Teacher bullied in high school shares story with her high school students each year
CNN PRODUCER NOTE Vgrossmann told me, 'Despite all the efforts that are being made to prevent bullying in the schools, it is still a serious problem. I want my students to know that I understand the problem because I experienced it myself. They are shocked when they hear that I did not hit the bully when she struck me. Most of my students say that they would strike back because their parents encourage them to do so. I am then able to discuss some famous people who advocate taking a non-violent approach--Jesus, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mandela, and Thoreau. They know that I am not a fearful person based on my vast travel experience (63 countries). Many of these trips are to third world countries, and I often travel alone. I want them to understand that there is another way to deal with bullying, and it's not cowardly. '
- hhanks, CNN iReport producer
The following is a true account of my own experience with bullying that I share with my students each year to bring awareness to the issue. My message is to take a nonviolent approach.
By Venise Grossmann
When she swung, I saw the rings on her fingers, and I knew that it was going to hurt. Although my face burned when she struck me, my pride would not allow me to show it. I faced my tormentor and her crowd of friends alone without flinching.
Almost twenty-five years later, I remember that scene vividly, although now it seems like a chapter in one of the adolescent novels that I teach. I wish I could say that the agony I felt ended with that punch, but the verbal abuse I suffered lasted all freshman year.
My childhood had been a happy one. Sure, I experienced goodhearted teasing, especially since I came from a family of four brothers and sisters, but never anything mean. When I entered high school, my life was going well: I was cheerful and outgoing and had many friends. My mother had always told me to choose friends who were above me so that they would lift me up, and the scholar athletes I surrounded myself with did.
I soon became friends with a sophomore who became the star varsity quarterback. Because he was honest and good-hearted, our friendship soon turned into a first love for both of us.
We took long walks together, rode around on his moped, and listened to his older brother’s band. On the weekends, we went to movies, took the Patco High Speedline into Philadelphia, and went to teen discos. We enjoyed spending time alone together and with our friends. In the winter, he took me to his formal Sophomore Sweetheart Dance.
Throughout the year, my social life remained good, but events that were going on in school changed my carefree demeanor. First, I began getting threatening notes in my locker—the kind that say, “You are a ----” and the abusive words cut. Too cowardly to sign it, the culprits tucked them into my locker. Later the notes proclaimed that I “would be dead” and that I should “watch out.”
I assumed that the authors of the notes were the same girls who would make nasty remarks to me on the bus, in the hall, and worst of all in the classroom, out of earshot of the teacher or so he pretended. It was especially difficult in Algebra class, which I barely passed. Sometimes my boyfriend’s brother would tell the girl to “lay off,” but I was mostly left to fend for myself.
When the teacher let us work independently on our algebra problems, my perpetrator would turn around and make fun of my make-up, which she didn’t wear, my clothes, (she never dressed up) and she would mimic my voice. I chose to look her straight in the eye when she said these things yet never responded. Even at the young age of fourteen, I innately felt that she was saying these things to get a “rise” from me, and I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction. I held my head high, but was filled with stress, anguish, and was afraid to walk in the hall alone.
The other tormentor was in my French class and although she sat on the other side of the room, she would glare at me. As a result, I never felt confident enough to read my oral lesson in front of the class, and my grade suffered. I don’t know how much my teacher noticed, but she did offer to allow me to read my lesson to her privately after school.
Since I had a good relationship with my parents, they noticed there was a problem. They were concerned that my grades were dropping, and when they questioned me, I broke down, cried, and told them everything.
My six foot four father’s first reaction was to proclaim that he was going to go over to the school and “take care” of the two girls himself. Of course, I panicked at that suggestion. My mother offered a more rational approach: to have the guidance counselor call the girls down. Although it seemed reasonable to my parents, I couldn’t deal with the thought of being labeled a “snitch” and refused to offer the girls’ names. My father became frustrated and told me that he was going to “beat the hell out of me” if I didn’t tell him their names. Although I knew he was well meaning, I said, “Oh good, now I can fear getting beaten up at school and at home.” He then tried to convince me to fight her, but such an approach didn’t seem right to me. He finally let the issue drop after I begged him to let me try to handle it my way first. I felt that the girls would eventually stop tormenting me if I did not react, and they did, but not until the events came to a climax.
After receiving extra help in French one day after school, a casual female acquaintance asked me to walk across the street from the high school to look for a necklace she had lost. Always willing to help what I thought was a “friend in need,” I walked off the school grounds to the woods that were ironically behind my church. After seeing the semicircle of my tormentor’s friends, I realized what was about to happen and that I was about to face it alone.
I was five-foot four and weighed ninety-three pounds, and I looked up at a girl that was at least a foot taller than I and much stronger. I remember thinking of her as pathetic: she had cornered a little girl alone and was trying to seek approval from her so-called friends who were relishing the thought of front row seats. She kept proclaiming that she wanted me to fight me, and I asked why?
She simply said, “I don’t like the way you look.”
“But I don’t even know you and you don’t know me,” I responded, but there was no reasoning with a girl who had an audience, and she swung.
In eleventh grade when I studied Henry David Thoreau, I learned that what I did at that moment was practice “passive resistance.” Then all I knew was that what I did seemed right. I was proud that I didn’t fight someone to provide a show for a sad group of her male and female friends.
Although she claimed that she would come after me at my bus stop, she never acted on it. My strategy ended up working though because I didn’t give her the attention she wanted, and she stopped bothering with me.
Looking back, I realize the tremendous amount of pressure I was under in school and at home for not confessing, yet I survived. At the end of the year, because of redistricting, I had the option to relocate to the township sister school, an offer I willing took. For me, it was a good choice because I made a fresh start there; I quickly made new friends and, thank god, was not again a victim of bullying.
As a teacher, I am now often reminded of that horrible year because I observe my students doing the same cruel things to their peers that were done to me. It hurts to see it as if it I were experiencing it all over again. I, unlike my teachers who looked the other way, intercede; I would never tolerate any kind of bullying in my classroom, but I cannot protect all the students who are victims.
As many as 1.5 million students a year are victims of bullying and 160,000 children a year skip school to avoid bullies. The experts suggest that if a child is being bullied, he should tell his parents, teacher or counselor about the situation--it is not tattling. They also suggest that victims should not retaliate or respond to taunts. Rather, they should walk away in a confident manner. They should also develop friendships with people who will stick up for them and should avoid unsupervised areas.
No one should have to go to school and face fear and intimidation. Students need to be part of solving the problem: Be there for each other and if you are a victim of bullying, ask for our help.