by Shelly Spivey
Someone once said that when you are bullied its like breaking a glass mirror. The pieces shatter and are very hard to reassemble, but no matter how much glue or tape you use the breaks are still visible and some pieces are forever lost. I believe this is true. Those that have been bullied and tormented for years like I was aren’t ever really whole again.
There was a time in my life when I was carefree and believed in myself. I was young, smart, and when I looked in the mirror I saw a beautiful person. I was a kid, and I was happy in my body, I was happy to be me. I had friends. I had a lot going for me. Then it all changed. Bullies, both adult and peer, worked hard to sap my soul away with their words and actions. I can’t possibly write about everything that ever happened, it’s too long, and no one wants a novel. So these are the highlights. This is my story, this was my childhood.
Sometime in the second grade, my teacher recommended me for the gifted program in our school district. I was tested, accepted and shipped off the following year to a more suburban school. I made a few friends and really enjoyed the third grade. I didn’t do as well as my peers in a few areas, such as handwriting and spelling, and although they noticed, no one really said much. We played and had fun, as kids do. Fourth grade started and I was assigned to a teacher, Mrs. Shawshank, who I found out later, picked one kid each year and picked on them without mercy.
I was different. I was in the gifted program but I had lots of issues learning. We’d find out later I had several learning disabilities that would affect me for the rest of my life. At the time, I was labeled “lazy” because my handwriting was so poor and everyone assumed that I never studied my spelling words or math. Mrs. Shawshank told kids and parents I was “retarded” and the only place the school had for me was the gifted program. She was the first of three teachers that did similar things. I didn’t know for years that she was the reason parents did not allow me to visit their houses. She made an effort to tell any parent that would listen that I was somehow defective and not worthy of her class of gifted kids.
The kids began to drift away, and by Christmas were just plain mean. They didn’t want to play with me at recess, they didn’t want to sit with me at lunch, and they didn’t want to play with me after school. Mrs. Shawshank got in on the fun too. She made fun of my spelling, she made fun of my handwriting, and she even made kids tear up my messy homework and drop the paper scraps over my head a time or two. For the next two years, Valentines would have “love” crossed out and “hate” scribbled in. Or the kid delivering them to my Valentine bag would simply say, “I have to give you one too, even if I don’t want to”. I should have been used to it by then, when I gave the kids I thought were friends at Christmas a present, they’d bring a gift the next day with the caveat that “their mom said because I gave them something they had to return the favor, but they really didn’t want to”.
My mother was aware of what was going on, and went to the principal over and over again. They brought in the school psychologist to test me, and made me go to the school counselor each week. Mom even took me to a psychologist outside of school, and I’d see him for many years. I was horribly depressed. The kids hated me and I had no idea why. The school psychologist reported back that I had a genius IQ, so he couldn’t figure out why I had trouble writing. All this did was make things worse.
Mom talked to other parents and discovered this was a pattern of behavior for this teacher, but no one wanted to go to the school board. Their kids were out of the line of fire, so they didn’t want to make trouble. My dad didn’t want trouble. I sank deeper and deeper into a dark place I was afraid to tell anyone about. I wanted to die some days, others I just wanted the teacher to die. Here I was 8 years old, and so worked up I was planning an elaborate scheme to burn her house down with her in it. I had nightmares and I dreaded school. But the school year ended and the following year was better. I still didn’t have any friends, but I wasn’t being tormented and my teacher was great. Somehow 5th grade wasn’t as bad. The teacher was kind and didn’t tolerate bullying in her class. Mrs. Garren was amazing. I will never forget her kindness even if the kids weren’t exactly nice.
Middle school is its own special kind of hell. Over the summer between 5th and 6th grade I put on some weight. I still struggled with my handwriting and math, but now I was in a much bigger school and the kids who were my friends in the 2nd grade were now here too. I thought we’d be friends again, I was wrong. I ended up with the second of three teachers that would make my life hell. Mrs. Gilstrap was my homeroom and science teacher. She went out of her way to be ugly to staff, students and sometimes even parents. Couple her class with PE, and I was so stressed out I had a physical reaction to the stress that year.
My psychologist said it was like when someone hated horses so much that their bodies put off pheromones to upset the horses. I did the same thing. For no medical or hygienic reason anyone could find, I stunk. I had an odor. They called me “smelly Shelly”, and NO ONE wanted to be near me. The girls that had been my friends in earlier grades, even my very first best friend, would push me in gym class, steal my belongings and even sliced my shoes with razor knives. The coaches turned a blind eye to everything that happened. The principal ignored my mother, and the counselors at the school said it was my fault for being “chubby”. My mom had a fit when one of the girls in gym class beat me with a tennis racket and nothing was done. Those girls also went after another girl, Tracy. When I told my mom about them locking her in a locker, mom called her mom. Tracy and her friends beat me up the next day because she was punished for not telling what had happened.
I’d leave gym class for science and had to be pulled for special education instruction to help with my handwriting. By this time, they knew I had a learning disability of some sort, and were trying to help me get it straight. Mrs. Gilstrap refused to allow me to make up missed work and proceeded to tell the other students not to share homework assignments with me because I had to go to the “retard” class. I think my mom spent as much time at school as I did. But until she said the word “harassment” no one listened. The teachers were not reprimanded, nor were the kids suspended. By the time mom had the counselor worked up over the “harassment”, the school year ended, and I had stopped caring. I wasn’t homicidal, but I just wished sometimes I’d die so they couldn’t torment me anymore. I didn’t even feel like a human.
Seventh grade brought a different type of abuse. Kids were still mean, I was still in pull out programs for my handwriting, and PE was horrible. At some point, I stopped wearing skirts because the kids made fun of my legs so much that I was ashamed of my body. A group of black girls that year in PE would walk around the dressing area naked before and after class and would gang up on any of the girls that dressed in the bathroom stalls. The assistant principal that year told me I needed to get over the brutal words and actions these girls committed. She told them they needed to be kind. Though my mom complained weekly about how these girls behaved and how they treated me, nothing was ever done. My psychologist wrote a note to get me out of PE for the following year. He said the bullying was detrimental to my health and mental wellbeing. It didn’t stop the gifted kids from being mean, but it gave me a little hope. I had some “at school” friends that year that were also bullied. We hung around together and followed each other to the restroom at lunch to keep the kids from hurting us. Being alone meant being vulnerable. Being alone, meant it was your word against theirs.
By 8th grade, I was angry and felt as if there was no reason to live. I never told anyone that I wanted to die, because I was afraid they’d lock me up. I kept it all inside, especially after my dad, in a desperate attempt to keep my mother sane over this, told me to never make “his wife cry again”. So I stopped telling anyone what was going on. He regrets that now, but at the time my mother stayed so upset there was nothing being done, that she wasn’t herself.
We couldn’t afford private school and we couldn’t get into another district. I was placed in chorus rather than PE. The teacher, “Witch Hazel”, was furious that I refused to wear a skirt and gave me an F for an entire term over it. My dad got involved and went to the school that time. She relented and I got a C, and I was removed from her class. She told all the kids the reason I refused to wear a skirt was because I was a lesbian and I would burn in hell for it. Mom complained, but again, nothing happened.
The kids didn’t change much, and with that ammunition, who could blame them. My life was hell, and I wanted nothing but to dissolve and be nothing. In my mind, I was less than nothing. A few kids that did talk to me wouldn’t do so around the others lest they be teased too. It was a tough time. One teacher DID stand up for me. Our shop teacher kept telling two boys that were especially nasty to me that Karma would be hard on them one day. Oh how they laughed at him, but it wound up being right. Everything wasn’t all doom and gloom, I had a couple of kids that were friendly and I even hung out with some. They also were bullied. We were friends that year, though we’d known each other for much longer.
I went into high school, and I wanted the world to suffer like I had. Day in and day out, students and teachers had tormented me. I walked alone and friendless. I signed up for JROTC and it gave me hope. I was so angry I was looking for an excuse to fight. I was looking for an excuse to take out all of that anger on the first person that crossed me. But JROTC (Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps) gave me a reason not to. Now high school wasn’t easy, I still got teased, but now I had a place I belonged. I had a place that I fit in. I had friends. Suddenly, I was funny, I was fun and the kids who were in JROTC with me accepted me. The program was my salvation; the program turned me around.
I graduated someplace in the middle of my class, with no help from special education because the district decided that despite my continuing difficulties, my IQ was too high for services. I had to learn to cope with both learning issues AND fat, shaming kids on my own. I made it to college and on the Dean’s List before graduating with two degrees. The special education director had told my mother I’d never graduate high school, go to college or hold down a job. When I finally got my Master’s degree in Special Education years later, I wanted to call him up. I didn’t, but boy I wanted to.
Because I was bullied, I never learned how to socialize or make friends. I’m 37 and I literally have no close female friends. I have no one that I can call and talk to when things are tough. There are a couple of girls that I befriended in school, but our lives are very different, and we have little in common. I don’t put up mirrors in my home because I can’t stand to look in them. I don’t see the beautiful woman my husband sees, I see the ugly little girl that everyone hated for so long. I can’t see the good for the scars.
Recently, I have reconnected with a lot of schoolmates on Facebook. I see how their lives are, and I wonder what I could have become had I believed in myself. Had I been told there were no limits, who could I have been? What could I have accomplished? How far could I have gone? I try not to dwell on that, because I have a happy marriage and a good job. But sometimes I just wonder. If kindness had been the daily grind, would I have been different? My mother regretted to her dying day that she ever let me move schools to be in the gifted program. She regretted not pulling me out of the program when I got bullied, and she regretted not going to the school board. My dad regrets it too.
I am a strange adult. I don’t get social cues, and it may be because I was bullied, or it could be the learning issues that make me socially inept. I don’t know how to mingle with people. I also don’t know how to take a complement. I can’t see the beauty in my allegorical writing I often post on Facebook about my former career. I am overly critical of every action I take, and I stress over every mistake, real or imagined. I want to write, but I cannot get past my own self-doubt. I know this is from all those years of kids telling me I wasn’t good enough, or I was too dumb, or too fat, or a million other things as they rejected me. My husband looks at me with sad amazement when I shoot down an invitation to socialize or participate in an activity. He sees the skill in my painting of miniature game pieces and he sees the skill in my allegorical writing. I see the negative comments and the tiny imperfections.
The thing about bullies is that they get away with it because no one stands up to them. No one is brave enough to chance being an outcast too. Some even think it’s just fun to tease another, but its not fun, it can crush someone and you may never even know it. My advice to those who are being bullied is to tell your teacher or your boss, and if that doesn’t work go higher, all the way to the top. To those that witness bulling, step up. If not in defense, then tell someone. If you see it, report it! It’s the right thing to do. Parents, you must push the school to do what is right even if it means going to the school board. In this day and age of social media, bulling has taken on a whole new facet that I cannot even imagine. And parents, be a good example, don’t bully others in front of your kids; they learn it very often from home.
There is never an excuse to tease or bully anyone. Being different is ok, even if you don’t like it. Treating other people with the dignity and respect they deserve as humans is easy even if it isn’t entertaining. And you never know, it might be the only time that peculiar person has been shown kindness. I know, I can’t remember every horrid word ever said, but I do remember the good ones because they were the ones that truly kept me going.
About the Author: Shelly Spivey has a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Elementary Education, and a Master’s degree in Special Education. She currently works as a city clerk in an adorable small town near the mountains. She and her husband have two cats, play dungeons and dragons, and watch entirely too much British television.
Shelly joined the fire service in 1999 as a volunteer. She served eleven years in the fire service before being disabled with Meinere’s Disease. During that time she was served in many capacities including Fire Instructor, Haz-Mat ops, NREMT-B, Confined Space, and Public Education. Shelly struggles with PTSD from her years as a firefighter, and fights the balance issues and hearing loss caused by Meniere’s every day. She hopes that her experiences can help someone else survive theirs.
Read Shelly’s other article:
Harassment in the Fire Service