I was disheartened this month to hear news of a young Plymouth-Canton student in his first year with the district receiving hurtful taunts from his peers on the playground at Field Elementary School.
While I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting ten-year-old Zachary Greenshields, I feel for him and what he and his family are going through.
Greenshields has dealt with several instances of bullying in the past couple of months, including three instances in which his jacket was torn. The worst offense, however, was when a well-known children's song's lyrics were altered to verbally threaten the young boy.
As a former victim of bullying, I can certainly relate to the feeling of hopelessness and fear that accompanies being a frequent victim.
More importantly, as a former victim of bullying, I can say with absolute certainty that it gets better. Much better, in fact.
For me, bullying seemed to follow me throughout my childhood. The most hurtful came in elementary school when my 29-year-old cousin, who I had just seen the day before for the first time in years, was murdered in Flint. One student made light of it in front of the entire class and I completely lost my composure.
Knowing it was a sore subject, a select few students would use that to taunt me, perhaps hoping to witness another emotional breakdown.
I experienced the bulk of my bullying, however, at the middle school level. My peers would taunt me in the hallways, threaten to beat me up on my walk home, intimidate me into turning over my lunch money and make me genuinely fear going to school.
Much of the bullying came from upperclassmen who knew me through my older sister. They knew me as the nerdy younger brother who was not very athletic, had no sense of style, had no assertiveness and by most accounts would be considered an easy target.
I recall one incident when I stopped in the restroom between classes, my books in one hand and my pencil in the other. A larger kid in my grade approached me, threatening to give me a swirly (sticking my head in the toilet). As he tried to push me into the stall, I braced myself against the door, with my pencil still in my hand. As the bully pushed my head forward, the pencil cut deep into my ear, drawing blood. The bully finally relented as the bell rang while I retreated to the principal's office to assess the damage. Fortunately, no stitches were required, but hints of the scar still remain.
Heading into high school, I feared the worst. Those same upperclassmen who taunted me in middle school would be waiting for me in high school, I thought, only stronger and more relentless. They would certainly remember all the times I got them in trouble for tormenting me.
To my surprise, though, it got better.
Much of the petty behavior that led to bullying in middle school went away. I developed friends in several grade levels and felt more at ease interacting between different social groups. I came out of my shell and gained a more diverse group of friends.
Our misfit lunch table group of goths, punks, band kids, theater kids, mathletes and video game fanatics far outnumbered any groups of aspiring bullies, so we peacefully coexisted most days without incident.
Once college began, the clique mentality disappeared. I was exposed to students from all walks of life and observed that students treated each other with mutual respect, regardless of their background or what logo was on their clothing.
Yes, it gets better.
For victims such as Zachary Greenshields: Hang in there. Report bullying as soon as it happens. Tell a teacher. Tell your principal. Tell a friend or your parents.
Whatever it takes, don't give instances of bullying an opportunity to escalate.
Also, don't be a bystander. Never stand by and watch someone get tormented by a bully. Immediately seek help.
Mostly, don't give up. There will be days when you won't want to get out of bed for fear of running into a bully. There might be days after a rumor about you spreads like wildfire over Facebook when the last thing you want to do is face your peers in the morning. Stay strong and keep confident. Report the incidents to a parent or authority figure. Just know that you're not alone and it will get better.