‘Sticks and Stones’

“It was long ago and far away

The world was younger than today

When dreams were all they gave for free

To ugly duckling girls like me”

— At Seventeen by Janis Ian

I never saw it coming … only a blur, really … when at age 12, the sting of a wet tea towel snapped across my face by some friend’s mad mom. It made my skin welt up like it had just been lacerated. The sudden shock of this left me standing stunned and staring at their front door, which had been slammed shut. (Apparently, my interrupting their supper was just cause.)


As for support at home? Forget it! Most families set the example with a ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ type of discipline. And besides, who wanted to be tagged as a “mamma’s boy”? What a perfect background for bullies (young or old) to act with impunity.


Back then, living with fear and intimidation wasn’t called abuse – it wasn’t called anything – it was to be expected. Getting ‘picked on’ was a way of life as a preteen and a rite of passage as a teenager.


“And those of us with ravaged faces

Lacking in the social graces (…)

And those whose names were never called

When choosing sides for basketball.”

After starting secondary school I developed severe facial acne which needed professional intervention. None was forth-coming, of course. Kids were just kids, and besides, we would grow out of it. No thought was given to the lingering emotional scars that could mar adult development later on.


I keenly remember enduring the verbal venom of an individual, half my size, who made it his personal mission to ridicule and taunt me because he thought my acne meant a lack of personal hygiene – a common enough fallacy at the time.

So, just because he could, this kid decided to send all my text books flying – from my desk to the floor.  The impact of the sound caused everybody to stop and stare as I quietly gathered up my books and moved to a different desk, hoping that I could just fade into the background. To me, I was more than the elephant in the room; I felt like the ‘elephant man’. Mercifully, cyber-bullying (unlike now) wasn’t possible.


Looking back, as a responsible adult, it’s hard to relate to these actions: he was like a ‘hockey goon’ who hits to inflect injury – puck or no puck. Such was, and is, the effect of bullying on its victims. Humiliated, embarrassed and at their most vulnerable, the victim dares not take a stand. Bullying becomes regarded as an unavoidable inevitability.

The bully– as a hurting, independent operator– uses intimidation and control to also silence the victim’s peers, who are afraid of becoming targets themselves. The only choices are to be part of the mayhem, a victim of it, or hopefully … invisible. (Reflecting back, I can’t recall any adult intervention.)


“They hurt you at home and they hit you at school

They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool.”

— Working Class Hero by John Lennon

Ironically enough, there were positive things resulting from these childhood experiences.

I got to appreciate those rare individuals who saw past social disability and looked at people directly in the eyes – even to the very core – in a non-judgemental manner. I call these people saints because they offered a cup of kindness to people like me, who were thirsting for acceptance.


I can better understand how a person like Mother Teresa of Calcutta would have been received by the poor, the shunned and the disfigured lepers. I didn’t experience her saving grace, but somehow could identify with Lincoln saying he was driven to his knees because there was no place else to go – a perspective I learned early.

Music and sports became my means to salvation – rebuilding my confidence and self-worth – with music speaking to me, when no one would.


The nursery rhyme says: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” However, child and youth coaches have found that physical injuries often hurt less. Promoting a challenging – yet encouraging – environment is the name of the real game of life.

Can bullies change? Absolutely. With age, often comes maturity. I think it’s got something to do with respect, love, forgiveness … more about us than ‘them’.



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