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My Thursday column is about the winners in my essay contest about bullying, but the column is too short to publish more than excerpts there. So here are the full versions of the winning essays.
But first, a thanks to my partners in this effort. Teen Ink, a magazine for teenage writing, was hugely helpful in sifting through all 1,200 submissions and narrowing them to 59 finalists for me to go through along with my assistant, Natalie Kitroeff. Stephanie and John Meyer of Teen Ink offered important suggestions for how to run the contest and a digest of important themes that resonated through the many submissions. Some writing about bullying can also be seen on Teen Ink’s website and here at The New York Times Learning Network, as well as on Harvard Education School’s Ed. magazine.
Now here are the winning essays:
Teenage Girls; the Cruel Super Humans from Outer Space
By Lena Rawley, 17, from Montclair, N.J.
Teenage girls are cruel super-humans from a distant galaxy sent here to destroy us all. They have the self entitlement of a celebrity heiress and the aggression of a Roman Gladiator. Like vampires they feed off the blood of the weak. They’re pubescent monsters. Adolescent boogeymen.
While my observations may be coming from a point of bias, that doesn’t mean they are faulty in accuracy. As a teenage girl myself, I think I know teenage girls quite well. Not only was I a former teenage mean girl, but I was tortured, tormented, isolated and socially maimed by them as well.
When they acquire a target, teenage girls, with the determination of a private assassin, will stop at nothing to take down their target. They’re relentless. They’re cruel. Their methods are insane. They are never to be underestimated.
In middle school, I made the mistake of underestimating the power of these skinny jean clad monsters. I thought I was safe, I thought myself impervious to their cruelty. I watched them do on to others as they would later do on to me, and felt no fear.
I was a fool however, for teenage girls pick their targets by familiarity. They are less likely to torment someone small and insignificant and more likely to viciously turn on their friends. Preferably the weakest link in their group, prey who is easy for them to catch and take down.
I was the weakest link. I was the wounded gazelle. And thus, I became their target.
It was eerie because, when my eventual demise began, I had no idea what was going on. Yes it was slightly fishy that they had stopped calling me, stopped saying hi to me in the hallway, but I assumed it was just nothing.
Again, I was wrong.
Once the period of silence came to a close, all hell broke loose. Vicious rumors began spreading around and dirty looks and foul words were thrown my way in the hall. I was forced off the lunch table and into social leprosy.
Exactly a week after phase two (social alienation) had began I received an email from the ringleader of the group. I opened it up to reveal a headline that bluntly stated, “Fifty Reason Why We Can’t Be Friends With You.” Underneath the headline, as promised, were neatly fifty reasons, ranging from my body to my personality to my clothes, that clearly stated the reason for my alienation.
I felt sick.
But I wasn’t going to let them get me. Those hyenas didn’t deserve my tears. I deleted the note, picked up the pieces and moved on. I found friends who were kind and accepting. Friends who wouldn’t devour their own.
My experience, while evidently not ideal, is something I would not change. I don’t see it as a stain upon the fabric of my life, but more like an embellishment. A decorative brooch I wear with pride, a brooch that cries, I overcame bullying, so can you.
By Alyssa Ahrens, 17, Indiana
A young girl walked through her high school halls, clutching a book tightly against her stomach, as if it were a shield. She has her hair loose, allowing the tendrils of it to gather by the sides of her face. Another shield. She stares pointedly at the floor, taking quick, hushed steps as she reaches the stairs. Gingerly, she climbs up them one step at a time, looking about her for that frighteningly familiar face. She feels the clamor of the students around her, brushing past her, fighting their way through the crowded hallways.
The world turns into blurs around her as she sights a face at the top of the stairs, lounging against the corner in the stairwell, smiling as it recognizes its prey.
It’s too late to turn around. It’s too late to hurry past. She’s been spotted… Too late. Too late. Too late.
Hands grab her book, and she is pulled to the corner. Cruel eyes crinkle in laughter.
No words are spoken.
In the breath of a moment, the girl’s hands are empty, flailing in the air for purchase as she is tumbling, falling backward. Her head meets a sharp corner, her hand hits the wall with a sharp crack. With pain erupting in her, she slides down the rest of the steps.
She hears something skidding across the floor by her head.
It is her book.
Her useless shield.
There is one more flash of that gloating smile before it rounds the stairs.
A few kids glance at her. One hands her book to her and gives her a hand up. The girl takes a quick inventory. Her hand hurts, head is throbbing, and ankle is on fire.
She is pushed forward by the teacher behind her, her voice chiming “Time to get to class,” methodically.
This girl is me. Just another student. Just another victim.
For 8 years, this is the world I have lived in. For 8 years, I have skipped lunch to get to the safety of the library, bury myself in books, and count the days till graduation. As of today, it is 64. I used to have five very close friends, friends who endured the same Hell as I did. Every day. Words like bullets, raining down upon you till there is nothing left. Those words hurt me worse than getting shoved down a flight of stairs ever did. Those words, that smile.. those are what make me wake up at night screaming. Those are what I see when I look in the mirror. Nothing. Worthless. Loser.
Sometimes they told us we were better off dead.
Two of my friends followed their advice. One never saw the age of 14, the other never got his license.
Never say that they are just words. Don’t think it’s our confidence that is the problem. It is the bullies.
It’s too late for me. Too late for a lot of kids. Nothing will undo the years I have spent questioning what I did wrong.
But for millions of other kids, it isn’t too late.
Bullying starts early and gets worse. Tackle it in elementary school. It isn’t cute. It doesn’t mean that the girl likes that boy or vice versa. It is bullying. It is dangerous. And it needs to be stopped. Before it’s too late.
By Madison Jaronski, 15, New Hope, Penn.
Tears have been flooding down my face; breathing is a task that now seems impossible. I draw my legs closer and closer into my chest as I try to transform the pressure into reassuring comfort. I begin to slowly rock myself and by now my tears have colored my pillow black. The lights are off and no one is home to hear my helpless cries. Thoughts are running mindlessly through my brain but the only word I manage to create is why. Why me? Why has this happened to me? Why has all of this happened in one year? One year. Those thoughts only seem to make me cry even louder. All the memories from past incidents now rush to my mind and I am now consumed, lost in my own sea of tears with nothing or no one to be my boat to take me to shore.
I honestly can’t recall how long I lay there that night. Any sense of time has vanished months ago for me because it does not matter what time or day it is: I knew I would be bullied. As I reflect upon this year, all of my accomplishments and enjoyable moments are overshadowed by the pain and harassment that was thrust upon me. Just looking at my surface, you would see, a confident young woman, as sturdy as a rock. You would never think that I was broken, broken into a million pieces like shattered glass, all because of the work of a group of senior boys. You would never think that I have starved myself multiple times due to my desire to fade into the backdrop of the world.
Whenever I build up the strength to tell someone about this year, I get the same old fake response “Oh my, how horrible, I am so sorry. But don’t worry, I have been bullied too so I understand.” The thing is though; that statement is never comforting because right then I think “Really… You have been verbally attacked while walking in your hometown and school? You have been betrayed by some of your closest friends? Spent many late nights to early mornings crying yourself to sleep? You have been publicly harassed? And still at the end of all of it, got blamed for every last thing too?” Nobody ever answers “yes” back. Never.
I hope I just took some of you back and made you realize that bullying is specific. No two acts of bullying are the same because bullying is always personal, always meant to strike home with that individual person, to make that individual feel as if she is completely worthless to the world. That is what a group of senior boys did to me this year, and I only got through this year because I had my closest friend right by my side, a beacon through this storm.
By Paulina Puskala, 17, Marquette, Mich.
Bullying, an unfortunate but seemingly inevitable human activity, has scattered itself through societies since the beginning of time. Cavemen participated perhaps in more extreme equivalents such as stoning each other, while modern businessmen call each other idiots on national television. The term “bully” refers to that three year old “meanie” at daycare who steals juice boxes, as well as the friend of that one guy’s cousin who stole that one girl’s chemistry partner’s boyfriend. The term “bullying” covers a broad, complicated spectrum of activities, but really boils down to this: placing an undeserving individual/group under a microscope, shredding it apart, and making it feel as small and insignificant as possible.
Despite the more recent pushes to end bullying in schools, this atrocity is nothing new to our educational institutions. Fifty years ago, one kid – angry at another for reasons no different than today – proceeded to beat him up beneath the monkey bars. Twenty minutes and a bloody nose later, the assaulter escaped the principal’s office with a warning before dawdling back to class. A swing of a fist nowadays, the assaulter lands in the hands of the cops pending expulsion. More extreme consequences keep physical bullying at bay, but kids find other ways to vent anger, and it is no cliché that words cause more pain than actions. Problems soon forgotten after a bit of innocent wrestling now drag on with extra name calling to make up for it.
Bullying once stayed within the confines of school property. Victims dreaded leaving home in the morning to attend eight-hour long torture sessions, but looked forward to returning to safety at night. Today unfortunately, technology-enabled bullies contain the ability to harass 24/7, right at their fingertips. Upon leaving school kids hold the ability to bombard and be bombarded with texts, instant messages, and social media. Stomach-churning words once expected between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. now stab without warning at any hour. Youth don’t feel safe in their own beds at night. “Just turn off the phone” is easy to say, but knowing that a profanity-spewing message is sitting right there ready to read does no good.
Today’s problem isn’t so much the bullying itself – bullying has been around for centuries. The problem is that it is difficult to escape it. Evenings, weekends, and family vacations once free from peers are now engulfed in the stress of unlimited communication. Unlimited communication no doubt has its benefits, but because it, no matter what the hour or location, it’s near impossible to be free. Despite campaigning, bullying itself won’t become extinct, but the safety felt by victims can be increased. Technology – a prominent form of bullying – can be limited. Parents can limit the use of technological features such as texting and social media while encouraging and modeling healthy habits: the dinner table and bed are no place for a cell phone. Communication is essential, but the inability to leave stress at school even at night has caused our youth big problems.
Thanks to all who participated, and congratulations to the winners. Please post any comments here. And I’m interested in the idea of other contests like this one, so if you have suggestions for topics, let me know here.