The other side…

On what should have been the first day of summer vacation I attended the funeral for a 13-year-old little girl. It was for a young girl in a neighboring community.

It wasn’t a student I knew personally, but through her I could see and feel the sorrow of hundreds of middle school children who suffer and are sad. They just can’t see beyond the hurt of today.

I wish she could have seen the church today. Full, no overflowing, with people there to love and remember her. I wish she could have felt the love for her in that church.

It breaks my heart to see so many students and teachers on what should have been the first day of summer, saying good-bye to a classmate.

But the saddest part of today is that she couldn’t see beyond her current pain to get help, reach out, or to understand that it will get better.

Every day I work with children and families to try to help them through the middle school years. I don’t have any secrets or magic answers, but I always try to give the kids some perspective and tell them that it does get better.

Adolescence is hard. It was hard when we were kids, but the challenges and pressures that these kids face are so much harder. The media certainly doesn’t help. Nor does the constant access to peers, friends, and total strangers who are all trying to convince them of something different.

teen species

It takes a very strong teenager to stand up to the hype, and not many of them can do that on their own. Then with 2 parents working, or only 1 parent at home and working, the challenges are compounded. The support system is flawed at best and non-existent at worst.

Life is hard. But to all those adolescents out there, it does get better. You will have to work at it to make it better. Surround yourself with people who build you up and care about you. Find activities that make you feel good about yourself. Stand up for yourself and for what you believe in. Be gentle with yourself, mistakes happen, learn from them. And when it feels like you can’t go on, find someone to talk to. When it feels like you are all alone, don’t be. Reach out to someone. There are people out there who care about you. There are people who understand what you are going through, and have made it to the other side.

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Experiences

A recent blog post suggestion asked what would your present self tell your 10 years ago self. 10 years is an interesting timeframe for me as I am 1 year out of a 10-year long marriage. As I look back on the past 10 years, actually on the past 20 years, I would have liked to have been able to spare myself some of the heart ache and pain. I would have liked to tell myself to be smarter and not get involved with this man, or that man. But in the end, who I am today has been shaped by each choice and each decision that I have made. Who I am and where I am is because of the events that have happened in my life. Hopefully some of the wisdom I have gained from those experiences will help me to help others.

Over the past few weeks I have talking to 13-year-old girl about a horrible event that happened to her. She had a bad start to the school year and was acting in a way that I thought was out of character for her. She was being down right mean. I had a few occasions to talk to her, and one of those times she told me in detail about the horrible thing that happened to her last year. And while I thought that no 13-year-old should ever have to go through what she endured, it started to make sense to me as to why she was so angry and mean.

A few of the things we talked about really resonated with me and made me appreciate what I have been through, if only to help this girl.

One of the things we talked about was the meanness of people. She was talking about how mad she would get when people made jokes or comments about her. Many of the kids knew generic, and often incorrect, information about what happened to her, so when they made comments or did things, she overreacted to them because it was so raw and painful. She said to me, “Ms. S. you can’t tell me that when someone is talking about you, you are just going to sit there and take it. You get mad and want to get back at them.”

I told her that people could be mean at any age.

At the end of last year I told my teachers that I would be going back to using my maiden name. I wanted to be sure they knew so that they were not surprised when emails started coming from me with my new last name. Most of the teachers don’t know the details of my divorce, nor do they need to. But I happened to overhear two of them talking about me, snidely commenting on me being divorced, again. It hurt. I didn’t like what they were saying. I didn’t like the judgment they were passing on me because it was such a raw and painful experience for me.

When I told her this story she said, “You could fire them.” I laughed, not for that. But I did still have to work with these teachers professionally. So we talked about taking the high road and knowing that my real friends understood and were there to support me. I also admitted to her that it did hurt. I didn’t like people talking about me. I didn’t like people judging me. But what was more important than what they said and that they were talking about me, was my reaction to them. I couldn’t control them. I could only control me and my reaction to them.

After one of our conversations she told her mom that she told me the whole story. She told her mom that after we talked she felt “lighter.” One of the things I tried to stress to her was that she was not alone. While most other 13-year-olds would not understand or be able to relate to what she had been through, I tried to assure her that she isn’t alone.

She told me later that when I shared with her some of my experiences she felt better. She said it helped to know that someone else understood what she was feeling and that she isn’t alone. I have noticed that she does look lighter. I’ve seen her smile more. I’ve seen her be a little kid again talking about silly junior high stuff. And I’ve seen her smile at me with a warmth that comes from knowing that someone else gets it.

She has talked about moving to a different school next year and I cautioned her that running away isn’t the answer. It might seem easier at times, but this isn’t something to outrun, but rather something to outlive. I encouraged her to think about what would be best for her. And in the end, she has to make decisions for her future, not simply to escape her past.

It’s easy to run. It’s easy to get mad. It’s easy to act like you don’t care. But in the end, what happens to us shapes who we are and who we become.

I was married, and divorced, twice. I have been in abusive and controlling relationships. I have been victimized, but I am not a victim. I am a survivor.

So if everything that I have been through over the past 20 years has helped this little girl know she isn’t alone, then it is all worth it.

If I could, I would tell my younger self that you are stronger than you think and you will have to deal with a lot, but in the end you will help others.

Practice what we preach

I work with middle school students all day long. I spend a lot of time trying to help them to deal with and navigate social situations, especially bullying and cyber bullying. You would like to think I don’t have to deal with adult bullying in my life, and sometimes it is harder to recognize, but that is exactly what my ex-husband is – a bully.

Don’t react – or at least don’t let them see you react

I tell my students that the bully likes the reaction. They thrive on upsetting their victim and seeing the reaction. In junior high one of the hardest things is that the friendships twist and turn so much that the “best of friends” one week are the one who are tormenting each other the next week.

The bigger problem with that is they know each other’s secrets and they know how to hurt each other. It makes the betrayal sting all the more. Someone who you once trusted is now the one using those secrets against you. Which makes it even harder not to react. I often tell my students that the hurt is there and very real, but if you don’t show them that it hurt you, then you take away the power they have over you.

Unfortunately, that is the tactic my ex-husband uses. He is so used to having control over me and being able to manipulate me that he pushes those buttons, hoping they will still work. It does still upset me, but instead of showing him my reaction, I have a few friends I will often text with a random “He’s such an ass” text. They have learned that this is my release for when my ex does something that is upsetting me. I have tried my best to take away the power that he has over me, step by step. First is by not letting him see me react. Soon (I hope), he will stop being able to upset me by the things he says. I’m still working on that.

What about the bully?

But the other part of my job is that I am often in my office with that kid who is being the bully or (more recently) the “mean girl”. And when confronted, they are just scared little kids who are pushing first because they are afraid of being hurt. They will often break down in my office and tell me the terrible things happening in their lives. Sometimes they are facing inexplicable horrors in their own lives. Sometimes an adult is taking advantage of them at home. Sometimes there is no adult who seems to be paying them any attention at home, so they are taking care of younger kids. And sometimes, they just don’t know how to interact with people in a nice way, so they do so in a mean way.

I have tried to remember this when dealing with my ex. He has spent most of his life manipulating and controlling people that he really doesn’t know how to interact in a non-confrontational way. While I can’t be the person to help him learn this skill in his life as I might try to do with my students, I can at least try to understand why he does what he does. He has lost power and control over me and so he lashes out. It doesn’t make it easier when he pushes my buttons, but it does help me later on when I stop and think about what he has in his life and what I have.

Taking back the power

One of the things I struggle with my students with is encouraging them to take back the power from the bully. There were several students being picked on by the same student. I tried to encourage them to realize that they are more powerful as a whole than the kid picking on them. It’s a tough lesson to learn and hard for middle school kids to stand up to someone they perceive as having more power then them. In working with my support staff and teachers, we are trying to show these kids they are the ones who have the power.

And that is what I did a year and a half ago, the first time I told my ex-husband “no” and stuck to it. I took back the power he had over me for years. I’m still fighting to maintain that power and control. I don’t always feel like I have any power, but I know I do. I have broken from his control and I do have the power over him that I once didn’t. I won’t let him know how much he hurts me, but I know that at the end of the day I have power over me and that’s more than he has.