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Being Mean is Never in Fashion

Outgrowing childhood bullying is harder than it looks.

It was 43 years ago but it could have been 43 hours ago – that’s how clearly I remember it.

I was 13 years old and saved my babysitting money for months to buy a leather-like jumper from Saks Fifth Avenue in Old Orchard. It was $12 and the most expensive piece of clothing I had ever owned and the first (and the last) item I ever bought from Saks. My parents bought me a black leather hat to go with it. I felt like a model.

The seven of us -- my mom, dad, older brother and grandparents -- piled in the Chevy to go to my aunt and uncle’s house on the north side of Chicago for Sunday dinner. I was so excited to show off my new outfit and decided that everyone else should go inside first so I could “make an entrance.”

“Ta Da!” I said as I walked in and posed.  My Auntie Annie and Auntie Sadie’s face lit up. My Uncle Robert looked at me and said, “Hello Fatso.”

I was a size 6.

Fat, ugly and stupid were my childhood nicknames. Being bullied through grade school still haunts me today.

I was a terrible student and had a very difficult time reading. Mind you, this was in the 1960s and looking back, I am sure I was dyslexic. I remember in my 5th grade English class, our teacher would ask the class for volunteers to read aloud. I always looked away and tried to make myself invisible but Paula Carlin would yell out, “Let Donna read, let Donna read.” I would stand up and start reading and, of course, would blow it and the whole class would roar with laughter.

I hated every single day of grade school. Some days were worse than others, and I would spend much of the day hiding in a bathroom stall crying. Except for art, music and PE, I was a straight-D student. I was one of the best athletes but was the last to be chosen. And all my singing and dancing never earned me a solo, or a speaking part in any production. I wasn’t good enough. The other kids called me dumb. They made fun of everything I wore and everything I did. From first grade through sixth grade, I had two best friends -- Lynn Irving and rejection. I developed a thick skin and comedic timing – and have been hiding behind them ever since.  

Except for a random act of mean girls, the name calling and bullying stopped when I got to junior high. I made some wonderful new friends and I was actually starting to feel better about myself. My grades went from Ds to Cs. And at 4-feet 11 inches, I tried to stand tall. For many kids, high school is when the real bullying starts, but for me I got along with everyone -- the starlets, the stoners, the jocks and the janitors. When faced with adversity, I relied on my sense of humor or just tap-danced my way through. By college, I was downright popular and had enough confidence and credentials to graduate on the Dean’s List.

For the last 35 years I have made a career out of public speaking but all too often am still hiding behind the shadow of that bullied little girl. I still fear rejection. When faced with it, I find myself in many a bathroom crying.

Which brings me back to my uncle calling me Fatso.

Somehow, I had the strength and support to pull through but not everyone does. It’s no coincidence that concerns about bullying and suicides are on the rise. And while Michelle Obama and Kurt Hummel of Glee can talk about the effects of bullying all they want, bullying won’t stop until we stop it.  

My ongoing feelings of failure and the raw memories of being bullied have at times pushed me into sadness and despair. It’s not surprising that news of local teens in crisis or committing suicide profoundly affects me. I think I understand the demons of pain and loneliness these dear souls may have been feeling.

Every time I hear about another teen jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge or an adult taking their own life, I wonder what their uncle called them. Or if the people they work with, or for, bully them. Yes, sadly, adults bully too -- especially those who are in powerful positions. Maybe it makes them feel better about themselves to intentionally hurt or frighten someone who is smaller in stature or role than they are.

School bullies often hit, kick or push people; adult bullies enjoy threatening, teasing, scaring and judging. So the next time you want to talk about someone, behind their back or to their face – call them fat, stupid, ugly, queer, a loser, a retard or any racial slur -- don’t.

From where I’m standing, you’re either being bullied or you are the bully.

I think it’s time we all say uncle.

Lisa Cecconi June 09, 2011 at 03:06 PM
A brave and beautifully written piece. So important to teach kids kindness from an early age. The effects of teasing, bullying...they lodge deep and too often create an image of seeing oneself in exactly that way (an untrue characterization to begin with)...sometimes for a lifetime. Well done, DL.
louann hirsch June 09, 2011 at 03:19 PM
You are so honest with your feelings. A great piece. Too bad there is bullying, it is just as easy to give someone a compliment and make them feel good. I don't like your uncle, and I never met him. Louann Hirsch
Sherry Wolcott June 09, 2011 at 03:34 PM
Thank you for opening up so bravely in your writing. This is a really great piece. I have volunteered for the Challenge Day program twice at Northgate HS and it is moving and amazing. I ache for all of the kids that have gone through so much and yet put on their brave face everyday. We all need to be kinder to each other and to remember the lasting impact a few words can have - good or bad. Why not choose to influence the future in a positive way? Thanks again DL for writing on a very worthwhile subject.
Martha Ross June 09, 2011 at 03:58 PM
I think we all have had that uncle in our lives. The awkward, bullying guy in the family who would just say mean stuff, thinking he's funny. And thanks for opening up about having moments of despair and sadness. Maybe more people feel that way than want to admit.
Rena Segovia June 09, 2011 at 04:00 PM
Thank you DonnaLynn for sharing your story. This should be required reading in schools. I cringe when I hear of children being bullied. No child should be made to feel afraid to go to school or any where for that matter.
Michelle Block June 09, 2011 at 04:05 PM
I just want everyone to know 2 things: 1. 7th grade at Oakview was the worst school year of my life, and 2. Donna was a cheerleader in 7th grade. And despite that, you never really know from how someone appears on the outside what they are feeling on the inside.
Lise Codde June 09, 2011 at 04:14 PM
This was a beautiful article. I still have that aunt who could never find anything nice about me (she is almost 90 and still the same), but somewhere along the line I learned to deal with the underlying reasons behind it and try to be empathetic of her. That doesn't make it any less hurtful to a child, and I hope this article makes all those adults who thknk they are being 'funny' stop and think about the impact of their words.
Paige Yannone June 09, 2011 at 04:15 PM
I was relentlessly teased for many years when I was little because I was flat-chested; I was a late bloomer. The boys called me Plywood Paige because I was as flat as plywood. I was also bullied by a girl in first grade. I don't really remember her too much, but I remember the day that she terrorized me on the merry-go-round. She made fun of the outfit that I was wearing: brown corduroys with a brown and white cowgirl type blouse. To this day, I have trouble with corduroys and brown clothing. Our childhood experiences profoundly impact our adult lives, in ways that, all too often, we don't consider and analyze. DL, your childhood experiences shaped you and helped you become the big-hearted, spirited, beautiful woman that you are. Thank you for sharing all of this in such a beautiful way. And, BTW, I love the outfit!
Donna Lynn Rhodes June 09, 2011 at 05:43 PM
I guess I touched a chord with a lot of people and I am happy about that. I have received lots of off-line emails and there was and is a whole lot of bullying going on out there. This story was very hard for me to write and as I said, there are still people in powerful positions who still try to bully me. Perhaps the hardest part is, that as an adult, most of the times when I simply had enough and stood up to someone who said unkind things to me, I end up losing them as a friend. I also don't understand how employers allow and often participate in cruel behavior -- it's just not okay. I am sure that I have intentionally or unintentionally hurt peoples' feelings and for that I am sorry. I think everyone of us has things about our childhood that we wish we could erase but we can't. And it's what we take from these experiences and learn from them that count. I loved the movie Groundhog Day, but unfortunately we don't get a do-over in life. Thanks for reading my story and not judging me too harshly. :)
Deborah Burstyn June 09, 2011 at 05:46 PM
Oh, DL. What a heartfelt and sadly wonderful article. I wanted to leap into a time machine and land on that doorstep so I could tell the uncle, "How dare you so that to her!" And then I would hug you and tell you how beautiful you looked - and stylish! My mother consistently ridiculed and insulted me the whole time I was growing up. I believe that mean adults in a kid's family can cause much deeper damage than the taunts of a another kid on the playground.
Bobbi Bach June 09, 2011 at 06:27 PM
This is a terrific article. I think you should send it to the counselors or principals of the local highschools so that they can share it with their students. This is a serious problem that has been made worse with the internet. Kids need to realize how hurtful this can be. But now it is time to let it go and move on. You are better and wiser and now you understand how stupid those kinds of comments are. But if you let it continue to bother you, then the perpetrator has won. I often think of Karen Carpenter. A voice like velvet, but she died of anorexia because she overheard someone calling her fat. The world lost that magnificent voice because someone was a bully. P.S. I LOVED the outfit!
Donna Lynn Rhodes June 09, 2011 at 07:24 PM
The emails keep coming and I wish I had written this story before school let out. It seems that people are forwarding this to teachers and counselors asking them to share it with their students. And comments are coming in from young and old -- and through Facebook too. I didn't even address Facebook bullying in my story, but it's there. Facebook reminds me of grade school on so many levels but I will save that for another column. Thank you all for your kind words and yes, I am getting past it. One of the popular boys I went to junior high with emailed me and said that by speaking up and my success I have "really showed 'em!"
Michelle Block June 09, 2011 at 07:59 PM
Re: employers: you'd be amazed at the callousness of some adults working in the special education community. You get the feeling sometimes that because they can't direct their frustration directly to a student, they will let who they feel are their most vulnerable co-workers experience it. I've been asked to leave a classroom for reporting verbal abuse. However, I do not consider standing up for your rights and your personal boundaries "bullying." I think it's reasonable to tell someone who pushes your buttons and/or emotionally manipulates you that you don't mesh and walk away, along with those who do a lot of "trash talking" about others.
SJQ-M June 09, 2011 at 11:59 PM
This breaks my heart......both from my adult perspective and from my own memories of comments from relatives. I would sometimes dread going to certain family events because I knew that not so nice things would be said.....supposedly by 'well meaning' relatives so your article really touches me. And then the amazing way we carry this baggage with us and somehow feel responsible for others bullying us as if it was our own fault. So so sad....... And with that in mind I was instrumental at bringing an anti-bullying campaign to our elementary schools with group seminars held and empowering tools given to the children to help stop the madness. We made it 'cool' to stand up against bullies and come to the defense of their victims. The hallways were lined with empowering messages and reminders of how we all need to look out for each other and it really brought about change. Maybe a drop in the bucket but one step at a time.......and we can all say 'uncle' !!
SJQ-M June 10, 2011 at 12:06 AM
One more thing: The sign of a truly great writer is one who can stir your heart and emotions ......and from reading all these emails it is evident that you have done just that. You are a passionate writer and I will never tire of reading your work. Please keep it coming.........
Creek Diva June 10, 2011 at 04:36 AM
DL, wonderful piece. http://www.soulshoppe.com/ This is a program that Murwood had this past year. I can't help to think you'd be an amazing addition to it!
Donna Lynn Rhodes June 10, 2011 at 05:13 PM
Hi Diva: I just looked at the link and it looks like a wonderful program. Bravo and let me know how I can help. :)
Toni June 10, 2011 at 06:10 PM
I guess when you go back 68 years there was no such "title" as bully. But as I went over what you wrote and thought about it, I guess I was bullied by twins who lived in the next building, all of us at the tender age of 12. I don't know what I ever did to them, but they hated me. There I was all dressed up in my red and blue dress and red tam walking through the passage way between our houses when a pail of water was thrown down on me. It was so devastating to realize someone hated you that much! It is something I never forgot and left me with a terrible inferior complex to this day. So it is actions sometimes and not words that can change a life forever. I wish I knew what "Uncle Robert" did!
Jason Klein June 12, 2011 at 10:45 PM
Those of us in public education work very hard today to eradicate bullying from both the school setting (in and out of the classroom) as well as from kids' lives more generally. At the same time, like Reading and Math scores that are so centrally the focus of our work in schools today, the end of bullying requires a full team effort. It requires vigilance from adults, both in responding to incidents that they witness directly and to talking openly and honestly with kids about bullying so issues with it are reported quickly and completely. Adults cannot make excuses for the bully or the bullied and strategies must be taught to both the bully and bullied to find other ways to approach and address such situations. (Likewise, adults must remember that usually the bullies act in such a way out of fear and anger, a result of being the victim of bullying themselves.) So, good work with this article. Next, it might be a series of articles--interviews with principals and social workers about what they are doing to end bullying and how they need help from the community. Additionally, articles that give voice to today's kids are also a great way to explore solutions on the ground that are actually working to minimize the frequency and degree of bullying as well as its impact on both the bullies and the bullied.
Kerry Zickert June 16, 2011 at 12:46 AM
Beautifully written..my heart goes out to you Donna. I also was bullied. It happened in 5th grade. If I close my eyes and think about it the pain comes back so clearly. Thank you for reminding us to be careful with our words.

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