“Words Hurt”: A (Personal) Reflection on Bullying as Verbal Violence

25 Oct

It began as daily torture
and sickening waves of dread bellowing in my belly
with tears collecting behind dark circles in my eyes
too stubborn to fall.
I learned the art of holding back the floods of hurt,
that stung my eyes and soaked my pillows at night
from daylight.
They never betrayed me in public
and would wait
for the shame-filled walks from the school bus to the front door,
re-playing the taunts from the day in my head until I found a place of solace
to cry in peace,
to be in peace,
away from the judgment of peers too relentless to care about my feelings. 
The stress led to migraines in the fifth grade and by the sixth grade I had failed six times at my attempts to put myself out of my misery.  I never admitted to where all the weekday sadness came from.

They called me ugly. Black. Stupid.  Crazy. Itch-Bay (pig latin for bitch, because they said I was too stupid to know the difference).  There is little escape for a little black girl desperate to be accepted and forced to face the same vicious group of peers from kindergarten to the eighth grade
reminding me, daily, of everything
(supposedly) wrong with me.
I would have rather swallowed glass than face their scorn
but instead I swallowed hands full of pills that were not mine
wishing myself invisible
or to wake up somebody else
somewhere else
I spent years being angry with God
for waking up at all.

Words hurt,
from the precious tongues
of girls not unlike me
but finding me
an easy target for their practice
of self hate, inflicted on me like
too many wounds
too many days
and displays
of harsh words
telling me I wasn’t shit ‘til I believed it.

The taunting still haunts me
and inspires tears when I sit in silence too long, or stare in the mirror too long
looking back at the
short haired
big toothed
dark skinned
flat chested

not smart enough
not tall enough
not good enough…

Teased for everything from living in a trailer
to the way I talked
to the cheap tennis shoes my mother could barely afford
to how I could not play basketball,
to how I didn’t have a daddy at home
from girls who
lived in single wide trailers
lacked my vocabulary
had the same shoes with different laces
excelled in sports but
failed in school
and didn’t even know their fathers

and who looked somewhat like me (regular, country, black)

but they never saw (or cared about) the damage they were doing
whispered words, intentionally loud enough for me to hear
loud laughing
waiting for a reply
that never came
because I didn’t know how to defend myself

They created hierarchical games
so that I would be perpetually last
Who is the tallest? The lightest? The smartest? The prettiest? 
I was always last on the list. 
My failings escalated them. 
I have never gotten over the trauma of those public ratings.

Decades later, I still hate remembering my childhood, and refuse to look at yearbooks or go to class reunions.  My memory never fails me.  And I am confused at the recent requests for friendship on facebook by people who refused to “friend” me when I most needed it, and instead stood on the sidelines watching me struggle to breathe.  The childhood assaults on my psyche followed me to adulthood.  And I sometimes still struggle with self-esteem.

Recent events of bullying have been popularized as media attention is focused on teen suicide resulting from teasing, taunting, picking, and bullying.  Bullying is in the national spotlight but it is not a new phenomenon.  Young people have always been punished by their peers for being different.  The consequences are ongoing.  Bullying is not blameless, nor is it harmless.  We have to take responsibility for the weight of our words, heavy like fists.

Before I ever started school I remember being told that I was supposed to take up for myself.  My grandmother told me that if someone ever hit me, I’d better hit them back–harder!  She never told me what to do if someone hurt my feelings.


10 Responses to ““Words Hurt”: A (Personal) Reflection on Bullying as Verbal Violence”

  1. crunktastic October 25, 2010 at 6:54 AM #

    Powerful. Thank you.

  2. Sheri October 25, 2010 at 8:24 AM #

    You called it when you talked about the people who want to “friend” you now, but would not back then. There are bullys, victims of bullying, and then there are witnesses to bullying that could be allies, but choose not to. All of us who witness and don’t act must be shamed just like the people who listen to domestic violence next door and don’t do anything. We must create the world we want to live in starting with youth. Being deliberate about stopping violence is not being over the top it is pushing against an overwhelming tide that says “just worry about yourself.” Thank you for sharing this I would have never thought any of this having met you. It is a reminder that becoming fierce is a process, and you my dear are “positively fierce” (defn: showing a heartfelt and powerful intensity).

  3. susiemaye October 25, 2010 at 10:28 AM #

    You have given voice to what too many of us, myself included, have experienced. Thank you so much for sharing this. Very powerful.

  4. Mokele October 25, 2010 at 12:26 PM #

    Random technical/scientific point – “Words hurt” is very, very literally true. Physically injure someone and the nerves will lead to certain areas of the thalamus and anterior cingulate cortex. “Hurt someone’s feelings”, and exactly the same parts of the brain light up. In spite of how many attempt to trivialize emotional pain, it is *real pain* in the only important way – how the brain perceives it.

    This brings up some very interesting ethical / legal issues. We punish people for physical assaults, and while causing damage is a part of that, even if no lasting damage is inflicted (attack was too weak, damage was surgically repaired, etc), it’s still punishable due to the pain. Indeed, attacking someone explicitly for the purpose of causing pain (i.e. torture) is usually seen in a more negative light than for other motives (anger, jealousy, drunken stupidity, accident). But if pain is punishable in and of itself, and emotional pain is perceived in the same way as physical pain, doesn’t that mean inflicting emotional pain should *also* be considered assault? Yes, it’s *different*, but we don’t distinguish legally between burning pain, aching pain, etc.

  5. Nafeesa October 26, 2010 at 4:15 AM #

    This one struck a nerve, I too was bullied as a child-for various “reasons”. Thank you, thank you for the beautiful, powerful words. One of the things that is so scary about this phenomenon is that so many kids, I think, bully because they are afraid that if they don’t they will themselves be bullied by their tougher, more outspoken, peers. Secondly, who becomes the targets of children who are bullied? Not all the time but many times the oppressed end up finding someone or something weaker than themselves to oppress… I too am glad for the national attention I hope it leads to a step in the right direction.

  6. Regina Evans October 26, 2010 at 8:08 AM #

    thank you so much for sharing. i know something of this as well…having been bullied.

    i hope that you find the beauty of child within you, hold hands with her, race the wind, dance upon the sunrays…twirl together until your heart’s delight…

    my prayer. for you.


  7. Nikita October 26, 2010 at 8:13 AM #

    Aaaah. Allow me to sign my name to this blog posting. It reads/sounds just like my story from elementary thru high school too. Just reading brought up memories and I became a little sad. Makes you want to start a movement to let kids who are different, who prefer to read, who like quiet and peace, who are nerdy and sweet – those kids – to offer them some kind of refuge.

  8. rboylorn October 27, 2010 at 7:08 AM #

    Thank you all for the words of encouragement. I never thought that an experience that has haunted and hurt me for so many years could initiate a smile.

    But I smiled,
    at your kindness,
    your words of affirmation,
    and your genuine understanding.

    While distance and time helps me to see what happened to me with an intellectual framing, and (it helps me see) the people who perpetuated the verbal assaults on me as victims in their own right (hurting me because they were hurting themselves), the cycle of abuse truly has to stop somewhere. Why not now?

    CFs crunktastic, sheri, susiemaye, I love you & appreciate your support! 🙂

    @mokele, Wow! That is a deep revelation you brought forth. You are right and you have given me more things to think about & why there were always physical manifestations of my emotional pain (i.e., migraines, etc.)

    @regina, I love that prayer. And receive it with appreciation.

    @nafeesa and nikita, I echo your words and sentiment/s. Remember that whatever happened in the past only made you more of who you are…beautiful!

    Peace, all.


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