No victim of bullying will ever be the last, but no victim is alone.
Adults finally speak out against their childhood abuse.
I've received literally thousands of comments from various people about the first article I wrote, though only four on the website itself. The majority were friends and strangers all over Facebook in the various redhead groups I'm a member of. Many people say that the bullying and abuse is what made them strong, and while I believe that, I've also learned a valuable lesson in this wide spread form of communication with people willing to talk about their childhood abuse from family, friend and foe. The biggest lesson of course is that we are not alone in our suffering.
After hearing so many stories of those who had battled their bullies, and both won or lost those fights, I knew I needed to share a few select stories with those who previously had felt so alone in their wanderings. No bully will ever be the only one, and no victim will ever be the last. I asked a few different people if they wouldn't mind my interviewing them, and almost all of them jumped at the chance to just be heard.
George started out by telling me that he was honored to be asked for his opinion and experience, but also expressed his disbelief that anyone would benefit from his personal experience. He started to be bullied at such a young age that he can't actively recall how old he was. George didn't get bullied by the neighborhood children that he could remember, but once school started and he was enrolled in kindergarten, things started going downhill. He'd always been an introvert, even in childhood, enjoying quiet time to draw. The kids began to pick on the quiet boy with red hair, but when he moved between first and second grades, things got significantly worse.
His mother always told him to never fight, and to always walk away, but not to run. I immediately identified with George, as that was how I dealt with the bullying myself. I was told that I was never to start a fight, but if someone else started it I was to end it. However, I was significantly smaller than every other child in school. I knew better than to swing back. I did what George did, and we both paid dearly for it. On the final day of sixth grade, a massive group of children took turns punching, kicking and tripping George as he walked away. The assault continued for no less than a half mile before a friend's mother spotted what was happening and stopped her car to give him a ride.
Things got better over that summer for George.George worked that summer on his Grandfather's farm where he worked baling hay and cleaning stalls as a general laborer. It was great exercise and he grew six inches in one summer. By the time school started back, not only was he one of the bigger kids in the seventh grade, but he was much stronger too. It still didn't stop the others from bullying though. The first one happened on only the second day of school.
"At the beginning of class he sat down with a freshly sharpened pencil, poked me in the shoulder with it and asked me if it was sharp enough," George told me in an interview. He told the kid that it was certainly sharp enough, of course. "He then poked me again and asked how sharp it was and, knowing the game, I decided to just ignore him. After poking me several times and getting no response, he plunged the pencil into my shoulder and broke the tip off! I still carry that pencil lead and you can still see the black mark on my shoulder over 40 years later." At that, George lost his temper, spun around in his desk, slamming the desk across the room, and grabbed the kid by his shirt collar and belt. He started spinning the kid the way he'd learned to do with the hay bales on the farm over the summer and, as George put it, "I threw him just like a hay bale. He cleared three rows of students before crashing into the wall and sliding down." The kids desk hit the chalkboard at the front of the class. Still the kid came back for more, and George pinned him to the ground. By the time anyone was able to break them up, George was pummeling the kid without mercy. They were both escorted to the principal's office, and the assistant principal called George's mother. When she was told about the fight, she asked how badly George had been injured. The silence was deafening. Finally the assistant principal responded that George wouldn't have to worry about that anymore. There were 27 more fights in school for which he was sent to the principal's office that year alone, and counting the ones outside of school was impossible, but George never lost a single one and was never beat up again.
But they just kept coming.
How did the bullying in your childhood help to form you?"I do not know how it formed or changed me," George admitted to me. He didn't know any other way of life so he had no idea if the bullying had transformed his personality away from being who he would have otherwise been. He was still an introvert who was selective about who he interacted with, and he still enjoyed his quiet time. But George did have something positive to say about his excessive bullying. "Compared to my friends who were not bullied, I am probably less influenced by peer pressure and more independent."
"I do have some physical problems from so much fighting; aches and pains from long forgotten injuries mostly. " George admitted to me that he never had a girlfriend growing up. The girls just didn't want anything to do with him. "Not only was I different with my bright red hair and pale skin, but I'm shorter than most guys." The growth spurt between sixth and seventh grades was his last one, landing him at 5'6" in total height. "It was never safe [for the girls] to be around me in school because I was always subject to being attacked at random, all the way through high school and even into my early twenties." George also admits that he spent a lot of time on his own in detention for fighting, which kept him from being a part of many activities. "I went out for sports and excelled at them, making the Junior High varsity football team in seventh grade and setting multiple records for distance running in track. Because I was so determined to prove myself, I worked harder than anyone else. In track, the coach offered everyone t-shirts for each 50 miles they ran in practice during the season. I was the only person on the team to earn a 200 mile shirt. On the football team, whenever the coach asked for someone to go against the biggest, most aggressive players in the school, I was the only one who volunteered even though they were almost twice my weight and significantly taller." George, unbeknownst to him, might not have grown in height, but he certainly grew in bravery. Sadly, that bravery didn't last.
"I always liked learning," he further admits. "In spite of the bullying, I was in advanced programs for reading, math, science, and was one of the first kids picked to learn how to program computers. The bullying and fighting made taking materials home to do homework all but impossible because they were regularly being kicked out of my hands, vandalized and/or stolen." His school work started to suffer and George failed algebra after multiple missed homework assignments. His test scores were still always among the highest in class.
By the 10th grade, George's body was feeling the effects of continually trying to prove himself in sports and in fights. Agonizing pain shot through his knees with every step and the orthopedic surgeon said he couldn't walk to school anymore, much less play sports. Between having to repeat algebra and quit sports was more than he could deal with. He started drinking alcohol heavily before school with a friend who would give him a ride. George went from being one of the brightest students in school to absolutely hating the necessity of being there. He barely graduated with a 1.6 gpa.
George, if you could go back and give advice to your younger self, what would you say?"Get used to it, life is not fair for anyone, though the fist-fighting will eventually end, you will have to struggle for anything you want that is good. If you are different, you will always be singled out and treated differently. I am not only a short, pale-skinned redhead, I also suffered some significant injuries [early on] that left me partially disabled and on top of it. As such I have never been accepted as more than a friend by females, have never had a girlfriend. I have also been passed over for jobs repeatedly for unexplained reasons, undoubtedly at least partly because of my being different."
Jonathan had a story nobody was prepared for.His voice was a bit shaky as he carefully selected each word, pausing to make sure that he pronounced things clearly. I knew right away that he was highly intelligent, but his speech patterns indicated he'd been affected by something I couldn't see through the phone lines. What he told me next left me speechless.
"Are you familiar with Autism?" My mouth hung open. No wonder Jonathan had a hard time in his youth, I thought. I knew a little bit of his story already, but I knew the rest of the world needed to know. "It became a lot easier to diagnose people with it now. I think if I wasn't autistic I would have been bullied anyway because I was a redhead. Someone probably did do something bad when I was younger because they had plenty of things to pick on. I was also Jewish. All of those things together just made it easier for them. It started in Jr. High when I would get tackled every day. People would make me drop my text books. We weren't allowed to carry backpacks and the principal wouldn't let me even though I got tackled and lost my books every day. I would miss the bus home and my parents started having to pick me up at school." Jonathan paused a moment, remembering what all he had been through, wanting very much to have me understand his plight.
There had been a group at my school who were called "The Walkers" who would walk the halls at lunch time. They were mostly football players. They taught me some 'textbook control tactics' and helped me to keep a better hold on my books. It was about a month and a half before I figured out how to hold onto my books like they taught me." Jonathan laughed at this memory, but that laugh was filled with sadness. They were the only people, in all the years of bullying that he endured, who ever stopped to help him in any way.
"I guess the main thing was when I was in college. The episode of South Park came out in my Jr year of college. There were other groups making fun of redheads around the same time and I think the 5th or 6th Harry Potter book came out around then, too. All of a sudden people would start clubbing me with the Harry Potter books. I guess bullying just happens as a kid, but in college it got worse."
Jonathan tried to find help, but help never came.Most people didn't believe me. I was usually bullied when I was by myself. I took night classes in astronomy at college. People would come up from behind and start slamming me into trees, slamming my head. I got concussions. They would kick my ribs and all kinds of other 'weird' stuff. I usually didn't ever see them. They always attacked from behind when it was dark. I have no idea how many there were or anything like that but there were a lot of them. Two or three years later people probably would have taken video of it, but at the time that just wasn't a thing. Nobody ever came to help me. I'm not sure.... I think every person who was around when it happened were all a part of it. Some people even said I deserved it and they'd laugh at it. There was a time where a campus police officer may have been a witness. I told him what happened and he just started laughing. Nobody helped me."
"I told my family a little about what happened but people just can't seem to believe that kind of stuff would happen. They've been helpful with a lot of the more recent stuff, like my mom lets me work at her store whenever I'm healthy enough to work, and my parents let me live with them. Which is good because I have brain damage that I thought I was over. [The symptoms] seemed to leave and there were a number of years where I was sick all the time and never seemed to get over all of it. I eventually did get better, but I do still get sick. All of 2009 through 2017 I was in bed except a short period of time when I worked for the census. In 2012 I finally went back to college part time to get a degree in actuarial maps. My first degree was for physics. I thought maybe the new degree was something I could use. I seemed to be healthier for a number of years and last year I was about to get a really good job but my health got in the way. Not only did I not get the job, but some doctors think I may die of a degenerative neurological disorder, possibly from all the clubbing." I was starting to tear up. This genuinely nice man had suffered so much at the hands of so many only to be faced with a death sentence so early in life. I wanted to reach through the phone and hug him. I wanted to hold his hand and tell him that he'd be okay. I desperately wanted him to know that he was loved.
Jonathan's life was changed forever from the bullyingWhen I asked if he thought he'd be a different person if he hadn't been bullied, he paused for a long moment. "Well, ... um... I think that if I had been able to process and talk more to people when I was younger I might be able to get along better with people and it may have helped with social skills. It's very hard to trust people, especially people who aren't also a redhead." I smiled. Jonathan didn't talk about all of this with just anyone, and though I was a virtual stranger, he trusted me because of my red hair. "I'm trying to think of what to say. If I could go back and give myself advice, I think that the reason .... I think the reason I didn't take time away from college in the middle of my Jr. or Sr. year when things were the worst was because I thought if I didn't do it in four years I'd never get it done. I'd tell myself to get healthy again. I kept praying and I was avoiding going to the doctor. I should have trusted people more than I did."
We survived because we were strong.Strength isn't something that can be taught in a book. It's not a lesson we can pick up from hearing someone else's stories. Strength, in many ways, is a decision we have to make to continue on; to survive against all odds. We each got through our bullying because we were strong to begin with. Perhaps we just hadn't tapped into that strength yet. The things we went through didn't make us strong. They just made us wise.
The things we went through may have shaped us, but we alone made us strong.
And that, dear friends, is the mark of a true, strong REDHEAD.