I couldn’t distinguish between tears and rain drops grazing my cheeks. I was cold, tired and numb as I sat outside in the torrential rain. I was being penalized for refusing my intimidating teacher a daily massage, which was routinely accompanied by open criticism of my learning abilities by my teacher and peers. I felt I deserved this horrible punishment and it nearly led me to justify my own bullying later.
Historically, bullying has been perceived as a rite of passage, but that’s a façade. It’s a silent epidemic curbing children’s educational, social and emotional development, particularly children with special needs.
The Los Angeles Unified School District passed its zero-tolerance policy toward bullying in 2004, covering schools, school-related functions and traveling to and from campus. However, the policy lacks active support from parents, teachers and students. According to the California Department of Education, adults who overlook bullying are merely reinforcing inappropriate behavior and allowing it to continue.
By not speaking out, my teacher gave my peers permission to abuse me and I silently became angry and distrustful. My grades began to drop and I felt ostracized and worthless. I complained to authority figures but no one believed the girl who every one labeled “retarded.” Was this cruelty my fault or just a part of growing up?
According to the 2007 U.S. Census Bureau, about 30 percent of students in grades six through 10 reported moderate or frequent involvement in bullying at school. That figure breaks down to 13 percent reporting they participated as a bully, 11 percent said they were victims of bullying and 6 percent said they had participated in both roles.
A study in the British Journal of Learning Support reported people with special needs are 60 percent more likely to report being bullied compared to 25 percent of the general student body.
For a short period of time, I became a tormentor in high school. My target was a developmentally disabled boy and I didn’t realize the impact I had on him until my final vicious exploit.
I chased him with an umbrella and kept bopping his head and the back of his calves. I was happy to do it and my insecurities craved more and more power over someone. That feeling intensified as I waited outside the boys’ bathroom for my toy to run and hide.
But as he looked at me from the doorway, his eyes filled with tears, my triumph subsided and a blister of self-loathing and disgust burst inside me. I was committing the same hurtful, psychologically damaging exploitations that continued to happen to me. I took responsibility and apologized to him, for which he retaliated by hitting me with his umbrella.
Lost in my own skin, who was I if I was a bullied bully? I asked myself, “Is this who I want to be? What could I do to change my ways and learn how to deal with my bullying issues?”
I found an organization called Best Buddies, an international non-profit group that pairs volunteers and people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in friendships, work opportunities and leadership development.
Ironically, I became partnered with the boy I taunted and when he saw me he tensed up. He didn’t know that I was far more afraid of him. If it hadn’t been for Best Buddies, I would never have had the chance to redeem myself and demonstrate to him I was, in fact, a warm human being.
He showed me kindness even though I had buried him in shame. He showed me how capable he is, which allowed me to recognize being different doesn’t make me stupid or inadequate. And most of all, he showed me forgiveness, something I’d struggled with from preschool through high school.