When I was in the fifth grade, my family installed AOL and I took my first step into cyberspace. It was a safe space, for a while, where I could talk with my friends about boys and homework and what to bedazzle next. At this point, we still had bigger lives off line and hadn’t really wrapped our heads around how the internet would evolve or how we’d utilize it. I was always a silly kid, so for me, AOL was for tricking people and playing games with strangers for a laugh. I often lost my computer privileges for getting caught in adult chatrooms pretending to be a twenty-one year old dog walker with twelve toes or an eighteen year old surfer with a six pack but no pictures to prove it. By the time I was in the thick of middle school, Instant Messenger was in full swing of its capabilities. For me, that meant it was for telling boys that I love them and getting my first tastes of rejection.
Jelliklekat: HeY jOsh, itZ kAitLyn, fRom HoMeRoOm.
NYJETZ4EVA: caytelin who?
Jelliklekat: KaiTlYn W.
NYJETZ4EVA: oh rite. sup
Jelliklekat: nM, u?
Jelliklekat: I jUst wAnTed tO teLL yOu thAt yOu R rEAlLy cUtE aNd FunNy.
Jelliklekat: wHicH iS wHy i LoVe yoU.
NYJETZ4EVA: LOL. u r mad weird. srry. i like claire s. g2g
*creaky door slam*
Eventually, after enough rejection, my confidence began to wane.This was before Livejournal, so my willingness to be open was not yet well received. While my pursuit for love through Instant Messenger was closing, my big personality was still very much open. According to my mother’s headaches, I was often too loud. According to my sister’s complaints, I was annoying. According to my pediatrician, I was hyperactive. According to my friends, I was just happy. This all worked very well for community theater but not so much for my social life. Outside of my group of childhood friends were students that didn’t have any interest in knowing me. And soon, as I would enter high school, I wouldn’t want to know me either.
In 9th grade I decided I was tired of being the girl without a Valentine and the girl without Bat Mitzvah dance partner. I bought a hair straightener and denim skirt and tried my luck with flirting offline. To my surprise, the upperclassmen were receptive. At the end of the day, they would invite me to stand in their conglomerate mass of bodies, lacrosse sticks and gym bags. There I’d stand, sweating, with my hands in my back pockets, subtly tugging my skirt down, answering questions like, “no, I don’t like Dave Matthews either, he sounds like he has something stuck in his throat.” And, “yes, I’m allowed to drive with boys after 9PM on the weekends.” And, “sure, you can drive me home.”
I was a fourteen year old girl who had never been kissed and was never noticed and all of a sudden I was getting rides home from handsome man-boys with excellent taste in Jeep Wranglers. I started to feel more like a young woman and less like a class clown or willing butt of a joke. Most rides home were silent, punctuated by “turn left up ahead” and “it’s the first driveway after that barn.” The conversation wouldn’t pick up until we were both behind the safety of our computer screens. Being incredibly inexperienced, I was happy to chat online. I was safe from potentially bad first kisses and sweaty palm hand holding or blushing too hard when answering questions like ‘how many boyfriends have you had?” I was happy to have something to share when my friends when we would boy-talk over flaccid french fries and Gatorade in the cafeteria.
When I was invited to my first high school party by a senior boy I felt welcome and special. Upon arrival I quickly deduced that my presence was neither of those things. The senior girls were furious, begging my date to take me home. I wish he had. That night I drank my first beer and grew quiet amidst the whispers “slut” “loser” “whore” “weirdo”. There it was again, “weirdo”, a name I was too used to taking. I was mortified. I was embarrassed to be so inexperienced that the idea of defending myself against such accusations was an even greater discomfort. When I finally got home, I fell apart. I was devastated. I felt stupid. I didn’t want to go to school on Monday. I wanted to move away. I wanted disappear. I vowed to never speak to those people again. What I didn’t know, is that they already had their own plans to speak to me. The next day, the cyber world greeted me with a littering of messages from various unfamiliar accounts:
Bully1: Hey dumb whore, you’re a dumb whore.
Bully 2: You better watch your back, slut.
Bully 3: Those guys don’t want to be your friend, they’re just using you because they know you’re a skank.
Bully 4: How do you walk around smiling all day? If I had your face I’d be crying.
Bully 5: You’re a fat and ugly bitch and all of your “friends” laugh at you behind your back.
Bully 6: Sorry about your mailbox, I didn’t mean to pound it with a baseball bat until it was flat as a pancake.
Bully 7: Why don’t you do yourself a favor and kill yourself? Everyone hates a slut.
Cue insecurity, cue shame, cue paranoia, cue eating disorder, cue depression, cue fear.
Over the course of my freshman year, I was harassed and bullied by over a dozen
faceless people. I was hacked. I received prank calls. My families mailbox was smashed
four times. I received death threats three times. I was forced to spend many hours with
my guidance counselor, the principal, and the local police turning over chat transcripts
and death threats that were taped to my locker.
I was apprehensive about sharing this story because we were never able to identify any of my bullies. A big part of me doesn’t want to give those people the power by writing about them so many years later, but an even bigger part of me wants to admit how much harm they caused. By the next fall I returned to school a different girl. I became incredibly introverted. I was nervous, dark, and embarrassed to be alive. Though I remained the prudish girl unkissed, I took on the shame cast upon me.
In the years to come, I would often find myself acting out in different ways. I teased others. I did a fair share of name-calling. I wanted to do anything to get the power back and the only way I could see doing that was to take it away from others. That’s when I figured out that I was continuing the cycle. As my bullies have hopefully learned by now, you don’t gain power by taking it from others, you get it by building yourself back up.
Recently, I’ve been inspired by the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. It’s an example of
how we can use the internet to spread love and proof that it spreads faster than hate. The internet can be so impersonal, so when I’m reminded of ways that it can web us together for good, I’m happy to be a part of it. I’m not asking anyone to get wet, but I am proposing: what if we all took twenty seconds to spread love to someone who needs it? I challenge you to be kind and remind (#bekindremind) someone why they are special. Maybe it’s someone you’ve lost touch with, maybe it’s someone right next to you, maybe it’s someone you were less than kind to, maybe it’s someone who was less than kind to you. Record your kindness, tag its recipient and short link this article. If you’re in a position to donate, check out the links below.
The Trevor Project
The Kind Campaign
It Gets Better Project