Earlier this year, I announced an essay contest for teenagers about bullying. Some 1,200 essays later, we have our grand prize winner.
Before I get to her story, let me share a sampling of the entrants who wrote poignantly and powerfully about the suffocating ostracism of school corridors and cafeterias.
“For eight years, I have skipped lunch to get to the safety of the library, bury myself in books, and count the days till graduation,” wrote Alyssa Ahrens, 17, a high school senior in Indiana. “As of today, it is 64.”
Plenty of adults are skeptical about the fuss over bullying. “How come the thin-skinned kids nowadays can’t handle the bullying that made us better, stronger adults?” one man wrote to me on Twitter.
He should read what Madison Jaronski, 15, of New Hope, Pa., wrote:
“Tears have been flooding down my face; breathing is a task that now seems impossible. I draw my legs closer and closer into my chest as I try to transform the pressure into reassuring comfort. I begin to slowly rock myself, and by now my tears have colored my pillow black. ...
“All of my accomplishments and enjoyable moments are overshadowed by the pain and harassment that was thrust upon me. Just looking at my surface, you would see a confident young woman, as sturdy as a rock. You would never think that I was broken, broken into a million pieces like shattered glass, all because of the work of a group of senior boys.”
You want to reach out to these kids and envelop them in a big warm hug and tell them that they are smart, sensitive human beings, a thousand times better than their tormenters.
Teen Ink magazine, which helped me conduct the essay contest and chose the finalists, observes that bullying is compounded by social media because nice kids will casually press the button on a vicious Facebook comment that they might never express face to face.
“Today’s problem isn’t so much the bullying itself — bullying has been around for centuries,” says Paulina Puskala, 17, of Marquette, Mich. “The problem is that it is difficult to escape it.”
“Technology-enabled bullies contain the ability to harass 24/7,” she added.
Many of the essay writers argue that adults are either oblivious to bullying or turn a blind eye to it. In any case, they say, students themselves have to take the lead in making bullying uncool.
One such initiative was outlined by Emily-Anne Rigal, 18, of Williamsburg, Va. After being tormented about her weight, to the point that she had to switch schools, she founded We Stop Hate, an organization that she describes as “more than just an antibullying program. It’s a call to action to stop hate: stop hating on yourself, stop hating on others.”
The program has helped thousands of young people, she says. Lady Gaga has declared herself inspired by Emily-Anne.
All these essay writers are my winners, and their full essays are posted on my blog, nytimes.com/ontheground. And now excerpts from the grand prize-winning essay, which also contained a ray of hope. It’s by Lena Rawley, 17, of Montclair, N.J.
“Teenage girls are cruel super-humans from a distant galaxy sent here to destroy us all,” she began. “They have the self-entitlement of a celebrity heiress and the aggression of a Roman gladiator. Like vampires, they feed off the blood of the weak. They’re pubescent monsters.”
“Not only was I a former teenage mean girl, but I was tortured, tormented, isolated and socially maimed by them as well. When they acquire a target, teenage girls, with the determination of a private assassin, will stop at nothing to take down their target.”
“I was the wounded gazelle. ... Vicious rumors began spreading around and dirty looks and foul words were thrown my way in the hall. I was forced off the lunch table and into social leprosy.”
“I received an e-mail from the ringleader of the group. I opened it up to reveal a headline that bluntly stated, ‘Fifty Reasons Why We Can’t Be Friends With You.’ Underneath the headline, as promised were neatly 50 reasons, ranging from my body to my personality to my clothes, that clearly stated the reason for my alienation.
“I felt sick. But I wasn’t going to let them get me. Those hyenas didn’t deserve my tears. I deleted the note, picked up the pieces and moved on. I found friends who were kind and accepting. Friends who wouldn’t devour their own.
“My experience, while evidently not ideal, is something that I would not change. I don’t see it as a stain upon the fabric of my life, but more like an embellishment. A decorative brooch I wear with pride, a brooch that cries: I overcame bullying, so can you.”