I remember it clearly. I was standing on the stage, playing one of the parts I am most proud of: Lady Macbeth.
It was a modern retelling of the story, which I guess was all the rage after Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. My character was ruthless and powerful, just like the classic character.
We were performing for our classmates one afternoon (never my favourite matinee.)
The kids who didn’t care about theatre just saw it as an opportunity to get out of class, and they weren’t shy in letting us know.
At first, my composure wasn’t what it should have been. Very out of character for me, I mouthed some expletives in the first act, while I stared ominously in the direction of the worst offenders.
Anger quickly turned into resolve. In the school yard, I was self-conscious, mousy, unpopular, and skinny as a rake. When I was on stage, I was a different person, and I was going to show them.
A single spotlight shone on me. Slightly hunched in my black and gold dress (thanks, but not really, costume room.) I started wildly rubbing my hands.
“…out damn, spot…OUT, damn spot!”
I put everything I was feeling into this scene, where my character goes mad with guilt and can’t rub the blood from her hands. I channelled all my anger.
When the scene was done, the auditorium was silent. The satisfaction was palpable.
The idea of having a safe space to be yourself is often mocked by voices that seem to lack any kind of empathy, or understanding/education of trauma.
Perhaps controversial, but I’ll venture to say that some of those that mock are the same people who make the safe space a necessity.
After publishing part one of this article, a woman I have known since childhood told me she was often teased for her height. The performing arts centre was her sanctuary away from kids calling her “oompa loompa.”
I was surprised. I guess I try not to look at people that way. All I saw in her as we grew up was this strong, talented, feisty girl. In fact, I was fairly intimidated by her.
In my experience, bullies will find anything to pick on, and often, they target something that is just you. They try to tell you that part of you is shameful, and you are left a hot mess of confusion, where sometimes death seems like the only viable option.
I still remember the heartache that accompanied the death of Jamey Rodemeyer, a gay teen who died by suicide in September 2011. This beautiful 14 year old spent considerable time advocating for others bullied in the LGBT+ community
Because he was so open, he too faced bullying. It got too much.
Unbelievably, following his death, his family were bullied.
For example, his sister was tormented at the school homecoming. The bullies chanted that Jamey was better off dead, because apparently her grief wasn’t hard enough.
*Annabel was schooled in a conservative town in Michigan, where, apparently, it’s totally fine to make fun of a person for being in a wheelchair.
“I was (and still am to some extent) shy, disabled and overweight as a teenager, which made me a target for bullying. Now, I wear the word “cripple” like a badge; yes, I am a “cripple”.”
The word didn’t feel honourable to thirteen year old Annabel. It hurt. She felt alienated, and alone.
In eighth grade, Annabel decided to take a Drama class. As she said to me, she could act “decently enough.”
Her teacher, Mr Robinson, was kind, encouraging. She remembers him for the face of Jesus that was painted on the back of his motorcycle jacket, and for a passionate speech he gave following the death of Mr Rogers, who Mr Robinson had once met.
High School theatre was directed by someone with a mean streak, so bullying somewhat leaked into that experience, but Annabel was still able to engage in her love of acting, including in the winter musical, Footloose.
“It seemed ironic to me that the girl with Cerebral Palsy who most definitely could not dance, received a role in a musical centered around dancing, but I wasn’t complaining. I may have played a crotchety old adult, but I was having the time of my life.”
Annabel says some of her fondest memories of High School come from this time.
“Through theater, I was able to not only meet new people, but meet people of all grades and ages, who shared my interests, and who genuinely enjoyed being around me. For all the ups and downs I have had in my life, theater and acting has always been a joy for me, and I was so fortunate to go to school in a district that fostered the arts rather than cutting them. Without having theater arts in my education, I don’t know that I would be the same person I am today. I do know that my junior high and high school years would have been decidedly less happy without drama and theater.”
Living with Spina Bifida from birth, and hydrocephalus, *Karen also knows too well the cruelty that can come simply from having a disability. She wasn’t allowed to do most things in gym class. She had to be careful not to get hit in the head, and she also wore leg braces for a time.
It was easier for Karen to retreat into “wallflower” mode, to try and escape being called four-eyes, fat, short, and “gimpy.”
The arts have helped Karen gain back some confidence. Up to eighteen years of age, she went to a summer camp for kids with Spina Bifida, where they did many art based activities, such as painting, drawing, dance, and acting. “Things I never would have dreamed of doing,” she says.
Sometimes, bullies pick on things that realistically can be changed, but that doesn’t make what they do and say any less cutting, or justifiable.
“I think the bullies have won,” *Jeremy says to me, as we sit cross legged on my deck eating our pesto pasta.
Jeremy is a very talented guitar player. He’s tall, thin, and good looking. He doesn’t see that he’s good looking, but he is.
“I don’t know if they (the bullies) wanted to hurt me. I think they were probably doing it because they thought it was funny, or they thought it was cool, or they were trying to impress their friends.
I don’t know what their motivations were, but if they were trying to damage me permanently, then, good on them, ‘cause it really did skew my perception of myself…till further notice.”
This permanent monster seems mostly to be uncertainty. He lives with constant unrealistic standards.
“Will I ever be good enough?” “What do people want me to be?”
“I never got validation from the bullies, they just stopped,” he says.
“I think, maybe I’ve changed, or maybe they’ve just gotten distracted. So, because I didn’t get validation from them personally, that could have been a way of never really coming to peace with it.”
Body image was something I could read about in every magazine I stole from my sister’s room, and I can commiserate with almost any other woman over it.
For a teenage boy like Jeremy, the messages about what was attractive was confusing. He didn’t have a lot of support.
The bullying began in Primary (Elementary) school, but wasn’t as severe. It became a problem in High School when he was suddenly self-aware and vulnerable to insecurities he didn’t recognise before. At the same time, he started noticing the opposite sex:
“I was thinking ‘I’ve got to do everything I can to try and be appealing, or everything I can to be on the radar.’ I assumed it wasn’t entirely a one sided thing. I assumed I wasn’t the only one noticing that the opposite gender is exciting.”
It was around this same time that Jeremy started being teased for being overweight. It started with other boys.
“They would operate and thrive in their group,” he explains.
“Any time any one of them was by themselves, they’d try to do it, and one time I confronted one of them, and he got scared. He was a little dude, so I was thinking, ‘I’m bigger than you, bro!’”
The bullies weren’t overly creative, which we laugh about. They would manipulate conversation just to get to a point. These boys weren’t particularly bright sparks. The insults weren’t exactly Shakespearean.
“It was pretty disappointing what they were coming up with. They would say “you’re fat.” I was like…”well, yeah, I get that…thanks for the reminder?” In case the mirror isn’t enough, I need people telling me now!”
After a while, girls joined in.
“It wasn’t so much saying that I was fat, but sarcastically saying things, like pretending I was really attractive, and all laughing. I think those were the ones that hurt more than anything else. [They were what] I was trying to appeal to at the time. It was a continuous reminder that it’s not working.”
The first time he lost weight, and the bullying stopped, he found a girlfriend.
When the relationship didn’t work out, he gained back more weight than that of before. By this time, he had left school and chose, perhaps because there was less pressure, to lose weight in a healthier way.
While this monster still chases him, there was, and is, something by his side, validating his existence. He says he didn’t really find self-worth anywhere else.
“Don’t get me wrong, my family were always great, supportive and loving, but I think at that stage, even though I was seeking validation from others, I needed to find it for myself. It was something I had to get from within. Music gave me that.”
Music became an obsession for Jeremy. It was something measurable, and controllable. He got out exactly what he put into it.
“I was very drawn to musicians from the 60s and 70s, because I appreciated the fact that they weren’t supermodels and they were still very successful and very valued. It helped me to see that I could still be valued.”
He particularly found connection with the melancholy in Jeff Buckley’s music.
“There are certain moments that are really beautiful, but at the same time, it’s painful to listen to. You can tell how much he feels what he’s singing and written about. You can tell there’s a lot of pain on the inside, so sometimes when I felt that way, I’d almost [listen] as a way to relate to him, to what he’s saying, and to know that I’m not alone.”
He also recognised that even when someone faces difficulty, those things can be a catalyst in the creative process, resulting in beautiful music. This was something to be grateful for.
Jeremy mostly derived worth from how much progress he was making with guitar. Even some from the “popular” group started to compliment him after his music teacher encouraged him to be “flashy.” (Who doesn’t love a good guitar solo?!)
He continued to practice at home through these years, and went on to study music after high school, where being entirely focused on his passion with other like-minded individuals felt more comfortable than most things in life.
“I’d enjoy listening to myself doing what I was doing. I realised there was no downside. With dieting and exercise…not everyone loves dieting and not everybody loves exercise. Some aspects of it can be really exhausting and frustrating, and sometimes you wish things would go faster, but with music, it was fun, and it was something I enjoyed doing.”
We write to support the work of the fabulous Find Your Light Foundation, which you can donate to here.
Thank you to all our contributors for both parts of this article. You’re amazing.