When I was a kid, there were these giant posters of line drawings that came with a pack of colored felt-tip pens which you use to color it. I ended up with a couple of them, but wasn't really a fan because it was more fun to draw my own pictures to color. The way I made it fun was to go crazy with it. I had a "space" poster where I remapped the colors. Everywhere I would normally color blue I would color green. Green was pink. Pink was yellow. And so on. This lead to a rather interesting conversation when I wrapped it around one of my school books. A teacher thought I might be colorblind because CLEARLY I had a problem. I assured them that it was just for fun, but it got sent to the administration anyway. This just lead to an even stranger conversation when I was told that if I'm not colorblind that I shouldn't be pretending that I'm colorblind.
Funny. Here I thought that I was just amusing myself.
As it turns out "amusing myself" always ended up with my getting into trouble.
The constraints of social conformity have always been a buzzkill to creative thinking, which is why I've never been any good at adhering to it. Dress this way. Act this way. Believe this way. Think this way. Because if you don't then there will be consequences.
To which I never hesitated to say "fuck you," because the world needs me more than I need to feel a part of it. Seriously could not care less if people want to exclude me from their clique-based emotional economy or call me names or talk about me behind my back. Sure there have been times that it stung a bit because the people doing it were people I thought cared about me, but ultimately it had zero bearing on my life. Probably because I was a part of internet culture very early on and could always find my tribe regardless of location, distance, or situation. There were always groups that liked the same kind of stuff, had a similar way of looking at the world, and had similar beliefs, so I was never really "alone," even while alone. And I've been lucky to find "my people" in Real Life too, so there's that.
But that was me as a young adult up until now.
I don't know that I was ever seriously bullied by my school peers as a child. Sure I was poked fun at sometimes... that was a given... but other than isolated incidents I can count on one hand, there was no relentless torture. If anything, more bullying came my way via some of my teachers than fellow students.
But it's a different world now.
Bullying, as a matter of course, is relentless and devastating in a way it never was when I was a kid. And it's not just high schoolers who face all new levels of torment thanks to the very internet which saved me from being alone... it's increasingly younger and younger kids. Kids who have no defense because there's increasing indifference towards their plight. Fellow kids run from them so they aren't targeted next. Teachers don't want to get involved because it could get them targeted by parents of bullies. And parents of bullies rarely seem to care (or, even worse, encourage it). Some kids exist in a never-ending nightmare from which they cannot escape. But we allow it because it's always "somebody else's kid."
Until it isn't.
Back on December 19th, my mother's birthday, I found the story of a 12-year-old kid who committed suicide because of relentless bullying. His name is Eli Ballance...
12 years old.
He wasn't even given a chance to find his people.
Undoubtedly he would have eventually found friends who valued him and to whom he could relate to... but he couldn't find a way to live long enough for it to happen.
His mother tried to keep him safe at school... a place, mind you, that kids are required to attend... but they refused to promise her anything. Not that I am putting the blame entirely on educators. Teachers have to put up with increasingly hostile workplaces where they struggle to keep their heads above water as they are vilified and persecuted for trying to do their jobs. But there has to be something that can be done. If parents won't take responsibility for their kid's bullying and teachers are in a place where it's nearly impossible for them to do it without risking their lives or jobs, then there has to be a third party looking out for kids that are at risk. Because this problem is not going away. It's not going to disappear.
I have no idea why Eli was bullied. Not that it matters. His mother said he was "smart, funny, and compassionate." And that's all that really should matter.
Eli's mom is now advocating for change and wears shirts with the words "Pick Kindness" on them as a way to keep other parents from having to go through what she is.
I wish her luck.
Not just for her own peace of mind, but for all the kids like the me of my childhood who would have a tough time surviving in the world today. We deserve a shot at growing up and find our way in the world. We deserve to be able to say fuck you and find happiness despite a world that needs us, but doesn't want to accept us as we are.