It has taken me almost three decades to be able to admit that I was mercilessly bullied during middle school and high school in my 1980’s Small Town America. It happened long before “bullying” was the buzzword or call to action it has become today. Long before there were advocates and superstars and whole organizations dedicated to protecting victims of this particular form of abuse. It was a secret, an embarrassment — a festering thorn in my heart.
I was made fun of for the way I talked, the way I walked, the way I dressed, and the way I acted. If there is a Top 10 list of the most popular slurs used in schools, I’m pretty sure I had a majority of them slung my way.
If teachers saw it, they turned their heads. One inept guidance counselor bungled my situation so badly that she made it worse, making me look foolish in front of classmates and others.
Bullying is nothing new, but the most effective techniques for handling and healing the bullied, and the bullies, are only now being understood. Too late for me. For me — especially an only child with no siblings to show me the ropes, it was a case of lamb sent to the lions. A block of darkness I will never fully unload.
But then came a turning point, 30 years later.
I was thinking of that teenage version of myself, the one called such awful names and even once held down as dirt was shoved into my mouth and down my shirt and pants. The young boy who couldn’t understand why others his age would spew such cruelty. The kid who only wanted to be included, but who instead spent weekends alone at home while classmates were having what society heralds as the “best days of your life.”
All these years later, I could still see myself back then: big swoosh of wavy brown hair in front, ombre-tinted eyeglasses, over-sized neon clothing, too much Polo cologne, a glide and swing to my step, an elongated drawl, obsessive over grades, obsessive over acne that wouldn’t give me a break.
And then it CLICKED in my mind.
For as bad as I was mocked (and as one former classmate recently recalled: “It was bad!”) and for as relentless as the bullies were in attacking my walk, my talk, my look, and my actions, I now realized that never once did I ever even consider or try to change myself to appease those bullies.
What a powerful revelation: I never tried to change what made me ME!
If anything, I doubled down. I embraced who I was even more — not out of defiance, but simply because it was what came naturally to me. I didn’t change the way I walked or talked or acted.
In that Age of Benetton, The Breakfast Club, Madonna, Reagan, and Sassy magazine, my clothes got brighter and even more oversized (shoulder pads included). Once, I wore several layers of geometrically-patterned sweaters to a school dance. Another time, I went adorned in vintage military medals. I still wore enough cologne that you could smell me coming from the other end of the high school. And I spouted one-liners like, “Neon is the attitude!” to the sheer befuddlement of fellow students.
All along, I knew what I meant. I knew who I was. I just didn’t realize the significance of it all at the time.
But I do now.
Now, I look back on that younger version of me with admiration. He was courageous in the face of lions. He stayed true to himself amidst the ugliest onslaught of human nature. Instead of hiding, he communicated, Here I am, like it or not!
Today, I can walk with that same glide and swing, and confidence, into rooms and onto stages in front of hundreds of people — especially young people. I can look them in the eye and, with that same drawl that once marked me as somehow peculiar, I can speak from the heart: “Dare to be different!”
Dare to be you!
That is the attitude.
If you’re bullied, don’t cower. Instead, be even more original. Sing louder. Play harder. Dance longer. Jump higher. Think bigger. Be brighter. Imagine anything and everything are possible. Celebrate life, inside and out.
If you’re beaten down, get up and brush yourself off. Then march onward — one step at a time — with a big smile on your face. And know without a doubt that your smile is changing the world.
Dare to be different in whatever way that means for you. When you embrace YOU like this, that’s when you win. That’s when the world leaps ahead, and you ensure that every day is the best of your life.
(Image credit: Benjamin Combs, Unsplash}