There's been a lot of press about bullies lately, and the children and young adults who suffer from bullying. Sometimes we don't call the perpetrators bullies. We call them bigots, especially when the people being bullied are homosexual. Those young men weren't being bullied just because they were gay, they were being bullied because they were reduced to a single word. In the case of suicides that have been getting press recently, the word was “gay” (or maybe one of the other less attractive words for the same thing.) But the word can be different. It can be “geek” or “skinny” or “ugly” or “stupid.”
When we reduce a person to a single word we dehumanize them. “Ugly” isn't a person, and “Gay” isn't a person and so it's okay to treat them as less than human. (As an aside, sometimes that word is “girl” in which a person is reduced to a word describing her gender and is therefore not interesting as anything other than the sum of her body parts as used to sell beer. Don't think for a minute that sexism isn't just bullying writ large.)
For me the word was “fat.” And because of that it was acceptable to treat me as “other.” Once I was “other” it then became ridiculous that I would have crushes on boys, or want to buy the same kind of coat that all the other girls were wearing, or read books or sing songs or do any of the things that everyone else was doing. It was fine for them. It was weird and pathetic for me. They were cool. I was not. Therefore it was okay to pass me a note listing all the reasons no one liked me. It was okay to ask me for my phone number, swearing that it was for the boy I had a crush on, because he wanted to call me that weekend. It was okay to say that my lunch looked like dog food and I was, therefore, a dog.
Once when I was teaching high school I covered a colleague's A.P. Biology class. The kids, all smart, driven Seniors, were working independently on the work their teacher had left for them, and they were chatting amongst themselves and with me. I told them about being a drama geek in high school. The young man sitting right in front of me looked up, and looked me in the eyes for the first time all year. I looked at him, with hair he couldn't manage, long limbs he hadn't learned to control, a nose he probably cursed regularly, and eyes that burned with intelligence. And he asked me:
“Does it get better?”
“Oh yes,” I said. “It definitely gets better.”
Obviously I should have copyrighted that conversation, because now Dan Savage has an entire YouTube channel about it.
I think the project is brilliant. I really, really do. And I hope every kid struggling with gender identity issues goes there and finds something that makes them hope that their lives can be better, too. But the fact is, it isn't just the gay kids who need to hear that. It's all the fat kids, and the skinny kids, and the geeky kids, and the ugly kids, and the dumb kids, and the bullies.
Yes, the bullies need it too. Because you don't spend your time trying to make someone else miserable if you're happy. You just don't. I have never once watched a new person come into church and thought “Hey, that is one fat dude. I bet I can make the fat dude cry.” I have never once stood in line at the grocery store and thought “This woman needs deodorant. I'm going to tell her she stinks and then try and get the rest of the people here in line with me to tell her it, too.” And you know why? Because I have not interest whatsoever in seeing other people unhappy.
As important as it is to catch the bullied, to make sure they know that it gets better, we need to catch the bullies, too. Because those kids, they're just as complex as the rest of us. We don't do them or ourselves any favors when we reduce them to just one word. Bully is just one word, and it ignores the cascade of events that turned a child into someone so broken they had to break others to feel better.
So here's my story. I got out of high school. I went to college. I met a lot of stupid, ignorant jerks who did stupid, ignorant things. I also met a few really fantastic people. I discovered that my body was good at things other than being fat. I met a really great guy who didn't mind that I was fat and thought my raft of other geeky traits were, get this, LOVEABLE. As in: he loves me. And I love him. And we're geeky happy with a couple of completely gorgeous children. I have a small but incredible group of friends who laugh and cry with me.
It gets better.
If you are an adult with influence over children or young adults, make sure they know, at every opportunity that they are loved, and they are worthy of love. You, as an adult, may have forgotten how much difference an off-handed positive comment can make in the life of someone who can't always see past the next Algebra test. Like drops of richly colored paint in a bucket of white, your love and compassion and understanding can color their whole lives.
If you are a student being bullied, and anyone tells you that high school is supposed to be the best time of your life, ignore them completely because they have no idea what they're talking about. High School is small. The world is big. There are A LOT of people in it. And whatever your “other” is there are people who are like you, and there are people who are different from you but will love you not despite your other, but because of it. If you can keep going, keep reaching out, keep looking for the best in other people, then you will find your small but incredible group of friends, too. Because they are out there, and they are looking for you right now.