Recently I wrote about my teen daughter and how she thought life was hard now but would realize down the road that she didn’t have it so bad. I had to rethink that. After hearing a lot of people talking about it, I finally watched the show 13 Reasons Why. I have to admit that I was expecting it to be an overdone teen drama with bad acting. But I still wanted to see what all the fuss was about. What I wasn’t prepared for was the way it broke my heart in two. Maybe being a teenager is harder than I thought.
Going into high school I was as dorky as they come. I had unkempt hair, didn’t care for makeup, and had the world’s worst glasses. They were very thick and a sort of blonde color that perfectly matched my hair. My best friend and I, who had grown up together since we were six, had wild imaginations. We loved to play in the fields surrounding my house, or in the decrepit barn on our property. We read Nancy Drew and sat in her front yard writing stories of our own. She introduced me to the wonders of Anne of Green Gables and black and white movies. We were young, carefree, typical youth who stayed up too late watching movies that scared the cheese out of us and talking about cute boys from church.
Prior to high school we were both home-schooled and in many ways pretty sheltered from the realities of the world. Our older sisters, who entered high school one year before us, decided to go to a private school in the next town. I don’t know exactly what drove the decision. But when given the opportunity to go to the local high school, or the private one, we chose to follow in our sister’s footsteps.
Imagine two girls with bad hair and glasses, no makeup and little sense of style. Did I mention that we also grew up poor? Dirt poor at times. We had both been working for years at that point and before entering high school had bought our own clothes, trying to keep up with the times as much as possible. We had the acid washed jeans and the jeans with a zipper on the back with a little bow on top. We had those awful matching long knit sweaters and skirts, and wore knock off Keds. Needless to say, we were just starting to have a sense of wanting to look cute and be liked.
We both fell in with a group of girls who were much like us. They never made fun of our fashion choices or bad glasses. I had my first high school crush and many to follow, much like my best friend. What I wasn’t prepared for was the bullying when it came. How does one really prepare for that.
I don’t remember all of the specifics, it doesn’t matter anyway. But I do remember the humiliation. The way boys in class made fun of my clothes or threw things at me when I walked by in the hallways. Once a boy threw something at my head and when I reached back to see what it was, found that I had gum stuck to my hair. My friend had to disentangle it in class. In front of everyone. And the teacher.
It was a small school, around 300 students for all 4 grades, so things spread fast. Somehow, someone would pick a “name” for me, and would spread it around campus. The only name I remember is “Gap”, chosen because of the wide space between my two front teeth (which, by the way, I was already painfully aware of and smiled with my mouth closed to cover it up. So thanks for pointing it out.) I would be walking around campus and somebody would call out, “Hey gap!” Mostly it was people I didn’t even know and often it was senior boys. It was humiliating. Kids would openly poke fun of me in class while the teacher’s would look on and say nothing. Not once.
I hadn’t done anything spectacularly embarrassing to bring on the teasing. I was just a great target. I was a dork, my clothes weren’t expensive and, more importantly, I wasn’t a part of any special clique. It’s funny, I could have been a dork but run track and I might have been immune. The system is pretty messed up.
My mom was working extra hours to send me and my sister to a private school. It was not cheap. And it was a religious school that had Bible class and chapel once a week. We were taught about love and acceptance. But no one stepped in and made sure that I, as a part of that community, was actually feeling loved or accepted.
I realize now the ironic thing about teenagers. Teens push adults away. They make adults feel stupid and unnecessary. But deep inside they’re still looking for adults to be their heroes. To step in when they’re over their head and give them a way out, or to stop the cycle of bad things that are happening. They really do need us.
I entered high school innocent, believing the best in people, and just wanting to have a regular high school experience. After two years I was so broken down that I finally switched schools. (I can’t believe I stuck it out two years.) The tipping point was when my mom realized I was crying every day after school. She set up a meeting with the school principal and I went with her. I explained what was happening and she put in her two cents. He sat there listening and then this is what he said, “Parents pay a lot of money to have their kids come to this school so there’s really nothing I can do.” Nothing he could do??? I’m sorry but WTF?? This man was the head over the school. A man responsible for setting the tone of the school and caring for the souls who attended. It was the last straw.
Thankfully, I had an entirely different experience at the public school I attended next. Thankfully social media didn’t exist then, so my humiliation could only spread so far. Thankfully I had parents who were attentive and loving and didn’t make light of my suffering. But that’s not always the case.
13 Reasons Why is about a girl who commits suicide and leaves behind taped messages telling people why she did it and all the things that contributed to her decision. The show deals with bullying and sexual harassment, social media and a multitude of other things that teens have to face. I was crushed after watching it. I cried for all the high school students I see every day who may be experiencing soul crushing experiences daily. Who just want some adult to step in and be their savior. To put an end to whatever hard thing they’re facing.
I was lucky to be able to change schools and make good friends and move on. But I was left with scars. I know we are all affected by a multitude of things over a lifetime. I know that we can never blame just one incident for the way we turn out. But, I wonder if the messages I received during those years when I wanted to be seen and loved and accepted left an imprint that let me believe that I was stupid or ugly or unlovable. That my worth was based on surface things alone. I wonder if it affected the man I chose to marry or the way I let him treat me poorly for way too long. I don’t know.
The things we go through mold us and change us. If you’re in your teens, please know that this stage is not forever. Reach out to people who love you and be honest about what life is like for you. Life will get better but you have to be around to see it happen. You matter and your life affects more people than you can comprehend right now.
If you’re an adult reading this, take what teens experience seriously. You might be their last cry for help. Social media allows all sorts of cruelty to bombard kids all day long. It’s exhausting and can make anyone feel like the world is just too much. Step in when you see someone being a bully or inciting hatred towards someone else. Check in with your kids or the kids in your life frequently. Do some digging if you feel like something isn’t right. We’ve all needed someone to be a hero for us at some point. Maybe today you get to be the hero.