I want you all to know that the three years I spent inside the walls of our high school shaped who I am forever. I want you to know that those three days in May of our senior year that I came back to town shaped me just as much. Every year, I share an article about the lifelong effects bullying can have on someone. Every year I hope you all read it and realize I’m probably talking to you.
It wasn’t one single act of bullying that I’m talking about, but more a way of life in the school. It was the way many of you acted like I thought I was better than you just because I dared to care about learning. Or the way I was only good enough for some of you to invite over for a school project but never good enough to stay for the party after the work was over. Or the way one person intentionally went out of her way to critique my clothing choices because I dared to wear what made me happy instead of something with a huge seagull on the front.
All I wanted was to be myself, and it never ceases to amaze me that who I was just wasn’t okay with you. I know I held my head high and I still answered questions in class. But did you ever stop to think that I did those things because the other alternative was to let you see how hurt I was, to cry?
To this day, I second guess the motives of anyone who tries to be my friend and I have anxiety about going to new and crowded places because they remind me of the jungle that was the high school hallway. I have to prepare more than necessary to get in front of a group of peers because I know the reality of true rejection. Up until the day my mom died, she would put all bad days into perspective for me by saying, “Olivia, is this day really worse than the day you got booed at your own graduation?”
You know, the day I found out that you all planned to clap through my part of the valedictorian speech, my dad said something that made me realize just how thankful I was that high school was over. He said that it wasn’t a big deal if you all didn’t want to be my friends. With that statement, I agreed. However, my response to him was, “It’s not that they don’t want to be my friends, but that they go out of their way to make my life worse.”
Please just let that sink in and sit with who you are today.
So you were going to clap, and I could have just backed out of the whole thing. But I didn’t want to be run out of my own celebration, so I stood my ground. Now…I want you to imagine standing up in front of hundreds of people, many of whom have known you since preschool or even earlier, and none of them wanting to hear what you have to say. Imagine they say mean things; they intentionally want to hurt you so you’ll go away. How would that feel?
Instead of celebrating my high school graduation, I just prayed I was able to get through that day without crying.
To this day, I still pray for all of you. I pray that you have become better people than you were in high school and that you think about how your actions affect others. I pray you have found someone who shows you what love is. Above all else, I pray for the small humans whose minds many of you are molding, that you will teach them compassion and kindness. I pray that you teach them to be better to those with differences than you were to me.
Peace and love,
Note: When my ten year class reunion rolled around a few years ago (okay, it was more than a few years at this point…), a wave of emotions I thought I had already processed came back to visit. I realized that the bullying I endured in high school shaped who I was forever and I owed it to myself to make sure those who caused all that pain to know how I felt. So I penned a letter to my graduating class and shared it to the class reunion facebook page. It received almost entirely positive feedback, so I hope that it helps someone else think about how they, too, can process their past and turn it into a teachable, vulnerable moment.