A small Massachusetts town is currently the site of a controversial court case. Phoebe Prince, age 15, committed suicide after relentless bullying by nine of her fellow students. This week the lawyers for three of the teenagers accused entered not guilty pleas on their behalf. According to the Department of Health and Human Services 48 states have anti-bullying laws affecting schools. Massachusetts is not one of them.
This story has received a lot of attention. The death of a young girl by her own hand, the students that treated her so shamefully, the troubled persona Phoebe had had for some time, and the extent to which the school is responsible; all of these are pieces to a larger puzzle.
I can identify with parts of this story. When I was 14 I lived in a small town in the Midwest, one that was 95% Catholic. We had lived in several small towns but this one I fell in love with. Most of the residents were farmers. One of them had a large white barn and used the top floor of it for square dances for all the teenagers. I went to each one of them. My anticipation was always exhilarating, my hopes were high, and my naiveté was a shield for all to see. At the age of 14 I was thin to the point of emaciation, weighing 80 pounds on a 5 ft. 6 in. frame. I was all arms and legs. I found out years later that the townspeople thought my siblings and I looked like victims from a concentration camp. My father was strict about the meager helpings of food he allotted us and I was always hungry. He was also coming into my bedroom in the middle of the night where I slept on the bottom bunk with a rosary under my pillow and raping me. I was living my own private hell.
Depression and anxiety followed me on an hourly basis. My clothes were hand-me-downs; my hair was wispy brown with no particular style or cut; I had a middle crooked tooth in a mouth that was too small, on a face which had a nose that was too large; my eyes were hollowed out from constant hyper-vigilance. Every time I went to the dance the square dance caller would holler that everyone had to have a partner.
He’d spy me standing hopefully in the corner and say, “Who’s going to ask little Margie Leick to dance?”
No one stepped forward.
“I’m not starting this dance until someone asks her to dance.” Still no one.
Finally one of the sophomores turned to a friend and said, “I’ll pay you a quarter if you’ll ask her.”
“Not me. I’ll pay you 50 cents if you’ll do it.”
“Me neither. I’ll pay you $2 if you’ll dance with her.”
The bidding went higher and higher as my face turned whiter and whiter.
Finally, amidst laugher and applause one of the students escorted me onto the floor as he pocketed the five dollar bill in his pocket.
The dance started. Each succeeding one had the same scenario. Every time another square dance was scheduled I’d tell myself I’m not going anymore. I don’t belong there; it’s too humiliating.
But I had optimism, the kind of optimism that only an innocent can have. Every time my optimism won out, as I was certain this was the time when someone would ask me to dance. Each time it was the same scene.
I don’t know if what happened in the white barn was bullying or not. One of the descriptions of “bullying” is: “reduction to a state where the spirit is broken or all courage is lost.” I most definitely felt that my spirit was broken each time this occurred and as for courage, what little I had when I first showed up at the dance was rapidly beaten out of me from feeling as if I was being sold on an auction block with everyone laughing at my expense.
At the end of my sophomore year we moved to Los Angeles. Attending a school that was larger than the town I’d come from didn’t do much to improve my feeling of not belonging. When I was 18 I ran away from home. I spent the next 27 years going from one abuser to another, was hospitalized twice for failed suicide attempts and lived part time in a women’s shelter. Finally I entered a program of recovery and emerged five years later the happiest person I knew.
What drove Phoebe Prince? Was she too living a private hell that set her up to be a victim? Did she already have issues that had caused her also to have low self esteem? What is it that causes bullies to ply their trade? The victim of bullying is lost if she has already had her confidence ripped away by cruelty. A person of strong self-esteem would have the good sense to stop the bullying immediately and then report it to the authorities. A bully will stop when confronted. Phoebe, driven by devils we may never know, was not capable of confronting her bullies. In not doing so she was giving them permission to continue.
I returned to my small town 22 years after we had moved away. Only this time I had confidence and a witty tongue and my dream of someday returning with playboy bunny measurements, straight teeth, a thick head of strawberry blond hair, my large nose and small mouth somehow working in a woman of 40 when it hadn’t worked in a teenager of 15 had all come to be realized. After I’d been returning to this small town for many years, the square dance caller of my teen years asked his daughter why I kept coming back to a town where the boys had treated me so cruelly.
She thought for a moment, and then replied, “She comes home to look for her child.”
She was right.