Anti-Bullying Day – Change Starts With Each Of Us

Here in Canada, the last Wednesday of February is designated as “Anti-Bullying Day”. An opportunity for people across the country to stand together and try to eliminate bullying from schools,workplaces, and online. This falls into place almost perfectly as I have been trying to write a post on bullying for quite some time now.

Bullying is a situation that is all too familiar to many of us and unfortunately it seems to growing in impact and growing in frequency. While I strongly support and believe in having a day to focus on this problem, it’s an issue that needs attention every day, not just one.

Be Kind

I have a very personal connection to bullying, in several ways. I was bullied, a lot. More so than I think most people in my own personal life realize or know as I’ve managed to keep it tucked deep inside. I’ve also seen it firsthand in the schools that I’ve worked in. It exists not only in these physical spaces but in the online spaces we frequent as well. I’ve seen my friends, my fellow artists all being bullied for their choice in subject, their talent, their personalities, most often these verbal/online attacks are done anonymously. I thought that I would share with you my own story of bullying, I feel that it has played an integral role in my life and that it has helped to shape the person that I am and even the kind of work that I do, both artistically and professionally. This is probably the most personal and sensitive topic that I’ve ever written about and aside from a small handful of close people in my life, I haven’t shared this with anyone.

I remember the very first time that I was truly bullied. I had been teased growing up, for having a big nose or for wearing the wrong style of shoes and all that insignificant stuff that happens as a young person growing up. But when I reached the 9th grade, things changed. A small group of older guys suddenly chose me as their target, I was small and quiet and I think they sensed all of my insecurities. As fate would have it, I found myself in a math class seated directly in front of 2 of these guys. For months they would stealthily torment me, shining laser pens at my glasses so it would reflect back into my eyes, flicking staples at the back of my neck, whispering names that still make my skin crawl each time that I walked to sharpen a pencil or hand in my work. I was starting to get good at ignoring it all until one day, a Wednesday in fact, when I finally needed an escape. I excused myself from class and walked to the farthest bathroom, a chance to get even a few more minutes of peace. I gave myself 5 minutes, just to stand in the bathroom and not be around anyone else or listen to anything, just to let myself silently cry and try to muster the patience to finish the class. Just as I was about to leave, the two guys from my class swung in through the door and blocked it shut with a garbage can. It was one of those situations where time both freezes and speeds up at the same time, like a car accident or a roller coaster. In one motion, the taller of the two had grabbed me by the jaw and shoved me into the corner. I don’t remember much of what they said to me, it all sounded muffled and like another language. I remember them saying “I should like it” and they laughed. In what seemed like hours but was probably only seconds, the taller one pulled my head up, opened my mouth with his fingers and spit into it. I don’t know why I froze, but I couldn’t move. In this frozen haze I stood there as they laughed at me, spit on me, got their faces nose to nose with mine so closely that I could smell old cigarettes and see my own face in the reflection of their eyes. The principal’s office was mere steps away but I stood and took it. The finale of this two-minute torture was one of the most dehumanizing moments of my life, in a swift motion they grabbed my head and shoved into a urinal, kicked me once each time in the back and left. I remember my glasses cutting into the bridge of my nose and how cold the porcelain was as I pulled myself up. I remember spitting blood into the sink from where my braces had cut my cheeks from being squeezed so hard. I remember smelling of urine and cigarette and embarrassment and yet, I did what so many kids do when they are faced with situations like this or worse, I pretended like it never happened. I washed my face, straightened my glasses and walked back to my class. I walked in and sat just a few feet away from those two same guys who now had smug smiles on their faces. I sat there in that desk every day until the end of that school year and never told anyone.

I kept that story and all the other times that followed, the times I was spit on, had my homework ripped up in front of me, been called names that felt like hot knives in my skin had my hands held behind my back as a group of kids stole money out of my pocket, a secret until just a few years ago. And why? Because I didn’t want to make it worse and because I didn’t think anyone would actually care. And that, is the saddest part of any story that you will hear about bullying. That kids don’t tell because they don’t think that anyone will care or that by getting help it will make it worse. I wish I had told, I wish that I had been strong enough to stand up for myself but I didn’t, and because I didn’t it sent a message to those guys and every other bully in my school that it was ok to do what they did. I started to tell one friend, a few years ago, parts of this story and her response was “well you didn’t tell me this as it was happening so how can I believe that it actually did?” Her reply was the exact one that I feared getting, the response that so many kids fear, that people won’t believe them and that they’ll be made to feel like their experiences are lies. Just because someone didn’t tell you, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Free Your Mind

Bullying is not an isolated event, it doesn’t just happen once to one person in a city far away. It happens all the time to people in your classrooms, in your homes, in your families. Just because you’re not hearing about it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen it just means that there is still too much fear in the way of getting help. I now find myself in an interesting situation, I work in the same schools that I was bullied in. I’ve been in the bathroom that I was attacked in, I walk through the halls everyday that 10 years ago I hated and felt like an insignificant nobody in. But now, it’s changed. Through these experiences and through my own discovery and healing and trust in other people I’ve learned that an end to bullying doesn’t start and end with the bullies themselves. It starts with me. It starts with you. It starts with those that were bullied, that have children who are and were bullied and it starts with those who have never been bullied. We need to stand up together in a united force that says to the sensitive minds and hearts of those around us that we care for them and we’re here to help and protect them and that  it is not okay to belittle or discriminate, taunt or tease, abuse or attack ANYone. That difference in ability, gender, race, sexual preference, identity or mannerism does not give anyone the right to use that as a weapon to bring someone down. Change starts with each of us making the communities, both local and global one that supports each other and protects each other. The anti-bullying campaign is as much a pro-support and pro-change campaign, we can’t focus on just the bullies themselves, for many of them it wouldn’t matter, they would continue to do what they do. But if we can create an environment in our homes and schools and friends that is safe enough for those that we care about to say “I’ve been bullied” or “this is what happened” we can then start to deal with the problems. For me, I had seen posters denouncing bullying my whole life, but I didn’t ‘feel’ support, I didn’t see in the faces of my teachers that there was care enough for me to help me. That responsibility lies in us. I see bullying in the faces of kids in the school that I work in, I see bullying in the ways that my own friends have been treated online, and I see it even in the way that adults interact with each other. It’s up to those of us that have had enough to decide what is acceptable in our society, and bullying isn’t one of them.

So, for this Anti-Bullying Day, I challenge you to make your communities a safer place for all in it. Help me and those around you create a kinder and more supportive environment that helps to foster diversity and acceptance but also shows those that are intolerant of other people’s differences that they aren’t the ones with all the power.  I was recently asked why so many of my photos have messages in them, sometimes literally and sometimes figuratively and my answer was this:

I feel that my own life is a collection and reflection of the experiences that I’ve been witness to. In my own art I hope to create images that when someone sees them, they feel something. I  want someone to see a photo of mine that says “Be Kind” or “Be The Change” or has a peace symbol in it to know that I care. I care about a world that is loving and kind and that cares about the other people in it. That is why I do what I do and why I think that it’s important to be a voice of change. I create these pieces for myself, to remind myself to be kind, to be loving, to give back. I create them for those that feel hurt, that feel alone or isolated and I hope that they see my work and feel connected, they feel a kindred heart out there wanting them to keep going. I create them for the bullies too, in hopes that if they see enough messages of kindness and goodness that they’ll start to realize that hate is the minority. All we can do though, is change on behalf of each of us.

I’ll leave this with a simple quote that means so much to be that I have it permanently marked on my wrist

“You Must Be The Change You Wish To See In The World” – Mahatma Gandhi

and I highly suggest you watch this powerful video by Canadian poet Shane Koyczan

Be The Change


17 thoughts on “Anti-Bullying Day – Change Starts With Each Of Us

  1. Oh my gosh, Joel… I can only imagine the pain you went through, but it makes my heart break for you. For whatever it’s worth, I believe you, and I also believe you are a wonderful person who doesn’t deserve to be treated like that. No one does.

    Your work is inspiring, but even more so, you yourself are inspiring. I love seeing your art with its sincere positivity.

    I’m so sorry that you went through all that suffering. Thank you for being so courageous to bare your soul and tell your story. One of the worst things about abuse is the shame it makes the abused carry. They did nothing wrong, but they feel unable to share what happened with anyone. Society needs to change. We need to liberate the victims, give them voices and give them their power back. You are doing your part, and I know you are inspiring everyone you come in contact with. Thank you for that.

    You are loved.

  2. Joel thank you for sharing it took incredable strength and I so agree with you. Part of me is upset that you had to face that and the other part feels privelaged to know such a beautiful soul…not many people can take the pain they have been through and put it out there to try and make a change not just for themselves but for others. I myself before I knew any of this have always admired you and loved your soul, your kindness and often wished I could be more like my friend joel. Another lesson for me…not to wait to tell people that you appreciate who they are. If everyone could follow your words and your amazing way too see that good can be possible in such a cruel and uncaring society….thank you joel not just for your powerful words but for being you!

  3. Thanks for sharing Joel. You have a powerful story, and so does Shane. Thanks for sharing his video too. It takes so much courage to speak up about bullying and insecureties etc. But the more we are open and honest the more it encourages others to be honest too, and safe places can be created and healing can begin. I think many many people are being touched by your work and by you yourself. You are so thoughtful and kind and courageous! You are amazing! 😊

  4. You make my heart both happy and sad at the same time. I want to tell you just how loved you are and how strong you are for sharing your pain with the world. Your photos are a true representation of light and love. I follow your work and you really are a huge inspiration to me. I love how you can take your pain and turn it into something positive, not just for yourself but for others like you and for the world. You aren’t afraid to open the publics eye to the real issues in this world and for that I thank you.

    Please never stop doing what you love and never stop sharing your heart. x

  5. Thank you, Joel, for your vulnerability and honesty and great courage! Your life is touching so many of us as a wonderful gift. I hope you are aware of the blessing that you are!

  6. Joel,
    @SarahAllegra couldn’t have said it any better! Your words were and are always truly moving. Thank you for sharing such a personal experience. Though we’ve never met, I am always comforted by the fact that you are out there whenever I need a boost. You are a great inspiration and motivation for myself and many others. Whether you know it or not, you are already changing a small bit of this world for the better. Thank you for all that you do and continue to do. I hope we can meet up one day soon my friend. Sincerely, alim.

  7. Thanks, Joel for sharing this deeply personal account of your experiences as a bullied student. It took incredible courage to make these public. I hope that at least one of those folks who bullied you actually reasd this, feel remorses and haa the courage to face you to take responsibility for their cowardly and cruel behaviour. Your successes are proof that bullies won’t prevail in the end, if you choose not to let them. I am so glad that you found the inner strength to pursue your dreams and to accomplish so much with your life, in both of your professions. How many of us would go back to work at the place where we endured such abuse from peers? I know that you have been making a difference for kids there… that some students will see you the person that they can confide in. I hope that many of the students at Baker read your story, so that they can be the difference.

  8. joel i have no words for this , your experience was so heartbreaking , i really had some tears running through my cheeks .
    i have been bullyied and i really understand ypu .
    have no words….

  9. What a powerful post Joel, not that I would expect anything less from you. Your experience in school so closely resembled mine, with some of my memories being so deeply repressed that flashes came back as I read, as if they had only happened yesterday. Such is the power of terror. My personal experiences were never as physically violent as yours, but I was always expecting it…..dreading it….paralyzed by it. It got so bad at one point that I made my own calendar in a spiral notebook that I carried with me religiously. When I got the last class of the day, I would take out that pad and make an X on that day to mark that I had survived. It sound pretty pathetic now, but between that and my ability to escape into my paperback books, I had to have someway to cope with my constant fear. Thanks for reminding us that bullying is still an everyday occurrence. That there are still kids dealing with this abuse every second of every day. As I type this I do not know what I can do to make the bullies stop or their victims feel better. But I’m going to look into it, I’m going to try to help.

  10. Wow. I am literally in tears right now. It breaks my heart to hear that you went through that. I always have, and always will consider you my family. I am so incredibly sorry that you felt as if you had no one to tell. For that I feel as if I failed you, and I am truly sorry. I hope you know how much you inspire me.

    Even though I am older then you, I have always seen a strength inside of you and an incredible calmness in your soul that I wish I had.

    I am a firm believer that those that appear to be the strongest, need our support more then anyone else, I only wish my mind was more open to that when we were younger.

    You have become one of the most incredible people I know. I am sorry you went through all of that pain. I promise you that I will always be here for you and support you in everything you do.

    I love you Joely Man! Never stop being you.

    Thank you for continuing to bare your heart and soul for all of us!

    Love Kor

  11. One of my worst memories of primary school was of a religion teacher (who wasn’t even a teacher) taking the side of the boy (who bullied me for more than two years after that day) and trying to make a public example of me in class, humiliating me, all because I was making the sign of the cross backwards by mirroring the people across from me.

    When I burst into tears after he had left the classroom she told me it was for my own good and that I’d thank her for it one day. When my actual teacher came in, I didn’t know how to explain to her that not only had a fellow student been bullying me, but that an adult, someone I was supposed to trust had fallen in line with that bullying and kept it going, in fact encouraged it.

    It’s difficult to be bullied, but the fact that no one was ever really interested in taking my side made it clear to me that no one will ever really care if it’s not about them. I sincerely hope more people will see your art and take on board your message, but while we can personally move on from that bullying, and hopefully as artists put those emotions into our art and our poetry, I’m not sure I’ll ever have faith that the bullies will be the ones changed by it, I suspect rather, it will be of comfort to the ones that were bullied, as I know reading some of your story just now was of comfort to me.

    I was fortunate in that no one ever physically hurt me in that particular situation, but the mental devastation was just as damaging to a very young child and I can still feel it’s effects, even now, all these years on.

    For societies such as ours that have such strong campaigns against bullying, I still wonder why so little seems to be done when adults especially are confronted by stories of children being bullied.

  12. Dearie Joel,

    I understand the hurt and pain you had gone through in the past and I admire your bravery to share it all out for all to read. I just want to tell you that, you are not alone.

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful work and stories.

    Everyday is a nice day. You’re a beautiful person, Joel . . and no one can change the beauty in you.

    Much love and hugs :

  13. Hi Joel:

    Thanks for sharing such a heartbreaking part of your young life. I am in awe at how you have focused on your ceativity and continue to inspire us with your incredible talent. You have taken an experience that no one should have to endure and channeled it into something truly beautuful. I often see you with kids and have witnessed your gentle, caring heart! It is a privilege and an honour to know you. I would feel so blessed if you would consider me to be your friend. I wish I could have been there for you, to give you a shoulder and an ear. No one deserves such treatment, but what an inspiration you are to be able to grace us with the beauty of your work, to bare your very soul to us. The vulnerability you must have felt to have to go back into the same room as the two boys who chose to bully you. Your strength speaks volumes and I truly believe that because you experienced such pain that it has helped you to build your character and creativity into one of the most amazing people I have ever had the pleasure to meet and gradually learning about . Without realizing it, you have helped to change my life into a more positive one. Thank you for being in my life. Please know that if you ever need someone, I am here for you. Your friend and colleague, Jeannie

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  15. Hi Joel,
    I know what you mean about the world slowing down and speeding up at the same time when violence is about to happen. It’s the craziest feeling in the world and afterwords you are just left shaking.
    I did the same as you – I just put on my glasses and went back to class like nothing happened – even though one of the lenses had come out and I’m sure I looked ridiculous.

    I had the same feeling last year as an adult. As you know I do male model photography. I usually find my models through but sometimes I also just ask someone if I think they have the right look and might be interested. I’ve found my favorite models that way. Later last year I asked someone and I really misjudged their interest. He yelled at me – made a bid scene – and then followed me online and hounded me on FB and twitter. It was nuts.

    I shut down and just stopped creating. It brought back all the feelings of insecurity and terror I felt before as a kid. I figured this was all my fault. Harold has been after me to make some new works but now when I think about making something it just feels yucky.

    I don’t have a good ending to this story – I’m still in the middle of it right now. I have always loved your motto – be the change you want in the world. Right now that just feels tough to do.

    Thanks for sharing. : ) I always feel inspired by your life and your story. You are the change in the world : )

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