[Author note: In recognition of this back-to-school time, here is a reprint of my blog about bullying. Many children are bravely returning to school, where bullying can thrive. Even adults face bullies now and then, people who hurt us and wish to cause pain. I hope that these words and ideas help.]
I walked alone down the high school hallway, heading toward my locker. I was a new kid, with no friends. I wore an Indian-print wrap-around skirt and a brown leotard top. My long hair hung down my back in thick waves. I didn’t wear any makeup because I wanted to be naturally pretty. Make up might have helped to cover my burn scars, which swirled on my chin, cheeks, and neck. Scars covered my chest, poking out of the pretty leotard that I wore. But I thought I looked nice. I faced ahead, my burned lip half-smiling. Even though I was new at the school, things were going OK so far. Then this happened:
“Burn, Baby, Burn!”
Four boys walked close behind, serenading me. They sang Disco Inferno, but only that first line. “Burn Baby Burn!” They sang it again and again, in a breathy way, because they were laughing so hard.
I didn’t look at them. I walked faster, as fast as I could. My heart thudded and my chest felt heavy. My shoulders drooped. I looked down, away, hiding my face. I hoped no one would hear and I hoped everyone would hear. What was funny about singing "Burn Baby Burn" to a burned girl?
All I wanted was to fit in. I wasn’t pretending I wasn’t burned. I knew I was. I was pretending the burns weren’t that bad, but that’s how I got through the day. If I thought about my scars all the time, I couldn’t smile, be friendly, make a joke, and do all the things to make the friends I so desperately needed.
If you love a child who is being bullied, there are things you can do to help them. Talk about bullying, and help the child have words for their experiences. Show them that you care deeply about the bullying. Talk to their teachers and ask them to intervene. Teach and model empathy. Practice responses with them. Teach the child crucial social skills. Confronting their bully might help. What always helps is not being alone. Most kids don’t get bullied when they are hanging with other children. Bullying happens the most when a child is alone. I was NEVER bullied when I was with a friend. Not once.
If you see a person being bullied, there is one thing you can do that will make a huge difference. Sit with them. Talk to them. Smile at them. Your presence will have a double impact. First, it will comfort the bullied person, and help them feel less vulnerable and ashamed. Second, and this is crucial, your presence will back away the bully. The bully won’t taunt if you are there too, smiling and being a friend. The bully will slink away.
I wonder about those boys, who are now middle-aged men. Do they even remember singing "Burn Baby Burn" to me? Was it entertaining, watching my spirit shrink and disintegrate? I was trying so hard to be cheerful and to hold my head up high. What was funny about it? Do they still joke about burned girls now? I still can't listen to that song. I hope life has taught them about kindness.
May we all be kind.
Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.