“Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.” – Maggie Kuhn
Dear Teen Me,
You’re luckier than most, because you escape your teen years mostly unscathed by any serious bullying, though there are a few events that wound you deeply, like the note you find from the girls you considered friends, bemoaning the time they’re forced to spend with you, plotting how to ditch you. And the guy who stops dating you when he discovers you live on the wrong side of the tracks.
There are mean girls in both high schools you attend, as there are everywhere, inspiring your undying love of the movie, Heathers. But you make good friends, too. Remember that night you escape the really mean girls who try to beat you and your friends up because those guys wanted to dance with you and your posse? You drove your Wayne’s World Gremlin like a bat out of hell.
But your experiences are minor in the grand canvas that is teenage bullying. If I could tell you one thing (like you’d actually listen) it’s to break your silence when others are shamed, taunted, and bullied. Practice using your outside voice because you’re going to need it. You have friends who are mouthier than you, and you envy their courage. Learn from them.
The LGBT movement has barely begun when you’re in high school, so there’s no such thing as GSA at either of the schools you attend. But there are kids you know- at school, in your neighborhood, at the mall where you work- who are considered “different.” And they’re mocked for it. The worst anti-gay slurs are tossed around casually and no one questions it. No one you know is “out.” You don’t even know what that means yet. Here’s what really sucks: a couple of the kids who are taunted the most are people you like. They like you, too, because mostly you’re nice to them. But when the verbal bullying gets bad, and the gossip spreads like wildfire, you don’t speak up. To this day, the shame of your silence still cuts you to the core when you remember.
Here’s the good news: the older you get, the braver you get, which is a good thing, because bullying for you shows up a lot in your twenties. You discover there are a lot of bullying bosses out there. You’ll need to be strong, and mouthy, which isn’t easy for you. One day you get fired for speaking up about unfair work practices toward immigrant employees. You find your inner righteous bitch that day, but you pay a big price. Still, you’re proud because you remember how you felt in high school when you didn’t speak up, and you don’t want to feel like that again.
In another job you encounter a bullying, abusive boss who gets mad at you for cutting off your long hair because he hired you to “look pretty.” You should have quit when that happened, but it takes you a bit longer to find your voice because you’re afraid to be without work again. The verbal abuse continues and one day you snap. You read him the riot act in front of the whole office, just like the Bridget Jones movie. A few of your coworkers applaud when you storm out the door, but you’re shaking so much from fear and anger, you barely notice.
Here’s what I want to tell you: you can speak up and survive. You might lose your job and people might yell at you and you might feel like you’re dying because you’re so scared. Lots of girls are afraid to use their outside voice, and plenty of grown women, too. We’re socialized to smile and be nice all the time, no matter what. That’s changing, though, and watching young women speak out courageously all over the world is an inspiration.
As you get older, you’ll find the courage to speak up, especially for your LGBT friends and family. You’ll march in parades and protests. You’ll use your voice, though you’ll never know what it’s like to be the victim of the fear and hatred that your loved ones experience. But you can be there now in ways you couldn’t then. You can never make up for the silence in high school, but you can teach your son to do better than you, and he will.
Some people use the pulpit; others use the pen. You’re more of a pen girl, but sometimes you still need to use your outside voice. Don’t be afraid. Know that it will always be scary for you, but you’ll survive the shaking hands, sweaty palms, and racing heart.
I pledge to speak my mind, even if my voice shakes. I pledge to take a stand against bullying each and every day. #OneVoice
~ Lisa Brown Robers, author of the upcoming How to Drop a Class (and Fall in Love)