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July 10, 2012

It takes everyone to put an end to bullying

Managing editor Misty Poe shares her own encounter with a bully and how it impacted her life

As an Army brat, I always considered myself a professional “new kid.”

New schools. New neighborhoods. New friends.

Every three years or so, we moved to a new post or a new state. I never griped much about moving. The “newness” of it all was far too exciting. I would have a new bedroom. Sure, I’d have to share it with a sibling, but it would be all new. There would be new places to play and to explore. And there would certainly be new people to meet and make friends with.

It isn’t very hard when you’re used to it. And my mother was so great about making sure that we kids understood what came to almost be a family motto — “Home is Wherever We Are.” And it was. We moved to new houses. We took our “home” with us everywhere we went.

Starting a new school was always so exciting for me. I got to have the “first” day of school more often than other kids. Even if my clothes weren’t new, no one would know. They would be “new” to everyone I met.

And when you’re bouncing from Army post to Army post, you run into other professional new kids. So making friends fast is commonplace. It doesn’t take long to settle in at all with the right attitude.

I have so many fond memories of “new” places, “new” faces, “new” schools, “new” friends.

But I have one not-so-fond memory that seems to have come back to haunt me in recent weeks after a national news story about a New York bus aide being bullied by teenagers.

Dad moved us to upstate New York in the middle of a school year for a new assignment. My brother Ty and I, who were always just a grade apart in school, would actually end up being in separate schools for the rest of the year. I would be in the middle school and he would be down a very long and twisty hallway in the high school. But we rode the bus together each morning and each afternoon.

On our first or second bus ride, two boys behind me thought it would be funny to pull my long, frizzy hair as I watched the snowy landscape out the frosted-over windows. Ty was sitting next to me with his head tilted back and his eyes closed — a very long bus commute meant he woke up earlier than he wanted to in the morning. I didn’t feel like bothering him. So I just put up with it, never turning my head to look at the offender or to even acknowledge that my hair was being pulled and they were giggling like girls behind me.

After about 10 agonizing minutes, I saw Ty move lightning fast and grab one of the offender’s hand mid-pull. In a very scary voice, deeper than I’d ever heard, Ty said, “Don’t ever touch my sister again.” My hair was spared for the rest of the bus trip. And Ty and I never spoke of the incident.

I instantly didn’t feel good about this “new” place and this “new” bus route and this “new” school. But I put on my brave face and made it through the rest of the day and the next and the next.

Until one day when Ty wasn’t there on the bus. I don’t know if he had an after-school activity, an appointment or was sick that day, but he wasn’t next to me on the very long ride home. And the hair pullers took advantage of my situation.

One in particular, Pierre, wouldn’t let me be. I’m not changing the name to protect anyone — I’m pretty sure he was half French. He incessantly teased me all the way home — from my pimply face to my freckles to my glasses to my “bobo” shoes — a ’90s way of criticizing off-brand apparel. Much like the ride a few days before, I did my best to ignore the nonstop assault of words. But everybody has a breaking point. He had an audience, which became pretty enthusiastic about his performance and began to egg him on. It only made the teasing worse.

I sat quietly with tears brimming on my lids — the kind you can almost hide if you look up and gently blink. One last dart — and I don’t remember what it was he even said — made the dam of will power bust apart and tears began to freely flow behind the green glasses I used to think were so cool onto my freckly cheeks, which I never thought were cool at all.

Very soon after that, Pierre got off the bus. A few stops later, I did, too. I did my best to wipe away the tears so my mom wouldn’t see me crying. It had been a pretty tough move on the family. We’d been without housing longer than expected. Our furniture was delayed. And in the middle of it all, she broke her kneecap. I might have just gone upstairs to my room to hang out with the only “friends” I had in New York — books.

For months, whether Ty was at my side or not, I dreaded that bus. When I saw it coming, I knew Pierre would be on it. And for months, he never said anything to me. My hair was never pulled. But it didn’t make me dread that bus ride any less. I could just look at Pierre — through the corner of my eye because making eye contact would surely bring on another assault — and feel just as bad as I had that one afternoon. My eyes would well up with tears. My stomach would sink. I would feel lousy about myself and this move, which was supposed to be new and exciting but ended up being snow covered and gloomy.

In Northern New York, it’s not just the buds on the trees and the blades of green grass that appear in springtime. People start going outside again as the snow drifts melt away and the weather turns from unbearable cold to warm and breezy. I watched clusters of kids gather after school from my second-story window, hesitant to even try to make new friends. I kept my nose in books because books don’t make fun of you on the school bus.

Probably tired of being indoors after a long winter, or urged to find some kind of occupation by my mother, I decided to go outside and clean out the flower bed in front of the house one afternoon. I got on my hands and knees, yanking the dead plants and weeds out and banging them against the side of the brick wall under the window to loosen the dirt clumps. I made it through about half the bed before I could hear familiar voices close by — the ones I heard on the school bus every day but never talked to.

I heard laughs that I was sure were aimed toward me. But I kept on working even though that sick feeling in my stomach was making it hard to concentrate. At some point, a neighborhood boy walked up behind me and asked what I was doing.

“Pulling out the weeds and dead plants,” I said, avoiding eye contact.

“How come?” he asked.

“So I can plant flowers,” I said, just waiting for the teasing to come.

“Do you know how to plant flowers?” he asked.

“Yeah, I guess. My grandpa always let me help him,” I explained.

Though I braced for barbs, the conversation just kind of went along that course for a while, and before I knew it, there were several kids hanging out in my front yard, watching me weed a flower bed. Before too long, they became those “fast” friends that I was used to making move after move.

I kind of hate that I let myself hide for six months because of one incident. It wasn’t the first or the last time I’d been teased or picked on. I don’t know what to blame that vulnerability on. I just know that it all came rushing back to me reading the story of Karen Kline, the bus aide tormented to tears. I know what it’s like to sit there and put up with it. I know what it’s like to have the tears fall, even when you’ve done everything to stop them. I know what it’s like to never want to get on a bus again.

My story didn’t make it on national TV, but my story is one of the millions that will hopefully be heard in unison in one resounding statement — stop bullying now. Wherever you see it, stop it. Wherever it could be, prevent it. If it’s happening to you, tell someone. If it’s happening to a peer, seek help.

One cruel kid on a bus can crush a kid’s self esteem. Just one kid.

But it’s going to take everyone — from administrators to teachers to school personnel to parents to kids to the community — to make it stop.

I highly recommend logging on to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ website www.stopbullying.gov, which offers resources, strategies, interactive videos for children, links, activities and a wealth of information every teacher or parent can share with children. I spend a lot of time with the site, hoping to use some information or activities with my own children.

Why? Because I never want them to feel like that girl I was on the school bus. And I never want them to feel like they have to be that boy on the school bus, either.

Email Misty Poe at mpoe@timeswv.com or follow her on Twitter @MistyPoeTWV.

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