Dangerous is my nickname because interesting adventures seem to happen when I’m around. Some people say I’m brave. But being brave and the nickname didn’t start until after “it” happened. And then I had secrets – important secrets.
For now, it was just another day to try to avoid Jessica Madding and her gang of pretty girls, all dressed perfectly, and all just as mean as their leader. I shuffled to school, every step a willful act of obedience to the universe to do what middle school girls have to do. There was no escape, and there was no bright spot. I didn’t have friends.
I’m different, and I never thought being different was bad. But here in Halifax, New York where we had to move because of my dad’s job, being different is a bad thing.
The first day of school, I had to introduce myself. I remember standing up straight and saying in my normal adult-sounding voice, “Hi. I’m Jillian. My middle name is Noel because my birthday is in December and my mom loves Christmas. I’m adopted, I love to read, and I skipped a grade so I’m younger than you are. I also speak Vietnamese.”
I remember a little bit of laughter, and that confused me. I thought sharing things about myself that were different would make me more interesting. I thought it would help me make friends, but I was wrong. It was a disaster. Nobody wanted to be my friend, or even if they wanted to – they didn’t try. Jessica Madding ruled the school and everyone called her Maddie.
I thought about trying to change myself, but there was nothing to change. “Mom, I’ve got such a big nose,” I complained, looking in the mirror.
“Oh honey,” she answered. “I’m sure your face just hasn’t caught up with it yet.”
“That’ll never happen,” I thought to myself. “There is no way I could ever look like them, talk like them, or be like them.”
“Silly Jillie! You look like you just crawled out of bed!” laughed Maddie with a nasty sneer on her face. The pretty girls laughed as I tried desperately to open my locker. Everyone else, including the boys in the hall turned around to look at me. I felt like falling through the floor, and my stomach was in knots. As usual, no one stood up for me as I grabbed my books and ran to the classroom.
“I wish I could escape! Somewhere! Anywhere!” I thought. “I can’t stand this.” I particularly hated recess and lunch, because there were no assigned seats or places to be. It made it even more obvious that I didn’t have friends. After more mean remarks, and whispering and laughter directed at me through the day, the bell rang and another day was done. I grabbed my jacked, bolted out the door into the cold winter air, and ran all the way home. My parents knew, but they had to pester me about it before I finally told them.
You see, I had been having stomach aches almost every morning before school. “Honey, is there something bothering you about school?” Mom asked repeatedly. I didn’t want to tell my parents what was going on. It seemed embarrassing to me, and I thought I should have been able to handle it.
At dinner Dad would ask, “Tell me something about school today. You don’t seem quite yourself.” I knew he was trying to help, but I would just say something like, “We’re starting to learn about World War II.” If he asked more, I’d just shrug my shoulders.
A few days after the World War II comment, when I got home from school Mom said, “Okay, Honey. I’ve made an appointment with the doctor to see what’s wrong with your stomach. Dad and I are very concerned.” As I expected, the doctor said nothing was physically wrong with me, so on the way home, I decided to tell.
“Mom, there’s this girl at school. They call her Maddie.” I began. “She’s really popular and she’s really mean. What she says or does becomes the rule with all the other kids at school, and she decided I’m the one to pick on. I don’t know why. I didn’t do anything to deserve it,” I continued, “so, I’ve been hoping it would just go away … that she’d get bored with picking on me. Maybe then someone would decide to be my friend, but it’s not happening. Everyone either joins in or ignores me so that they stay out of her reach. I don’t have any friends. I could probably handle no friends, but it’s worse to be teased by her and her gang. They’re all really pretty, like I’m not,” I finished.
Mom was quiet for a moment while she drove. When she turned and looked at me I could see anger in her eyes, but her words were comforting. “Honey, I completely disagree that you’re not pretty. Someday you’ll know I’m right. As for Maddie and the girls; I wish I could be your age to be there and the two of us could be friends and fight back. I understand how hard it must be to face that alone.” She paused, “Dad and I will talk tonight and decide what to do.”
“Oh Mom,” I responded quickly. “Don’t do anything. It’ll make it worse.”
“No,” she said. “We need to help make it better. We can’t just let this happen.” And then she thought for a minute, “Sometimes being different is all it takes for someone who is looking for a girl to bully.”
“Right,” I responded. “I’m different from them in a lot of ways, but I thought by now she would have gotten bored with making fun of me.”
Mom and Dad came up with an action plan of two things. It gave me a little hope, and it definitely was a relief to have told them about it. The first thing was to try to change what was happening and the other was to help me deal with what was happening. They visited the school and talked to the principal and my teacher in order to change what was happening. They told me later that the teacher and the principal were both very concerned and promised to talk to Maddie and her parents, and to keep a close eye on the behavior of the students.
Their second action plan was to find a therapist for me to talk to. They said I could always talk to them. In fact, they were constantly asking me how I was doing, but Mom said, “Although we want to hear everything from you in order to help, we also understand that sometimes there are things you may not want to tell your parents. It can help to have someone who is a professional counselor to talk to which may help you feel stronger inside.”
My therapist; Judi was helpful – a little. She explained to me that people bully others because they are weak inside and feel stronger about themselves when they make fun of others. I liked Judi, and maybe all of that was true, but it didn’t change what Maddie was doing.
“I agree,” Judi said. “We can’t change Maddie or her behavior. I just want to help you understand that she looks strong to you but it’s because she uses bullying almost as food for herself to make herself feel stronger inside. So, for you, we need to talk about how to help you feel stronger inside.”
Sometimes I felt better after talking to Judi and sometimes I didn’t. I’ll never know what the conversations were like between the school and Maddie and her parents and whether she got in trouble or not. Things changed a little, but only in the classroom or when teachers were around.
Then I had an idea of what might help me feel stronger inside. It would be almost like Mom and Dad were with me at school. Christmas was coming. “Hey, Mom,” I ventured one day. “I’d like a cell phone for Christmas. I know I’m young, but a few of the other kids have them and it would make me feel like I could call you if I needed to.”
Well, I didn’t get one for Christmas, but I got it a few days before, which was great. On my 12th birthday, it was the first gift I opened. Dad said, “Honey, do not, I repeat, do not give the number to anyone, especially other kids.” He continued, “This is only to be used for calling home if you need to.” And he went on to tell me what cyber bullying was and how much worse that could be, because kids could be bullies not just at school but also outside of school.
My parents knew a lot about everything. I think it was because they were old … much older than other parents of kids in my class. In fact, people who didn’t know us usually thought they were my grandparents. Mom told me she and Dad were pretty old when they adopted me and the adoption agency hesitated because of it.
“Honey, it took years for us to decide to adopt a child, and even more years to go through the process until you came along,” she told me one day as she pulled out the color kit for her hair. “I’ll keep dying my hair to look younger, at least until you go to college … but Dad refuses, so you’ll just have to be okay with that.” I was. I loved my parents no matter how old they were.