Lately there have been a number of heart-breaking news reports about kids resorting to suicide after years of being bullied. Just today I read about a 13-year-old girl in Ruskin, Fla. who took her own life after she'd been bullied in the worst sort of ways. I nearly shed tears reading the story. Life would've gotten better for her. She just had to endure, but mostly she just needed some help.
I don't pretend to really understand what many of these kids who've taken their own life have gone through, because I've never been to the brink and then over the edge like they have. But I do understand what it's like being bullied. Running is relevant here, so please bear with me.
This is not an easy subject for me to discuss--being bullied as a kid. Growing up, I was (and still am) full of energy and couldn't sit still for long periods of time. I took very little interest in math, science, etc., and really only cared about art class, industrial arts and gym. Art allowed me to be creative (very few people know that I'm an artist). Shop allowed me to build something. Gym allowed me to be active. The label that was afixed to me was ADHD--attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. I was often out of control, causing interruptions. I saw a therapist and neurologist and was on medication to try to calm me down. Understand that back then--this was the early to mid 80s--ADHD was only beginning to be understood.
I was so full of energy and yet school offered so few outlets for it. My parents did all they could. Not even cross country got all of the energy out (though it did help). In school, I had the intelligence to do the work, but I lacked interest because what I really wanted was to be active. Traditional schooling wasn't working. I needed an educational environment in which I could engage in hands-on learning, live adventure and spend lots of time outdoors. While many kids were learning about photosynthesis in class, I needed to be learning about it outdoors with the sun shining on God's creation. My energy needed to be embraced not as a negative, but as a positive. I was a square peg in a vast system of round holes. And I know many other kids were (and still are) their own kind of square peg--and it's often these kids who find themselves being bullied.
I believe some kids have a sixth sense. This sixth sense is the ability to detect and exploit insecurity. This is the MO of the bully. But, ironically, the greatest insecurity is not in the bullied, but rather in the bully himself. Ganging up on others enables the bully to cover up his or her own insecurity. Bullies are not well-adjusted, stable kids; if they were, they wouldn't bully. Insecurity in the bully manifests itself as aggressive behavior. Insecurity in the bullied manifests itself as exploitable weakness and vulnerability. The bully is the hunter; the bullied is the hunted. Those who are not bullies often side with the bully out of fear. And thus you have an environment where the bullied finds himself or herself being ganged up on. It is the truly courageous child who defends the bullied. This courageous child is probably the one who will grow up to have the greatest impact on the world.
My insecurity as a kid--and, I would imagine, the insecurity of many bullied kids--stemmed from not fitting in and being forced by the status quo educational system to spend hours every day in an environment that simply didn't serve me well. It's easy to say, "Well, Wyatt, you should have fit in; you were your own worst enemy." Telling a kid to just fit in is not only wrong; it's tragic. Kids need to be in environments where they can flourish and where their gifts--energy being one of mine--can be used in good ways to truly build self-esteem. Yes, we need uniform standards, but we must allow children to be individuals, not products of the system. Our educational system creates products, and if you're not "packaged" like most of the other kids then you're discarded. It's tragic.
I needed more freedom--freedom of thought, expression and activity. I lacked this freedom all the way through high school, mostly earning sub-par grades as I wasted away in the classroom. Not until college, when I had the freedom I lacked for all those years (and a very good example in my future wife, an exceptional student), did I blossom. My parents sent me to a good liberal-arts college perfect for me (and did they ever sacrifice for it). It wasn't until my sophomore year that it hit me that I was finally in an environment where I could be free. I was exposed to many free thinkers, and it was OK to be different. I earned straight A's in college, developing a passion for history and political science, graduating with honors and forming many friendships I still cherish to this day.
But the damage from those years of being bullied as a kid has never quite been fully repaired. And it never will be. Deep down, there's still some rage in me, and I think this rage over time is being replaced with peace. I know who I am, and ultrarunning has been a huge part of that process and has helped feed success in my personal and professional lives. Many ultrarunners probably feel the same way; we're a different breed. But while I know who I am, I'm still undecided about what I want to do. Maybe working with kids is the calling.
Running and outdoor adventure have been my answer, but they're not the answer for every child. Our educational system needs to help kids find what allows them to flourish, blossom and enjoy success. Until we find a way to do that, bullying will continue to drive many children to the brink...and then over the edge.