The Conspiracy

From Amy to Aviva: My Journey From Bullying Target to School Faculty

Two months ago, New Voices published an article about childhood bullying and its life-long effects. We put out a call for our readers to send in their own stories, of bullying and of what that bullying means to them now; of these stories, we chose the one that resonated with us most strongly. That story is what follows.

To This Day, a video about bullying, reminds us that bully victims are permanently scarred by their past. Aviva considers herself one of the lucky ones.

Then:

I can’t recall when or how the bullying started. I know something changed when I was nine and I had to start another school for fourth grade. I was finding it difficult to make friends. I was never wanted at lunch tables and in classrooms groups; I was rarely invited to birthday parties and rarely had play dates.  At first, none of this really bothered me.  I figured it was simply from being a new kid and that sooner or later things would fall into place.  But then the whispering started, and the laugh, and then the stares.  I don’t exactly know about of what they were making fun of me, but it didn’t matter.  My sentence had been written. I was marked. Once you are marked, it’s very hard to change that status.

My confidence and self-esteem—things I didn’t even know existed—plummeted, and my paranoia grew.  I no longer wanted to put myself out there or volunteer for anything, and whenever I saw someone whisper, I always thought it was about me.

Along came fifth grade; the whispers and sneering followed me. One summer away from school can’t erase the mark.  I quickly pounced on making friends with the new kids—being nice and offering them a place to sit at lunch.  However, once the other classmates deemed these new kids cool, they disappeared, having learned that being friends with me was social suicide.  I found myself wandering around the playground by myself during recess looking for people to play with.

By this point, the school administration was quite familiar with me, as I frequented their office, constantly expressing the troubles I was having with my classmates, in hopes that something would be done about it.  All I got was a figurative pat on the head and a sympathy smile.  And so, I reached a breaking point that year, writing a letter to my teacher, saying I couldn’t handle it and I didn’t know what else to do.  Naturally, it sounded an alarm and the school’s guidance department ordered me to see a psychologist.

It was clear that they thought the problem was just with me, that it was always my fault that this was happening.  In any case, my parents obliged and I went to a psychologist.  I talked about my problems and my feelings and I cried a lot.  So what was his ultimate recommendation? To ignore the people making fun of me; better yet, I should pretend they are lab monkeys and I was a scientist doing experiments on them and that it should then make me laugh to imagine them as monkeys.

Pardon me?

My parents were paying him to tell me to ignore my peers and pretend they were monkeys? I knew that wasn’t going to make them stop. I eventually told my parents the psychologist was making me uncomfortable and they didn’t make me go see him anymore.

In sixth grade I figured out something awesome: How to make people like me.  How did I do this? By helping them cheat on quizzes. Soon, with each quiz, they were looking to me for the answers, trusting me that I’d help them get a good grade.  I was suddenly “popular.” That all ended when our tables got switched around and one member of the group, who did not like this cheating, reported me to the teacher.  The teacher subsequently ridiculed me in front of the whole table and forced me to sit by myself when we took quizzes.

What about all the kids who cheated off of me? Were they not guilty? Once again, I was the problem. My attempts to get people to like me backfired and I ended up ostracizing myself, giving my classmates more reason to make fun of me.

Whether or not they actually were, my paranoia was telling me that they whispered to each other how I used to cheat so that they’d be my friends, to which they all just laughed and laughed at each other. I had approached my mom about transferring schools, thinking that it would be a good idea.  But somehow she was convinced and subsequently convinced me that middle school would be better and I should just stick it out.

So I did.

Middle school was different.  In fact, it was kind of strange.  7th grade was the year I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, an autoimmune disorder of the digestive system.   Because of that, I had specific needs, such as being able to leave class whenever I needed to use the bathroom, take snack breaks or go to the nurse. My teachers were given information about what I was going through and took an opportunity when I was out, to gather everyone in my team to explain what was going on so they would understand.  It turns out this understanding helped curb some of the ridicule and sneering I had gotten used to receiving.

Of course, there were hundreds of other students in the school who didn’t know what was going on, leaving me very vulnerable.  As part of my intensive medical treatment, I was put on a very high dosage of Prednisone, a medical steroid that, while a miracle drug, caused some pretty detrimental physical effects; these included moon face, a potbelly, and hair growing where it shouldn’t grow.

At 4 ft. 5 in., my body’s proportions were warped and I waddled slightly when I walked.  To my uninformed non-teammates, this was a perfect opportunity to imitate me: puffing out their cheeks and pulling on them or imitating the way I walked.  My only saving graces that year were my teachers, my best friend at the time, Laura, and the fact that I was constantly sick and therefore constantly absent from school.

By the time eighth grade rolled around, I was thankfully in remission, but no longer had my Crohn’s to protect me. I was back to being the last one picked, never having a table to sit at for lunch and never having anyone to hang out with after school.  My reputation apparently trickled down to the 7th grade and some of them were not afraid to express their opinions of me.

PE had just ended and I was walking behind three 7th grade girls, one of who had been one of my best friends only two years earlier.  One of the girls turned around, noticed me behind her and began singing, to the tune of a recently popular Ace of Base Song: “Don’t turn around, or you’ll see Amy Perlman” and they all began to laugh hysterically.  I spent the next class period hiding in the back of the school’s theater crying.

All the while, my friendship with Laura began to deteriorate.  She ridiculed everything I did, put me down, and made me feel the most worthless I have ever felt.  Of course, I was so desperate for her friendship that I put up with it. In hindsight, I don’t blame her for her behavior.  Being my friend was not quite working in her favor, and being 13, the last thing you want to do is purposefully alienate yourself from the chance to be popular.  In the end, I broke off the friendship, but she, being of a higher social class than I, convinced everyone she broke off the friendship with me and I believed she made up rumors about the weird things I did when we were friends.  I felt incredibly betrayed and snapped.

One February afternoon, after class had ended, I did my normal, hang-out-at-the-library-and-wait-for-my-mom-to-pick-me-up-so-I-could-avoid-riding-the-bus thing.  Something must have happened because I was trying to convince myself that I could endure this school and these people for three more years.  I was quick to decide I could not and immediately burst into tears when I got into my mom’s car.  This seemed to be enough to convince her that I really needed to transfer schools and thus began our search.

Unfortunately, it being February, most private schools had closed their admissions for the year.  Thankfully, we stumbled upon Princeton Day School, and I enrolled starting my sophomore year.  When I got there, I realized I did not know how to functionally socialize in a school environment. I was petrified of continuing to experience what I did in public school. Luckily, while there were a few incidences when my fears were realized that first year, high school became a period of healing.

I knew everything would change when I got to college. To help make sure that happened I decided I was going to go by the name Aviva instead of my legal given name of Amy. Why? Well, my thought process told me that going by Amy would give all the people I met access to the life I had before college, effectively ruining what I wanted to accomplish.  If I went by Aviva, well, that person didn’t exist.  I could start 100% over and be the person I wanted to be.  Just as I had hoped, I became that person.

Now: 

It has been almost 11 years since I first went by Aviva, testing the waters of possibility.  ­It hasn’t been an easy journey.  Even for the most resilient people, overcoming the psychological effects of bullying is not 100% possible.  I do consider myself one of the lucky ones, leading a happy life, surrounded by lots of friends, constantly with a smile on my face.  But beneath what often can feel like a veneer of this wonderful life, are scars and demons waiting to strip me down to what I once was before.

I often struggle with appreciating how far I have come, how vibrant my social life actually is and how much I really have going for me.  Instead, I get consumed with everything I seemingly don’t have and how I feel like I do not have the seemingly awesome type of life people broadcast on Facebook. I get saddened or anxious or depressed when I irrationally feel as if I am being left out of everything, that I am missing out on important social interactions, that I don’t have a solid clique of friends or that I am the only one sitting home by myself on a Saturday night one week.

This is all despite the fact that I may be IM’ing with a friend, who is clearly also sitting home on a Saturday night, or that I had Shabbat plans just the other day, that I had birthday parties to go to two weekends in a row, that I have a bachelorette party coming up, that I had coffee with a long time friend the other day.  There is no shortage of social plans.  But, the brain plays tricks on me and those tricks can be difficult to overcome.

For these reasons, one may find it interesting that I currently work in the high school division of a Manhattan Jewish Day School. The funny thing is, I love high school aged kids.  After working with them for the first time as a USY Advisor/Regional educator after I graduated college, I fell in love with them.  I knew this age group was ultimately the one I wanted to end up working with when I graduated Graduate School.

Who in their right mind would want to return to the setting that caused so much pain and anguish in their lives?

There are definitely the types of students towards whom I have a bit of an aversion.  While popular doesn’t really exist in this school, they are the popular prototype. They are the ones that would have been making fun of me, or putting me down, or at the very least, the ones around whom I would have felt self-conscious, potentially even worthless, if I were their peer.  When these kids are in my office, there is a little voice in the back of my head suspicious of their motives.  Are they really enjoying sitting and hanging out in my office? Do they actually value what I have to say to them?

I sometimes have a hard time putting my foot down when they aren’t doing what they are supposed to be doing because of the juvenile fear of what it might make them think of me. It is silly, I know, but their behavior transports me back in time and I regress to that self-conscious, timid, fearful girl I once was.   More often then not, this behavior and their attitudes simply frustrates me.  I want to sit them down and knock sense in to them, show them how ridiculous their behaviors are and ask them who they are trying to impress and what does acting the way they do accomplish? In these situations I have to take a deep breath and remind myself that I am the adult in the room and take it from there.

For the most part though, I find that my past experiences are making me better equipped for my job.  I recognize bits of my own personal character traits in many of my students, which helps me interact with them.  I can accurately assess what they need from me at a given moment, whether it’s simply attention or validation/recognition or whether they want advice or just want to vent.  I am overall more empathetic to the experiences they are going through. I become a person that my students enjoy being around and someone they can trust.

At the same time, being an educator, I realize how difficult it is to deal with every type of student.  The ones who are the most difficult are the ones with atypical social behavior, the ones who get bullied and/or ostracized, the ones who can’t really make friends.  To a certain degree, I forgive my teachers and how they dealt with my situation.

How do you deal with these situations without calling too much attention to the kids having problems? Kids are chosen as targets when they are different. You can’t flip a switch and change the behaviors and personality traits that turn other people away.  Sure, you can make those other kids more tolerant of such behaviors, as my 7th grade teachers did for me, but it is not a panacea nor is that easy.  My peers’ tolerance did not help me make friends. It just made 7th grade more bearable.

I am part of conversations about how we can help these students out and how we can handle the kids causing the grief.   But it’s hard.  It is hard to find a solution.  We can suspend the kids causing problems; arrange mediation; have assemblies about bullying and programs raising awareness about the language we use in the halls. We can pre-arrange groups during activities and field trips. I would like to think these things make some traction.  But I can’t say that any of them cause a seismic cultural shift.

My heart aches for these kids.  I know what they are going through.  I want to be able to tell them that high school doesn’t matter, that it should get better.  But, I don’t say these things because I never appreciated when I received those words of “encouragement.” Middle/High School does matter because it’s now; things should be better now. I don’t want to have to wait until this supposedly later comes.  I’ve been dealing this for years, isn’t it later yet?

Admittedly, I often leave these kids to their own devices, which may not be what I should be doing. It is partially because I don’t know what to do with them since they aren’t good conversationalists. But it is partially because, in their own ways, they reflect back bits and pieces of the person I have tried so hard to get away from. It becomes painful to recognize behaviors I exhibited, behaviors that may have contributed to my adolescent lot.  But really I should try to say hi to them in the halls more often, compliment them if they are exhibiting a talent of theirs such as art, give more weight to their contributions to group discussions or make sure they know there are lollipops for them in my office.

I am not sure what kind of impact it would make.  Sure, knowing you have an adult on your side is always a plus, but it’s not the same thing as a friend. Instead, I can look at them and hope that some day they will grow into themselves or find that group of people or even that one other person that gets them, that they find that hobby or job that makes them incredibly happy.  I can hope that things do get better and they too will one day be sitting on their couch on a Saturday night, quickly wrapping up their story about being bullied and spectacularly overcoming adversity because their friend just IM’d them asking them to get Pinkberry.

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