I was bullied in the seventh grade—for wearing glasses, for being a nerd, for generally being as uncool as a 12-year-old girl could ever possibly be.
To this day, I don’t remember the specifics of the taunts, but I remember the threats of physical violence and the stomach-pain-inducing misery and headaches.
It damaged my self-esteem and, as I spent class after class in the school nurse’s office, chipped away at my grade point average.
Still, though I remember that junior-high year as a special kind of hell, I mostly survived the bullying with my dignity intact—as did many of my friends and classmates who withstood similar abuses.
I wish I could say that I, in turn, was never cruel to a classmate. Although I never threatened violence, I was, on more than one occasion, unkind—mean, even.
Somewhere along the way, however, I learned the hard way about karma and the invaluable worth of human decency, which is why it breaks my heart every time I read another story about a young person committing suicide in the wake of incessant bullying.
Some of these teens were gay, some were straight, but as part of the Internet Generation, all were subjected to the kind of cruelty and humiliation my 12-year-old self could have never imagined. Humiliating pictures and videos posted on YouTube, threats sent via text, nasty comments popping up on Facebook for everyone to see.
Phoebe Prince. Billy Lucas and Tyler Clementi. These are just a few of the names that have made headlines in the last year.
Prince, 15, killed herself following relentless taunting from classmates, who called her a whore and a slut because of the boy she dated.
Billy Lucas, 15, hanged himself after classmates called him a fag.
Tyler Clementi, 18, jumped off the George Washington Bridge after two of his Rutgers University classmates secretly videotaped him having sex with another man in his dorm—and posted the video online.
Prince, Lucas and Clementi are just a few of the stark reminders we have that words can be just as harmful as fists and weapons.
I think of that every time I log on to Facebook and see someone jokingly refer to something or someone as “gay.”
I think of that every time I overhear a friend laughingly call someone a fag.
I don’t know how many times I’ve witnessed such talk—from well-meaning, kind people, from people who recoil at the notion of bullying someone based on his or her sexual preference and from people who wouldn’t dream of stigmatizing a young woman simply because she dated the wrong boy.
If there’s any good to come of this, it’s that, finally, people are starting to realize the damage such seemingly frivolous talk can cause.
On Friday, Universal Pictures pulled an ad for its movie, The Dilemma, in which Vince Vaughn uses the word “gay” as a slur.
Here’s hoping director Ron Howard actually steps in and cuts the scene altogether. It’s not about censorship; it’s about basic civility.
In the past, I’ve let it go, but now every time I see a story about another young person who, bullied to the point of despair, takes his or her own life, I can’t imagine ever again letting it go. I can’t imagine ever saying something that would cause another person to feel like a misfit—to feel as though their still-developing identity is one that’s scrutinized, mocked or judged.
Think about what you—and your friends—say. This doesn’t mean turning into a sanctimonious, preachy bore. It simply means remembering that words can be weapons, but they can also be instruments of kindness, compassion and respect.