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.
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.
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