An open letter to Richard Armitage @RCArmitage and CybersmileFoundation @CybersmileHQ
So. Here I am, finding my voice. It is not something that is in my comfort zone. Being an only child and an introvert and a quiet person by nature, not sharing my inner voice with strangers is a way of life. As a librarian, I will gladly spend hours hunting down obscure points of historical reference, and will gladly shut my office door and hand over chocolate and boxes of tissues to teenage girls traumatized by Kili not getting his elf (Student: He died!” Me: “Now you are ready for George R. R. Martin), or students who have been kicked to the curb by their “families”. But speak to strangers? Whom I don’t entirely trust? About something I’ve never shared with anyone? Oh, brave new world.
Mr. Armitage, if you happen to read this, (and you probably won’t), in order to have street cred with young adults, you usually have to share the details. Lord knows, they share everything and they share it everywhere. They overshare, but it is their particular currency.
In your essay you asked “….how do you know this is even me, RA?” You were referring to the possibility that you might be an internet imposter, but I am refering to the writing. I know because it is your authentic voice. It is not an overly polished, publicist-crafted piece of celebrity writing. It has flaws. It is interesting, and as a teacher, I hope you do more of it, because people have already listened to, and more importantly, acted upon your words. You are writing from a place of service and kindness, I think, and the world needs more of that.
So. My turn.
Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness. – Maya Angelou
With apologies to Ms. Angelou, books were mine. I crawled into the space between the words to curl my back to my peers as a child. Music came later, but books were always the refuge. As an adult, if you want to be invisible, be a fat adult. No one will see you (It’s magic!). But if you are a child? Everyone will point it out to you, and few of them will be kind. Let’s face it. There was no such thing as a cool geek in the early 70’s. If you were a dorky, bookish fat kid who liked Star Trek and Star Wars and spent more time making friends with other people’s pets instead of other people’s kids, you were a weird little target.
“….back to acting, it’s taken me a long time to shake off the effects of bullying in school. That people were always laughing behind my back. I was always looking out of the corner of my eye. I now have incredible peripheral vision which is so useful” – Richard Armitage
I identify with that peripheral vision thing. With me its peripheral hearing. Mark Knopfler* could be standing in front of me playing a song – painting wonderful cinematic imagery with words and music – that he wrote just for me, and I? I would be listening to the conversations at every table around me, waiting for the mocking and mean spirited comments to begin. Disbelieving. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. If peripheral hearing weren’t so awful it would almost be a superpower.
What was directed at me, however, was not the worst thing that happened to me, and it is not the experience I remember the most. Oddly enough, I have a hard time remembering specific incidents directed at me. A few, yes, but mostly I remember how they collectively made me feel. Metaphorically speaking, when I go out into the world today, I still suit up in emotional battle armor because of those feelings. The worst thing I remember most about those years, in vivid detail, was the one time I joined in with bullying a classmate. Vivid detail.
One time can change your life forever, and I joined in. Why? Because just that once I was so grateful that I wasn’t the target. If I joined in, just that once, maybe “they” would leave me alone. Instead, 43 years later, I still remember the look of hurt and misery in Donna White’s eyes as we teased her while she walked into Mr. Sommerville’s 4th grade math class on the second floor of Manitou Springs Elementary School. It was a rainy day. We were lined up on both sides of the classroom door waiting for her. Mr. S had ducked down the hall to refill his coffee cup before class started instead of keeping an eye on what was happening at his door. It’s funny how one moment of meanness will stay with you for decades – maybe even a lifetime. I can’t answer that yet.
I don’t know if Donna remembers it, but I do, and if I could find her I would profoundly apologize. Why had we singled her out? I can’t remember, but whatever it was, it was uncalled for. It was unjust. It was mean. I was mean. (Also, it didn’t work because I was back to being one of the nameless, faceless targets by the end of the day. Karma at work.)
The point is that both ends of the bully spectrum leave you feeling not worthy enough, not listened to, and invisible, but if you work at it, if you endure, it will also give you a kind of wisdom that can only be earned through that kind of rejection. Those of you who have been bullied take solace that at least some of the bullies will remember what they have done, and some of them will regret it. Quite a few of them will grow into decent human beings. (The rest of them are probably Internet trolls or syndicated radio talk show hosts.)
Let’s pivot to my comfort zone: books. Libraries became a refuge, a survival skill, and much later a career. Think about it. They are the gateway to everything mankind has ever written or created. Everything. That, to me is a wonderful thing. They are playgrounds for the eternally curious, and most importantly, in schools, they are havens for those kids who have no other place to go. They are a ship of safety in some very rough adolescent waters.
The world of young adult fiction, in particular, has grown less fearless in dealing with complex subjects like bullying over the years, and there are some really great books on the subject out there.
There is a faction of our society that seeks to protect young people from uncomfortable issues by censoring what students read. As a librarian, if a parent comes to me and says not to check out a specific book to their child, I am fine with it. That’s their job. They are being a parent. If that same parent, however, comes to me and demands that same book be removed from the shelf so that no one else’s child can read it, I have a problem. That is self appointed censorship, and that kind of censorship removes the opportunity for other parents to have important discussions about controversial issues with their own children. More importantly, it removes a safe place (the book) for students to deal with frightening and frequently taboo subjects (such as bullying, child abuse, sex, drugs, racism, etc.). Books that deal with uncomfortable subjects are valuable. Young people (and old ones, too) get to practice dealing with issues, feelings, and situations that they will inevitably encounter in real life from within the safe confines of the book. Reading about how someone else deals with the same situation you are facing makes walking through that real life fire a little bit easier.
With that in mind, here are a three recommendations:
Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes** by Chris Crutcher
Bullies come in all forms. Sometimes they are your peers, sometimes they are your parents, and once in a great while, they become your allies. This book is an honest, riveting look at the outcasts in middle and high school society. It also has, in my opinion, one of the most vividly horrific characters in all of young adult literature. It needs to be made into a movie. Also, I would read absolutely anything Chris Crutcher wrote.
13 Reasons Why** by Jay Asher
Hannah Baker committed suicide, but before she did she sent cassette tapes to thirteen different people telling each of them how their actions – or inactions – contributed to her suicide. This is a deeply moving story about desperation, choices, and consequences.
Tease by Amanda Maciel
Sara Wharton is a remorseless, self-centered high school student who is criminally charged for bullying and harassment after the suicide of a classmate. She is forced to look at how her actions contributed to the tragedy. It is difficult to find anything likable about this character and to me that made her real: I rarely find mean people to be warm and cuddly, and certain teenage girls can take viciousness to breathtaking heights. Every school has them. At the time I read this book, one of our local students had committed suicide because of bullying by her peers, so this book really hit home. This genre of book is rarely told from the bully’s perspective.
Finally, if you are a young adult reading this, and are dealing with this issue, know that life gets so much better once you get out of high school! It really does! If you are a target at school, tell someone: a teacher, a counselor, a pastor, your parents, your best friend’s parents, the police if need be. If they don’t listen, keep telling until someone does- because someone will listen. You have more allies than you think you do. Life will get better.
*Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. Google him, kids. He’s my musical crush of several decades and the patron saint of jaded urban romantics. I hear you rolling your eyes at the thought of 80’s music, but have a listen to him anyway and tell me you can’t picture yourself watching your unobtainable crush walking away from you in the neon glow of those carnival lights. Go on. Listen. http://open.spotify.com/track/06ku5BBS2HufqSDVkcSR15
** A friendly public service announcement from your friendly, slightly subversive librarian: Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes and 13 Reasons Why have both made the American Library Association’s list of Frequently Banned and Challenged Books. This means lots of somebodies think the ideas in those books are dangerous, which in turn means they are juicy and worth reading. If an adult wants a book taken off of a school library shelf, read it!
*** On the off chance that you are reading this, RA, Spiegel im Spiegel really was quite nice. The instrumentation reminds me of Northbound Train from North & South. You might like Benedictus by Karl Jenkins. I find it exquisite. This is the 2 Cellos version since I’ve read that the cello is your instrument of choice. http://open.spotify.com/track/6wXWzOIf6gOnyqJMT3VZah