Yesterday morning in bible class (fifth and sixth-grade girls), I was finishing up a lesson on people and things we should pray for, and the last point was to “pray for our enemies and people who may not like us or agree with us.” (Very applicable in today’s world, I might add, but that’s a topic for another time.)
One of my students, a young girl who is rather eccentric sometimes, popped her head up and asked, “Why would I pray for the people who don’t like me? People are so mean to me. Everybody thinks I’m weird.” She explained how she no longer rides the school bus because certain kids were so mean to her that she couldn’t stand to go to school. She talked about how she only has two friends in the school, but they don’t have any of the same classes, and nobody else ever wants to talk to her and sit with her at lunch.
I didn’t know what to say. I came out with something about how people can be mean and life gets better as you get older. I said something about how everyone has a soul and we must try to love and pray for their souls, even if we don’t really like that person. I went on about how we are God’s examples in the world, and we might be the only Christians those mean people see every day.
That’s what I said, but what I was thinking was completely different.
I remember the day it started.
I had a friend from my fifth-grade class, Nikki,* who lived down the street . We played in each other’s backyards a lot, and I remember a specific day when we spent several hours playing computer games in her basement. We invited the new girl across the street, Kate,* who was also in our class, to come over.
The next day I went back to Nikki’s house and knocked on the door. She answered, but obviously didn’t really want me to come inside. I heard Kate down in the basement, but I left anyway. I thought surely it didn’t matter.
Over the next month or so, I began to notice my classmates, those I had considered my friends, stopping their conversations when I walked up and making an effort to shut me out of activities. For a long time I thought I was exaggerating this in my head.
I still remember one specific afternoon when I rode my bike down to Nikki’s house and knocked. Her mother told me she was across the street at Kate’s house swimming in the pool. So I walked over and knocked on the privacy fence gate; I could hear my “friends” laughing in the water. Instantly, the splashing stopped and there was a lot of whispering. I let them know I could hear them and asked if I could come in. The reply came back: “Well, uh, we were really just about to get out and, uh…”
“Oh, well can I come and hang out with you after?”
“Oh, uh, well… we’ve got some stuff to do. We’re gonna be really busy. Maybe later.”
I heard my name and loud laughter as I walked back to my bike. That’s when I knew for sure that I wasn’t imagining it.
The last few months of fifth grade and the following summer were pretty miserable for me. I didn’t get invited to slumber parties or play dates, nobody wanted to come over to my house and former friends would duck into stores if we happened to pass each other in the mall. Those seem like such small things, but they add up after a while.
I never found out exactly what Kate had told people to make them act this way, but I know it was all tied to her. Life got better when I entered a middle school with multiple feeders – not everyone there had heard whatever was being said about me – but years later, at the end of my freshman year of high school. I found an unusual entry in the back of my yearbook:
I’m sorry. -Kate
It had been four years. I had made friends. I had moved on, and I didn’t really need an apology anymore. So it wasn’t the words that got to me, it was the fact that I hadn’t made it all up. I hadn’t been pretending to be ignored for the sympathy points. It was real, and the girl responsible knew it was real all those years later.
I say all that to say this:
Looking back on that year – which I am grateful was only a year, many kids go through entire lifetimes of emotional isolation – I’m not glad that it happened, but it did teach me something: Other people can only change you if you let them.
You can’t reason with a bully. Adults tell children that they can, but the simple fact is that the things people say and the way people treat you isn’t about who you are; it’s about who they are, and only you get to decide if you’re going to be the same way.
“Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.” -Eleanor Roosevelt
That is my absolute favorite quote, and I have used it to remind myself of my own capabilities many times over the years.
Nobody gets to decide who you are on the inside. Nobody gets to decide if your creativity is “weird” or if your imagination is “stupid.” Only you get to decide that, and only you can decide if their hurtful words mean something to you or not. And that’s so much easier said than done.
Unfortunately, most kids just have to survive it and try to come out the other side with some of themselves intact. In a perfect world, there would be no bullies. But in an imperfect world, the best we can do as parents is try to teach our children to be kind and to love who they are to the point that other people’s words don’t make (much of) a difference.
Raise the child who sits with the kid who’s alone, and be the adult who pulls that kid aside and tells them that who they are is important. You have no idea how much good you can do.
*Names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent.