AnyroadsHigh School Was A Time: Bullying Is A Four-Letter WordJulia Gazdag

I’ve never been able to say the word ‘bully’ with a serious face. A bully, to me, is a scary, overgrown cub in a Berenstain Bears book. The softness of the word takes away from what it really means: a person (or several) who intimidates others with abusive language and sometimes even physical violence. The most common method seems innocuous enough but is very destructive – creating a space in which the targeted individual not only has to withstand a barrage of insults, but publicly, so that others will avoid them. I can’t call people who willfully isolate others in such a way, or use their physical strength to an abusive advantage, bullies. But the words that I feel would adequately describe them are too rude to use and this is, after all, an all-ages site.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t until recently that I realized I was bullied in 8th and 9th grade. I didn’t really see it as that at the time, because I saw the people trying to get me all harassed not only as idiots, but I’m pretty sure they were hoping to ascend the social ladder a notch or two by pushing me below. Which, frankly, if they were, was completely useless, seeing as I was as giant a nerd as I am now but it would be almost another decade before hipsteurism made that something to covet. Mostly I thought they were doing themselves more harm than me, because each time they tried to insult me or gang up on me, it was like they were shouting from the mountaintops “we are jerks, watch us at our foulest!”

It started in my 5th period science class. This kid Michael* sat in front of me, a bowl cut on his head and both growth spurt and voice change still distant in his future. One day before class started, he was being annoying in one way or another and I asked him to stop whatever he was doing. To be fair, I was probably obnoxious about it, seeing as I was a newly minted 13 year old and it does kind of come with the territory. Michael got defensive, overdid his comeback, and landed on calling me a cow. It quickly spread amongst a certain set of guys in the class, and before I knew it, I was Julia Moolia (Julia Moolia Gulia once the Wedding Singer came out).

At the time I was just annoyed. It wasn’t until after college, when I read Queen Bees and Wannabes, that I realized what it means to call a girl who develops early a cow. Needless to say, I’m glad I didn’t make the connection at the time. What I didn’t think about until recently is the fact that half a dozen guys ganged up on me, a girl, and made their attempts at humiliating me their primary form of entertainment, some into high school. This guy Andrew still tried to keep the joke going past tenth grade, when I had already transferred schools.

This is something I don’t hear about much but know happens: guys bullying girls. At an age when social acceptance is already crucial, for most girls that also means figuring out their sexuality and where they stand with guys. I transferred schools to an all-girl one (for different reasons), which was a great experience because the pandering to what the boys think was far less and there was much more freedom to just be intelligent, let alone expressive, and not spend math class retouching your eyeliner (I never did this but we all know half the class does if we’ve ever been in a co-ed room). There is already a problematic imbalance of gender relations in middle and high school. Just look up any article on the world “slut” (like this recent one from Jezebel). So the idea of a group of boys ganging up to tear down a girl using a part of her sexuality that she doesn’t even have control over – her anatomy – absolutely terrifies me.

The thought that it happened to me is frankly baffling, because I was so oblivious to it at the time. I was just annoyed by it, like a radio you can’t turn off. It was like once Michael had gotten the ball rolling, everyone who was waiting to have a target to throw their newly found adolescent angst at quickly joined up. And not like Angela Chase angst. Emotionally stunted angst that hailed Beavis and Butthead as role models instead of understanding the satire. But then spitballs started flying and even at 13 I knew I didn’t need anyone’s herpes stuck to the back of my head. It would get quiet and I would turn around to realize they were making plans for mysterious, clearly unpleasant-for-me, collaborations. I would take the bathroom pass and not come back until the bell had rung. I would take the late bus home to avoid them, or get off early and spend an hour at the drugstore.

But what about those girls who realize exactly what is happening? The girls who are not only avoiding the annoying or humiliating aspects of this kind of bullying, but who also fear their bodies being violated? I still marvel at the fact that while the whole of my science class was aware of what was going on and kids in my grade from other classes knew of me as Moolia quickly enough, our science teacher did nothing. On occasion he would tell the guys to settle down, but only in the context of quieting the whole class to begin teaching. This was apparently acceptable behavior. When this becomes acceptable behavior, it can spiral. I was lucky to get through just as the girl no one asked out (again, totally oblivious until years later when friends told me of guys who had gushed to them about their crushes on me, and yet none ever approached me).

I went to a fairly innocuous school. Guys would call each other ‘gay’ and ‘faggot’ but I don’t remember anyone getting beaten for it. It makes me wonder about schools where students are driven to self-abuse or suicide by bullying because tolerance for slurs like ‘faggot’ enables those saying them to push the envelope. If pushing that envelope escalates on far too many occasions to physical abuse, then what happens to girls when guys gang up on them?

According to One In Four USA, one in five high school girls have experienced forced sex, otherwise known as rape. Most rapes and sexual assaults, however, are perpetrated by someone known to the victim. 13% of girls (and 9% of guys) reported being forced to do something sexual at school other than kissing, according to an AAUW (American Association of University Women) study. The same study also showed that a greater proportional number of girls react to bullying with negative affects ranging from becoming more self-conscious to grades dropping. My science grade probably would have suffered if the class had held more challenges than watching the Voyage of the Mimi beginning to end. The AAUS study also showed that one in four girls said they stayed home or cut class because of sexual harassment.**

We have seen an increased trend in bullying having such an effect on students recently, and my own experiences have made me wonder how many young women are victims. I wonder how many of them don’t even realize what they are going through, because it is socially acceptable for girls to expect evaluation and criticism from guys in middle and high school. While I consider myself lucky to have recognized that not everyone’s opinion of me is worth my concern, it does not mean that what happened was fine. Ultimately, Michael, Andrew, and the rest of those guys probably acted out of their own insecurities. Getting past insecurities, or at least realizing that the lip gloss on Caroline Kraft’s snaggletooth will not make you any smarter***, is a hard lesson for a lot of kids. It would be lovely if middle and high school communities would be open enough that fewer and fewer people felt the need to act out this way.

 

*I’m totally using real names. Mmmmmhm. At least I’m not using last names.  

**Stats from CFChildren.org

***You guys, if you can’t rock the Mean Girls references, I can’t help you

 

Berenstain Bears cover photo from this source

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  1. Really good article! Its crazy how you can look back on your childhood and realize things like that. I don’t know if it was just the school I attended, (all girls as-well) but bullying Isn’t really a big thing here. I didn’t experience it, and very rarely saw it occur. Then I hear of these horrible stories about bullying overseas and it just sounds so crazy, I didn’t understand it, but I knew it was the truth. Now that I’m older I understand that so many people get treated horribly and unfairly because of nothing, it was a shocker when it finally hit me. I love how your story shows that bullying was happening even though you didn’t realise at the time, but you did later. I think its very important to know, and help everyone that doesn’t understand at the time identify what’s going on.

    • I agree. And really, I was fine, no one ever hurt me physically, I still had friends etc. A lot of people have to deal with way worse things than I ever had to, and for no reason. It’s not right.

  2. I was bullied at high scool for a few different reasons, and I am sure that it made my grades suffer and turned me into somewhat of a procrastinator because it killed any self esteem I may have had. The teachers did nothing, even after it was brought to their attention. They took me out of class to talk to me about it and asked me what I wanted them to do. Uhh hello – you are the adults, you think of some way to fix it! My parents asked me if I wanted to change schools after 3 years of high school (we don’t have middle school our high school is 6 years long) but I decided not to only because I didn;t want to have to try to make new friends at a school where I didn’t know anyone. I remember hiding in the library during lunch break just to avoid certain people. I just don’t get why the teachers really did nothing to stop it though.

    • High school was when I figured out that many adults don’t know squat. All it did was make me disregard their authority — for the record, I never rejected authority just for the sake of it, it was always on a case-by-case basis. But hey, just because your teachers were idiots, it only means you’re the better for it, because you recognized it!

  3. I’m sorry that you had to deal with a-holes and amazed that you didn’t let it get to you too badly. I only hope in moments of my own insecurities I’ve never made fun of anyone to draw the attention away from myself… Like that first little snot did to you. High school is such a black hole.
    I remember in high school in photography class hearing a story of a girl being peed on by a boy at a party because she wouldn’t get sexual with him. I was so confused and when I heard her talking about it openly in class I asked Wait, what happened,-why? And she laughed it off. “Oh didn’t you hear? He peed on me.” She said it so normally. She acted so cool and eye roll-y that I let it slide… I think I said “Oh.” And slunk off to develop my photos in bafflement. You never really know how to respond in high school… But I think the response should always be in capitals and exclamations with a lot of “He did WHAT? THAT’S NOT OKAY. ARE YOU OKAY?”

    What are we doing if not sticking up for each other?
    And no one is helping out the jerks and bullies either by staying silent.
    That jerk isn’t going to change until someone tells him what he’s doing isn’t okay.

    Thanks for a great post.

    • Whaaaaaaaaaaat? That’s crazy. I mean, I know it’s better to just play it off than to get really upset over it when someone does something upsetting to you, but there’s a line. Sometimes you really just need to answer the question with “yep, he peed on me. because he’s batshit crazy and it’s not ok.”

  4. That’s awful! I don’t think anyone deserves to be treated that way, and for anyone that thinks that’s a fun pastime, I have zero respect. This seems like the toughest thing — you can ignore people like that to some degree and not let yourself get emotionally involved for it hurt your feelings, but when people gang up on you physically, you can’t ignore it. I think you should push the school safety administrators much more aggressively. They are responsible for your safety, and if they won’t do their job, take it as far and as high as you can. People like this keep doing what they do because they can — we shouldn’t let them get away with it.

  5. I’ve been bullied from age 4 til I graduated high school (and a tad bit is still going on from those who can’t grow up–I’ve seen it online on a group that’s trashed by those people). It was harsh and all I knew was that I wanted it to stop. It got to the point where I wanted to give up on life at one point. I have no clue what made those kids decide they’d bully me, but I’ve been through instances where I’d be pinned to the ground and have sand/dirt being shoved into my mouth, and of course a malicious b*** pretend to be my friend until the opportune moment came to stab me in the back and try to lie that my friends were afraid of me due to what previous bullies had driven me to do in 8th grade when I still didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I was smart, but stupid at the same time obviously. I was at a higher level of coursework, but not enough smarts to not do something that FINALLY rose the local school district to recognize that I was being bullied, but they still didn’t do a thing that helped. Up until then, no one believed me except my family and friends who faced similar issues. It is getting worse every year. Each generation is learning new malicious ways to get at peers. At this point, I’m not sure what can be done. It’s gotten out of control because no one has listened and recognized the dangers in time.

  6. This was a wonderful article. I was bullied in school a lot for developing early/ being so tall/ being a super nerd :-\ The best revenge was getting out of that shit hole town, becoming successful and realizing how “pretty” I actually was. Joke is on them. I see now that a lot of that came from insecurity.

    • You know? What kind of a double standard is that? Be hot if you’re a girl, but if your body does it too early, immaturity will take you down? I feel like the worst part is – and tell me if you’ve experienced this too – that if you develop early, you can’t be a nerd. If you have boobs, you’re automatically a slut, or at least perceived to be one.

  7. This was fantastic. In middle school, I had to put up with a lot of bullying. My curly hair turned frizzy, my nose grew too fast for my face and I enjoyed school and interacted with the teachers. After reading Lord of the Flies, about 30 boys chucked ketchup packets at me in the cafeteria whilst yelling “kill the pig!” I went to the guidance counselor. You know what she said? Boys will be boys.

    • That’s not right. Good lord. All of that. The attitude of many adults throughout my childhood baffles me to this day. More than anything, the lesson seems to be: very few people are truly wonderful, and just because someone is a grown-up, it doesn’t mean they’re right to do what they’re doing. I support your curly hair and lovely nose and intellectual endeavors! I spent most of 12th grade in my English teacher’s room and it was the bestttttt

  8. I bullied on and off from 11 – 16 for my ginger hair, lisp, acne, weight (despite someone of the bullies being biger than me) and shyness……. it was awful! Nothing compared to what some people go through but it really knocked my confidance and outgoingness (is that a word? lol) and it still affects me to this day. I am so thankfull for my friends otherwise I don’t know how I would have survived!

    • Gingers are the best!!! I’m so jealous of y’all. One of the best things I learned early on was that I didn’t even have to believe I was awesome (though we all should), if I just projected it stubbornly enough, people believed it. Or at the very least, they left me alone. And really, most of my classmates didn’t take the Moolia thing seriously or join in. They though those guys were idiots, but they also didn’t want to get involved, so I was still on my own. I’m still trying to shed the tough skin I built up then!

  9. I went to an all-girls high school and I had the opposite experience, though. It scarred me ever since. I thought the bullying was worse with girls because the peer pressure was more focused on fitting an image.

    But I guess bullying can happen anywhere if we don’t do something about it.

    • That’s such a shame! I feel like I was lucky in that — I was one of the first three classes to graduate that school, and we all had a more relaxed, familiar attitude with each other because most of the girls had been part of this small, developing school since the beginning. The classes below us were larger, though, and less friendly. I remember being a senior and hearing of a group of 9th grade girls who wouldn’t talk to anyone that didn’t wear Marc Jacobs. Yeesh.

  10. Kids are so cruel. I was called cow in middle school. I am assuming it was because I was overweight but I can’t really be sure. I got made fun of a lot for my weight and a lot of my friends did too. I look back at that time and am happy to have made it out in one piece. I am unsure if I ever thought I was being bullied but I do know I went home in tears a few times. Being a teenage girl is hard enough with rip-roaring emotions and hormones kicking the crap out of you. Pair that with cruelty by other kids and teenage-dom is like a war zone. This is a great essay, Julia. Thank you for writing it.

    • I feel like it can be subjective — if you don’t care about the opinion of the person insulting you, it bounces off more easily. But to be honest, that’s hard to do when you’re so young and even if you can manage it, anything upsetting that happens on a daily basis is just HARD.

  11. So true. Thank you for writing this.