I went to my 10 year high school reunion, full of love and forgiveness in my heart, believing that my peers had grown up in those 10 years and would welcome me with open arms. They didn’t. The handful of people who treated me decently in high school still treated me decently. However, when I went up to one of my former tormentors with a smile and extended hand, he took one look at my nametag, and, with a facial expression full of disgust, pivoted on his heel and walked away. After a few more minutes sitting alone, hearing exclamations of glee and welcome as OTHERS walked in, I left for a more productive afternoon with my current friends, which assured me that the tormentors among my former high school classmates were indeed a bunch of jerks. (I went to my 20 year high school reunion with similar results. By the time my 30 year high school reunion came, I sent my regrets to the committee.)

I tell this long story to get to this point: I am glad that the Massachusetts district attorney arrested the bullies who tormented Phoebe Prince. I hope that this will set a precedent: every bully needs to be held accountable for her or his actions, and if bullies commit misdemeanors or felonies, they need to come to the attention of law enforcement.

Bullying isn’t “just kids.” Making excuses for bullies and bullying must stop. Blaming the victim must stop. The “culture of cruelty” in grade school must stop. Bullying is criminal abuse, pure and simple, and needs to be addressed as such.

Posted by Joan Marie Verba at 4/5/2010 8:11 PM

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