A Story About Bullying and "Home"
In the past, I've had times when I lost my version of "home." When I had almost no place to go that I felt safe, cared for and respected.
As a high school senior, I chose to change schools and states from Haslett High School in Lansing, Michigan to Whiteman, a boarding school outside of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. When Dad retired (the first time), my parents gave me the choice of staying at Haslett or (where they were considering moving for a time) attending high school in Steamboat..A ski resort we had visited several times.
As a young woman who loved sports, the outdoors and skiing, the decision was easy. Steamboat. After being a summer exchange student overseas and spending many summers at summer camp, I thought I could handle living at a boarding school especially since I would come home to my parents' house about 30 minutes away on the weekends.
Well, I was wrong, at least wrong for that particular school.
I was an outsider when I began attending Whiteman the fall of 1983. I didn't know any of the students and yet, I had made friends quickly when I had been a foreign exchange student for two different summers. So I thought making new friends at this school was a reasonable expectation.
That fall I felt pretty confident about myself, my ability to handle challenging situations, and my willingness to trust other people my age enough to make new friends. Unfortunately, I didn't graduate with the same or more confidence in my abilities.
That year I was systematically bullied by four students (two girls and two guys) starting within 2-3 weeks of moving into the girls' dorm, until graduation. Jennifer, Ted, Jim and Susan. I had dealt with some ill treatment at my previous public school in Lansing, MI. However, it rarely lasted any length of time and it was never a concerted effort by a group of students..It was usually one student just trying to annoy me. It didn't negatively impact how I felt about myself, my willingness to trust others and my desire to attend school, do sports, etc.
When I confided in another student at school, she shared that information with the four students. That information was then used to verbally harass me and make fun of me, with cutting comments between classes, and in the dorm night and day. I could never let my guard down. I learned to emotionally cocoon and isolate myself from almost all of the students.
Nancy, the house mother didn't do anything. When I had torn my dorm room apart for the Nth time out of stress and anger, she brought me an ice cream cone.
When we were on a month-long school trip outside of the US...My roommate read my journal, which included some very personal details about myself and shared those details with all of my classmates on the trip. (The same) Nancy who was now the trip leader, verbally chastised the students and did nothing else. No one lost any privileges and nothing was reported to their parents either. There were NO repercussions or accountability for this behavior. I was humiliated, my privacy violated, and I was taken advantage of, with no way to feel emotionally safe while in foreign country away from my home and parents.
Later that trip, I was also struck by one of the students when I didn't verbally respond to him, in one of the train cars. He backed off when I hit back.
As far as I could tell, there were no efforts to stop or contain the bullying. I learned I could not trust the adults to take me seriously and stop what was happening. I was at the mercy of these four students, isolated and alone.
I tried to talk to my parents about it and they just didn't seem to get it..Maybe I just didn't communicate how badly it was hurting me. (I have talked to them about it since that time...)
I don't know if I could have truly understood how deeply systemic bullying could impact and change someone, unless I had gone through it myself. The experience was utterly foreign to my upbringing and childhood. Growing up I had the unconditional love and support of my parents, and I went though the typical razzing from my older sister and brother, and (I know now as a parent myself) consistent and appropriate discipline from my parents when I screwed up (getting grounded, a stern talking to, etc.).
I had a great childhood full of reading many, many books, playing sports year round and spending tons of time playing and reading outside with our dog. I had a couple friends (not a ton which occasionally bothered me but didn't negatively impact me). When I attended my 10 year reunion at Haslett High School I found out I was known as the kid who kept my nose in book most of time who also did lots of sports and choir (not that dissimilar to those who know me now..Sweat, reading, music, and a love of the outdoors.)
In the 1980's there were no conversations like there is now, about bullying in school. Teachers were not trained to look for it and it certainly wasn't talked about in middle or high school rallies or by counselors. (I have two sons of my own who are 14 and 17, so I am familiar with how schools approach this now vs. the 1980's.)
So I found ways to escape.... I listened to music and read many, many more books. In the evenings I would play pool by myself in the common building. I skied. I did have a couple of casual (never close) friendships with the day students who were from Steamboat.
I did find a way to get off campus and stay with someone on "the mountain," without my parents or Whiteman figuring it out. (Yeah, my Mom knows about this now *g*)
When I told Nancy that my brother was picking me up for the weekend, it wasn't my brother, it was Jim, a lift operator on the ski resort's mountain. Yes, I had begun a romance with him while skiing. As far as I know, my parents never questioned it when I stayed on campus for the weekend and Nancy never double checked with my parents when I went home for the weekend. It probably never occurred to the school to check, because I was the only student who stayed for the week and then went home for the weekends.. And until that point I had never lied to my parents about anything that serious.
He would pick me up in his van and we would stay at his condo on the mountain. I would arrive shaking and stressed out, finally able freely "lose my shit" and just spend a weekend on my own away from everything. It was a desperately needed safe haven that winter and spring, helping me get through it.
To this day, the only thing I feel bad about is not telling my parents...But I needed it at the time and Jim treated me well and didn't take advantage of the situation. His condo was my version of "home" during my senior year of high school.
It's taken me 34 years to publicly write about that year of bullying and abuse. I still resent Nancy and Whiteman for their lack of oversight, accountability and frankly guts. And I wonder if she ever realized how much that year would negatively and dramatically change how I felt about myself, my willingness to trust others my self-esteem and self-confidence.