Every now and then, something happens in the YA writer's community that reminds me how proud I am to count myself a part of it.
This week that something was Young Adult Authors Against Bullying.
In response to the heartbreaking story of Phoebe Prince, two YA authors, Carrie Jones and Megan Kelley Hall, started this group to speak out against extreme bullying, to share stories and provide support.
My story isn't an extreme case, but I thought I'd share it anyway.
My very first week in first grade: I'm in a tiny private school, in a tiny Washington town where I don't even live. I live twenty minutes away. There are nine other students from first to twelfth grade. They all live here. They all know each other. I am an outsider. In the library, far from our two teachers, they tease me until I cry and run into the main room. Sitting there alone, I'm passed by one of the older boys on his way to the restroom. He stops.
"I just wanted you to know," he says awkwardly. "That I don't dislike you. I was just teasing you because everyone else was."
I nod and say thank you because I can think of no other response to this. But I file it away. I am not hated, but neither do I matter. I do not belong. This will become the theme of my elementary and middle school years as my parents move me from school to school looking for a place I can succeed.
In fifth grade, the school closes. I'm moved to public school.
Things are both better and worse here. I am mocked here by some kids, sworn at and called names, but mostly I ignore them. A few kids will play with me and that is all I want. There is a brief period of weeks where I join in a group who's teasing a girl who's even more of an outsider than I am. It feels good not to be the one singled out, but it isn't that much fun, so I eventually stop. I tend to stick with the boys, as the girls are all playing by a set of rules I do not understand.
But mostly I read. A lot.
One day, my church group goes to a skate night in the bigger town nearby. The place is packed. I haven't skated in years and soon tire of falling down. No one will skate with me, no one will sit and talk with me. And there's no place to sit anyway. I end up under a counter, seated among the coats stacked around the bar stools, reading. I think nothing of this, it's standard operating procedure for me when I'm stuck somewhere lonely and overwhelming.
A day or two later, my mother calls me into the living room. "I just got a call from [youth pastor's name] about skate night. What did you do?"
I stare at her, not understanding. "I skated for a bit, and then I sat and read the rest of the night."
My mother sighs the sigh that means I've missed something vital. Again. "Well whatever you did, they think there's something mentally wrong with you and they don't want to take you anywhere anymore."
"Oh," is all I can think to say. Once more I am the outsider, a line drawn around me that I don't understand. And this time it's the adults who drew it.
I'm in seventh grade, a different private school, and I hear some girls talking about me while I'm in a bathroom stall. They're saying how weird I am, how strange. Their words are carelessly cruel, spoken less with malice and more with mocking indifference. I am a joke to them.
The situation is so much like a book that I don't know whether to laugh or cry. I content myself with simply flushing the toilet, and walking out of the bathroom in plain sight. Later that day, the girls are sitting behind me, and I hear one of them whisper "Miriam's not bad, really. She's actually kind of cool." I am immediately happy that I made them feel guilty and sad because I know they don't mean it.
Also in seventh grade I discover that lots of people have "invisible friends" who always seem to be sitting in the seat next to them.
"You can't sit here," they tell me. "That seat's saved for my invisible friend."
It doesn't seem worthwhile to point out how pathetic that statement is. So I always go sit somewhere else.
I'm twelve years old and I am the quintessential outcast, the bookworm, the one who follows people because she's curious, who stares just a bit too long, who doesn't know the rules of the game she wants to play so badly. For a while, I'm even the smelly kid because no one told me I had to wear deodorant every day.
In terms of outright bullying I get off easy. In most of the schools I attend, coarse name calling and physical bullying are strictly monitored and the schools are small enough to make that feasible. The adults might not know what to do with me, but they do protect me to a certain extent.
But I don't hang out with anyone at school. Moments of friendship, of connection, are periodic and fleeting. No one tells me secrets or cares about mine. I am alone. Sometimes in the darkest moments, suicide crosses my mind. But books are an easier form of escape, and besides, I'm an introvert. I don't need people.
Or so I tell myself.
For eighth and ninth grade, my mom home-schools me and my sister. Now I am alone and it's okay, there's no one to see all the things I do wrong. By the time we move and I start tenth grade in yet another school, things are better. But the feeling of being the outsider never really leaves.
Even now, at almost thirty, I cringe inwardly whenever I say something awkward. I've been known to tear up in despair if I misread a social situation. And it is a constant effort for me to reach out to the people around me instead of burying myself in a book.
I wasn't physically tormented or verbally flayed in school. Mine is not a case of extreme bullying. But I do know that feeling of aloneness, of hopelessness, of being sure you'll never get it right and things will never be for you the way they are for everyone else.
That's why I joined this group, and if you have a story, I encourage you to join too. Because none of us were as alone as we thought we were.