Monday, March 11, 2013

Guest Blogger: Heather Mazzaferro - Bullying; A Personal Journey

I had trouble trying to decide from what perspective to write this blog; as someone being bullied, someone who has bullied or as a mom of a child that has been bullied. I am saddened and ashamed to say that I have been a part of all three of these groups.

Who among us hasn’t bullied? The definition of bullying is; to use superior strength or influence to intimidate someone, typically to force him or her to do what one wants. I’m confident that I have, at some point, bullied my son into trying a new food at dinner time or even in a conversation with a friend, been adamant that my point of view was clearly the correct one.  I’m not proud of it. I’m also not proud of the fact that I bullied someone when I was in 7th grade. I remember the incident very clearly. My poor friend started her period in school. I taunted her, making fun of her on the way home. She was crying by the time we got to her driveway. It makes me cringe to this day thinking about it. I have no excuse for it except that I was being bullied myself by some 8th grade girls and it made me feel better to do it to her or even that I was walking home to an environment of being bullied by my father. I can’t even tell you which one it was.  As an adult I apologized to that friend, who ironically didn’t remember the incident, though I carried it in my heart all these years.

The second I hear the word bully, it takes me back to the cafeteria at Gallagher Junior High. My home life was a mess, and a flicker of promise came to me when I was chosen to be on the Pop Warner Dolphin’s Cheerleading Squad. I was elated. It seemed like a normal teenage activity in my not so normal world. It was validation that I could do something right. Unfortunately for me, a group of older cheerleaders on the squad were rooting for someone else to be chosen, someone more popular, with perfectly feathered hair, who fit in better than I did. I was sitting at lunch one day and 4 or 5 of these older girls came over to my seat and surrounded me. They said, “Come here, we want to talk to you.” I followed them over to the staircase, and one of the girls said to me, “We don’t understand why you were chosen over her. We want to see what’s so special about you. Do your cheer. Right now.”  I was mortified. In front of the entire cafeteria, in a meek voice, trembling with embarrassment and fear, I did the cheer. They stood there with their arms crossed sneering at me. When I finished they told me to do another one and when I was done, they all shook their heads and collectively agreed that I sucked and they didn’t understand why I was picked. And they walked away.  I was humiliated and deflated and I will never forget how they made me feel. I have run into one of these girls over the years, as her nephews were friends with Dante. She was pleasant to me, vaguely remembering me from school. She had kids of her own, and I often wonder if deep down she recalled who I was  and maybe, hopefully felt embarrassed by her behavior. I could only hope that she had the same feelings that I did about being mean and that it wasn’t just something that was so normal to her and I was just another one of her ego boosting victims.

Fast forward 29 years and here I am consoling my 8 year old. I have to answer the question through tears, “Why mom? Why were they mean to me? I was just having fun.”  I have to find a balance between staying calm and rational and wanting to lash out to protect my child. As someone who has bullied, I know the feelings of remorse that manifest and because I was bullied, I know the damage that happens and it never goes away. So what do I do? I do the only thing I can.  I teach my son tolerance. The definition of tolerance is; being patient, understanding and accepting of anything different. This generation is growing up with reality shows that glamorize people who are overweight, teenage and pregnant, Italian, Amish, hoarders, superstars, addicts, The Next Top Model, gold miners, fisherman, or just Kardasian. It’s a direct juxtaposition to our job as parents, to teach our children that everyone is different and unique. Each person in an individual and if someone offers something opposite to what our normal is, it’s okay. Yet they are inundated daily with the categorization of people, what makes them different and the criticisms that follow.

We all know that our home is our first school. It’s where we learn the basics and where we should be learning this important coping tool. Our parents are our first teachers. Coming from a broken, beyond fixing home, I completely understand that not every house is equipped with one let alone two parents who are capable of teaching tolerance.   As someone who has had experiences from both sides of the bullying fence, I am grateful that I can have a conversation with Dante so he knows he’s not alone in how he feels and if he’s ever in a situation with friends that are bullying and prod him to join in, that he will remember not only how he felt on the receiving end of the misdirected hate, but that his mom has been as well. Although I would never wish both perspectives on Dante (if anyone EVER sees or hears of my son bullying, I expect a prompt phone call, text, email, Facebook post, ASAP!) it has helped me to exercise my tolerance, in many different instances in my life. Even adults get bullied and it feels no different at 41 years old than it does at 8 years. My Grandmother used to say, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” No truer words have ever been spoken.

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