My daughter Tessa has started middle school. They called it junior high when I was in the 7th grade, and it was the worst time of my childhood. At thirteen I was an overweight teenager with few skills at protecting myself. “Ignore them and they will get bored and go away,” was the advice my parents gave me. But this never worked. It only made them try harder to make you cry.
My junior high was a miserable place with no guiding authorities, and bullying was considered a rite of passage. I was used to bullies in elementary school, but the level here was new and terrible. The boys had cigarette lighters and walked them lit down the hallways, trying to singe the girls’ long hair as they stood at their lockers. I was smashed in the head by one of the rocks frequently thrown at our school buses. And once when I squatted to tie my shoe – I knew better than to bend over at the waist – someone kicked me in the tailbone with all the strength and rage he could muster. I told no one, but pretended to be sick often to avoid school.
And now I was sending my daughter into the hyena land of adolescence. My beautiful daughter, who rejects all attempts at fashion and has to be reminded to comb her hair. I had to remember – she is not me. But I did not want her to go. Her school was not a lawless place like mine, but there would be bullies. What could I say to arm her for the inevitable, from the humiliations of silence?
“Tessa, you know how kids pick on each other?” She looked at me, surprised, with a “duh mom” expression. “It usually gets worse in middle school.” She watched me cautiously, wondering where I was going with this. “I just want you to know, you don’t have to take crap from anybody.” She blinked at my unexpected language and nodded slowly. “Okay mom.”
“I don’t want you to get in a fight, but tell them to get out of your face if they bother you.”
And she does. She tells me sometimes, what kids say, and how she handles them. I can see she is proud of herself. I am proud of her.
My mother was verbally abused by my father their entire marriage. I watched her endure insults, too afraid to leave and convinced she couldn’t make it on her own. She lost all confidence in who she was. I don’t want to be her. I don’t want my daughter to be her.
I’m not especially courageous and have faced no great wrongs I must right. I only struggle in the everyday moments to be my own advocate in life. I do not always succeed, but when I do, I feel more myself.
So I believe in the power and dignity of standing up. I believe one person you should be able to rely on is yourself.
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