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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

New findings: bullying & lasting isolation

Middle-aged adults who were bullied as kids are more likely to be isolated, less likely to be living with a partner, less optimistic about their lives, and more likely to be unemployed. These findings come from a very long-term study, reported in the LA Times and other outlets this weekend, which I’m reading about in the Albany airport as I’m about to board a flight to talk with middle schoolers in Indiana who’ve read The Revealers, my young-adult novel on bullying.

I was bullied severely in middle school, and I don’t like the term victim. I was a target, mainly because I was awkward and different, an odd, confused kid from an alcoholic household who had no coolness and didn’t know how to fit in. Early adolescence is the time of intense change and confusion — and it’s when a young person’s frame of reference typically shifts, from family to peers. So our 13-year-olds shun us in public while checking desperately for clues about how other kids are perceiving them.

On one of my many school visits over the past decade to talk about The Revealers, a girl said something I think captures all of this, including the new study results. “Middle school is the time in your life when you’re trying to figure out who you are,” she volunteered during a classroom discussion. “And if people are telling you, ‘You’re weird,’ ‘Nobody likes you,’ ‘You don’t belong here,’ you can carry that around inside you the whole rest of your life.”

That’s it; and that’s what the study has found. Starting in 1958 with 1,800 children in the United Kingdom, researchers interviewed their subjects’ parents when the kids were seven and 11 years old, finding out which ones were being bullied. Assessed again at age 50, the 61 percent of subjects who were still in the survey “had fewer years of schooling than their peers ... were more likely to be unemployed ... earnings typically lower,” the Times reports. They were also “less likley to be living with a spouse or partner; less likely to have spent time with friends recently; and less likely to have friends of family to lean on if they got sick.”

I remember this isolation, and I carried it around inside for a long, long time. In about eighth grade, I clearly remember deciding that I could never, and would never again, trust anyone but myself. This was a serious vow, the kind a young overly serious teenager might make, and there were reasons. Back then it seemed like each time I shared my awkward self I got hammered for it. I couldn’t absorb that any more. So I made my vow.

And it was the way that girl predicted: I carried that with me inside. Outwardly, I could be entertaining and funny, having learned well from parents who were entertaining and funny at cocktail parties. But I remember looking around after the first two weeks in college and noticing that, although I knew a lot of people, but I had no real friends. I noticed this, but wasn’t sure what to do about it. By then the vow was buried deep; you couldn’t see or notice it at all.

I was neither a victim nor a survivor — I was a person with some stuff to work out. The virtue and potential of today’s anti-bullying movement, of the attention that comes with it, is that kids no longer always have to carry this around all alone. Not always. But still, many kids do. It can often seem the only way to survive.

They’re not victims. They’re tougher than that. But they can still be, all too often, all alone inside.

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