Tales From the Island of Misfit Kids and Animals: A Charitable Influence-inspired Post

Having been bullied for most of my school years and seen many close friends and family members bullied, too, it bothers me to see how this problem remains such a big part of the school experience for so many kids. At the same time, it does my heart good to see more action being taken to stop this problem and innovative methods being proposed to rehabilitate bullies, such as a project that the Ian Somerhalder Foundation has in the works.

The ISF is a charity organization begun by actor Ian Somerhalder (star of The Vampire Diaries and Lost — two shows I happen to love) which encompasses raising public awareness across a broad spectrum of issues pertaining to animals, the environment, kids and young adults. It’s so refreshing to see a celebrity act so earnestly towards affecting positive change.

The ISF is currently raising funds for an animal sanctuary that plans to bring together mistreated animals and children, as well as bullies themselves. The ISF states:

Through the art of compassion, the continuously devastating issue of bullying in our country could be approached in an intensely impactful manner that encourages healthy relationships. We know in our hearts that animals and bullies share common emotional baggage. For example, an abused and neglected pitbull has the power to transform a school bully into a compassionate leader with a shift in benevolent consciousness. While both the dog and the bully are refused the opportunity to demonstrate their true potential within their daily lives, a healing and educational journey side by side has the power to manifest massive changes in perspective. We will bring the bruised together as a family to learn just how unique–and just very the same–we all are…and how if we unite…we are NOT the outcast, we ARE the UNSTOPPABLE.

This is a wonderful idea and a great message. Not only do animals have a chance to be loved and understand that not all humans are cruel, but children can work with these animals and find a common bond. This extends to kids who have been on both the giving and receiving end of bullying. Sometimes, it’s much harder to find empathy for members of your own species. The negative impact of bullying can sometimes be seen so much more powerfully when you witness the effect it has had on a defenseless or misunderstood animal. The ISF’s proposal may help rehabilitate young bullies so that they can turn their lives around and become better, happier people sooner rather than later.

The issue hits home for me. As a kid, I grew up on the outskirts of a small Pennsylvania town in an apartment complex removed from the neighborhoods where most of my schoolmates lived. As a result, there were very few kids to play with besides my younger brother and a handful of kids who lived in the complex. I was very close with my family and my parents were really into the arts. Mom was a musical theatre aficionado and Dad was a former road musician who played music on weekends after working 50+ hours a week in a yarn factory.

Since there weren’t too many kids around, I found it hard to relate to them. I was close with my parents and inherited Mom’s love for Broadway and Dad’s appreciation of sword-and-sandal movies starring Errol Flynn or Victor Mature. I watched a lot of old TV shows. I was obsessed with Gilligan’s Island. (Nerd alert: I drew my own Gilligan’s Island paper dolls, colored them, and taped them to cardboard. I took it even further and made my own “Grass Hut Playset” out of a cardboard box and construction paper. Yeah. I was THAT kid.) The most “normal” things I was into were stuffed animals, The Muppets, cartoons, and staying up late on Friday nights to watch old horror movies on the local PBS affiliate.

I liked to read and write and I got (almost) straight A’s. I’d write strange little stories and draw weird little pictures. (You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Freddy Krueger surrounded by pastel hearts rendered in crayon.)

My socially awkward nature may have been considered passable if it weren’t for two things:
1.) My family was poor.
2.) I was a freak.

Unfortunately, socioeconomic status factors into bullying. My brother and I were always clean, neatly dressed and spotlessly groomed. Yet, since our sneakers were not name brand and we didn’t rock the latest B.U.M. Equipment, Hypercolor, or I.O.U. sweatshirts, it was a big clue to classmates that our family was not rolling in it. (Think Cartman yelling, “Your family’s poor, Kenny!” and you have a fairly accurate picture.)

On top of that, when I was five years old, I developed a severe sinus condition that made me blow my nose nonstop for several years. My nose ran so much that a mere Kleenex could not contain the honk. I carried around a paper towel to blow my nose in during class, stuffing it up the sleeve of my shirt or dress every day at school. My classmates dubbed it my “snot rag”. I was teased about it constantly until a steady regimen of Dimetap each morning in the 7th grade helped staunch the flow. (I think most people have forgotten about that snot rag… Uhhh… Until now.)

I also wore glasses. Rather than cool, John Lennon specs in a respectable metal frame; all Mom could afford were ginormous, deeply discounted Sally Jesse Raphael glasses in loud colors. And the larger the glasses, the thicker the lens. Mine were so thick you could start forest fires with them. At least I could see!

Things got even more interesting when I got my first period at the age of 9. With it, came puberty’s other accoutrements sponsored in part by fluctuating hormones and changing body chemistry. Soon I had some new friends called zits, oily hair and humongous flakes of dandruff, and boobs well before anyone in my grade had any of those things. There is nothing worse than being the only 4th grader carting around a set of 36Cs.

I hated the unwanted attention they brought me. I was 10 years old and getting ogled at the community pool by men who should have been watching their kids instead of my chest. I may have been academically smart but I was socially naive. Fortunately, my mother brought me up to speed.

At school, my junior jugs made me an even bigger target. In between taunts of “Pick a pimple! It’s really simple”, some classmates insisted that I used my snot rags to “stuff” my bra or that my boobs were not really boobs, but rather two, massive globules of snot.

It never occurred to them that hey, if my boobs really were Kleenex-based life forms, I would have probably stopped stuffing my bra to avoid being made fun of — or being asked to see them by some of my cruder classmates.

I hated myself. I just saw my life changing for the worse. I didn’t have anyone to relate to and now it felt like even my own body was betraying me. I wanted it to stop. I was 10 or 11 years old and thought about committing suicide.

Fortunately, my social ineptitude saved my life. Having logged way too many hours of prime-time soaps, I figured any pills would do the trick to off myself. I went to my mom’s purse and took a handful of Tylenol. Then, to be sure I finished the job, I went out to the trash and started to look for rotten food to “poison” myself. I found an entire, discarded cherry pie still in its store-bought box in one neighbor’s garbage bag. I scarfed it down thinking this was it. “Goodbye, cruel world!” (To be fair, I really was a melodramatic kid.)

Obviously, I did not die. The only thing I accomplished by this incredible act of stupidity was develop an aversion to cherry pie that lasted for nearly a decade.

I poke fun at this moment in my life because I’m still alive to tell about and was able realize just how stupid this was on so many levels. Eating cherry pie out of a dumpster is comical in hindsight. What isn’t funny is that there are probably a lot of kids not much older than 10 who have seriously considered killing themselves — or worse, who have succeeded. Now, I can laugh about what I did, but I remember how horrible I felt every day and what prompted me to do something like that. I know what it was like to feel like things sucked so bad in so many aspects of life that the only way it would stop would be to kill myself.

If I succeeded, who would have ultimately benefited? Certainly not my parents. I had the best, most supportive family who encouraged me to be my (quirky) self and wanted a wonderful future for me. Suicide would have hurt the people who loved me.

As for the people who made fun of me on a daily basis, I recognized that their worlds would continue to turn. My death would have meant nothing to them and they would probably have found a new target to bully.

Screw that!

That was a turning point for me. I started to stand up for myself more. The bullying didn’t totally stop, but it lessened. By the time junior high and high school rolled around, I made friends and started to become less socially awkward. The acne and dandruff went away. My vision stabilized enough that I could wear contact lenses. I found other people who loved horror movies, quoting television shows, and I discovered heavy metal music. I found my groove. Granted, there were people who taunted me for being a metalhead or for dying my hair black, but things improved.

The comments of my classmates still haunted me, though, even throughout high school. I had (and sometimes still struggle) with low self-esteem. It didn’t matter how many A’s I had, I saw myself as “ugly” or just “not as good as” others. Fortunately, I had great friends and an even better family who always had my back, even on my worst days.

I remember the occasional fist-fight between myself and a few high school bullies. During Senior year, there was a Freshman who would make lewd comments to me every day on my way to 7th period. I brushed it off until one day, he reached out and yanked my hair. He walked to class with a swollen eye in return.

While physical retaliation to bullying isn’t always the best answer, it was something I found to be an effective deterrent. I would never hit anyone unless they touched me. When it got to that point, however, all bets were off since I feared it would only escalate further if I didn’t put them in check. During my own Freshman year, a bully pushed me and a friend down the stairs for no reason than he didn’t like us. She was on the ground with an injured arm. When I stood up, the bully grabbed me by the back of my neck in some sort of ‘roid rage fueled Vulcan Nerve Pinch. I fought back and left him with a swollen eye. It’s probably not the most polite or productive way of handling things, but it did help make bullies think twice about putting their hands on me or my friends.

Unfortunately, it’s not just kids who are bullies. There are adults who either look the other way, or worse, chime in themselves. In high school, a close friend would occasionally anchor the school’s closed-circuit, student-run AV Club news broadcasts that were shown during homeroom. As his face flashed on the screen, a male teacher in his 30s said out loud to his class, “Ha! I’ll give fifty bucks to anyone who kicks that little faggot’s ass.”

Fortunately, no one ever assaulted my friend, despite this faculty member’s cash offer. However, that a so-called “educator” would say this to students and encourage bullying — much less harbor these feelings towards a student who had never so much as taken one of his classes — is appalling, to say the least.

In 1997, it may have hardly been deemed newsworthy that a high school authority figure called a student a “faggot” or encouraged students to “kick his ass.” In fact, small town politics may have even dictated that an incident like that would be swept under the rug. Today, in 2012, a story like this would gain national coverage. It could have been captured on a cell phone camera and the teacher in question would have likely seen his career ended.

My friend, the one-time student news anchor, is now a teacher himself. Last year, his high school students voted him Teacher of the Year and he has built a reputation as an educator who truly cares about his students and who stands as a voice that kids typically dubbed “unreachable” feel that they can go to for advice that extends beyond the classroom.

Fortunately, a lot of kids who were hardcore bullies or who made a habit of teasing me and other outcast kids changed for the better. Even the smartest kids or the kids who come from really caring families lack the self-awareness (most) adults have. Not everyone realizes the effect even the smallest action — positive or negative — can have on their classmates. As adults, I’m now Facebook friends with a lot of people who may have teased me in school. Some have even said they were sorry. That takes a lot of courage to own up to something you’re not proud of. I have so much respect for the people who did that and am so happy to call them friends now. I may not see these people every day anymore, but when I read about what they’re up to in their daily lives, I root for them. And I hope they root for me. It’s nice to know you can put the past behind you and become friends.

A lot of my former classmates are parents now and I’m sure some of them have seen their own kids teased. That’s not Karma by any stretch because I don’t see it as some cosmic “lesson” to see any child bullied for whatever reason. But time has gifted some people with a greater understanding of how important it is to try to see beyond the surface. Whether it’s clothes that aren’t name brand or a kid who sucks at sports but loves things that aren’t popular with peers — or a kid who is just too shy or too nice for his own good — it’s not a reason to torment that kid.

Every human and every animal needs a place to feel like they belong and that they matter. Having only recently bought my first home and as a life-long apartment-dweller, I never had a pet. I always wanted one, but most landlords never allowed them.

After I moved out and went to college, however, my parents and brother got a dog. Xena, a Chow mix, was a then 3-year-old shelter rescue who had trust issues based on years of abuse at the hands of her former owners. Even some of the shelter volunteers were wary of her. For some reason, she took to my family and they to her. Mom saw that this dog had a similar “outcast” label that my brother and I had been slapped with for so many years and took her home.

There were a few times she slipped her leash tried to run away. My patient, athletic brother ran off after her into the woods and carried this 40 lb. dog home. That was his dog and he loved her and felt responsible for her.

When I came home for the summer, Xena did not like the idea of another female in the house and tried to “assert authority” resulting in several bite marks on my hands. I have to say that even I was leery of her after the first couple surprise lunges. With time and trust, we became family. It took years. I respected her boundaries and learned her signals. Every human and every animal has those expressions or body language that tells others “I’m not in the mood right now.” That’s normal.

When my father and I were in a major car accident, my brother and mother came to pick us up from the hospital, Xena was in the car with us. She sat with me in the front like a fuzzy, protective sentinel. She was not an overly affectionate dog by any means, but she licked my cheek and I knew that was her way of saying, “Don’t worry. I got this.”

Xena (as appropriate a name if there ever was one) learned to trust people and that her spot as Alpha Female of the house would not be threatened. She bonded almost instantly with my brother’s girlfriend — now wife — and the two were almost inseparable. When Xena passed at the age of 12, my brother and his wife adopted two shelter dogs in her honor. They have completely different personalities from each other and from Xena, but are just as awesome.

Now that I have a house (and once I have this job situation locked down), I want to adopt a senior pet myself. They are often overlooked at shelters because they may not be able to live as long in their new homes as a puppy or kitten. However, smaller dogs and cats can live for a long time. Factor in that one year in the life of a human is equivalent to 3-7 years in the life of a dog or cat. Even a short time to an older animal would be the human equivalent to a lot of years without love and friendship.

When you’re a kid, time sees to go by much more slowly than it actually does. You think the torment will last forever. It doesn’t. It just feels like it does, which is just one more thing that kids and some animals have in common.

Every person and every animal is different. Sometimes, when a certain human and a certain animal meet, important lessons are learned. Everyone has a story. I hope you’ve enjoyed this one!

If you would like to donate to or learn more about the ISF Animal Sanctuary, please visit: http://www.isfoundation.com/campaign/isf-animal-sanctuary

If you’re a blogger who would like to help spread the word, please visit the Charitable Influence website with information on how you can help further this project, as well.

This post is part of a Charitable Influence campaign with the Ian Somerhalder Foundation. I did not receive compensation for this, and the thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.

  • erinkathryn
    September 2, 2012

    I’m so glad you shared your thoughts on this, too. It’s nice to know that by using the power of words we can make an impact.

  • erinkathryn
    September 2, 2012

    Additionally, I feel the need to share that my father’s affinity for the great Errol Flynn almost resulted in my name being “Errol”, as my mom was on board, too. In my life I have met a few Errol’s. None were caucasian, and all pronounced it “Earl”…thank GOD I was a girl.

  • MB
    November 15, 2012

    Great blog!

    I think bullying is so damaging because it stays FOREVER. Remember we described it as “post its stuck inside”?

    Increased awareness is a good start, especially in this day and age of public humiliation via social networking/internet. I’m so glad my schoolmates weren’t online back then.

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