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Standing Up to the Haters
Breanna King
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Names have been changed.

In economics class, I learned empathy. It started on the first day of school when my teacher assigned each of us a partner to work with. Part of our assignment was to get to know each other and then tell the class what we learned about our partners.

I was paired with Amani, a big girl with acne and clothes full of holes. She hadn’t said a thing since class started. At first I wasn’t happy about working with her because she looked mean and unwilling, but there was nothing I could do. She was my assigned partner, so I tried to make the best of the situation.

Cruel Teasing

Amani was my age and told me she had been to two previous high schools. By the end of our conversation, I’d decided she was not only nice but also kind-hearted, and she had been through her share of troubles. For example, she told me that in her last school the students would tease her every day, either in class, in the hallway, or walking up the stairs.

She spoke very softly.

“Am I boring you?” she asked me as she told me her story.

“No, do I look bored?” I replied.

“No, but I’m not all that interesting,” she said.

“Sounds like you are to me,” I responded.

“Thanks,” she said.

I was eager to hear more about her life. She had gone through teasing, not having many friends, and problems staying focused in class because of the emotional stress. But her difficulties hadn’t killed her spirit.

The more we talked, the more she began to relax. But when it was our turn to go in front of the class, Amani was reluctant to speak. So I went first, introducing her and telling the class a little about her.

“Hello class, this is Amani. She’s 17 and she’s from the Bronx,” I said. While I was speaking, some students laughed. I heard them calling her “fat” and “poor,” and making obscene noises. Amani didn’t say anything; she just stood next to me with her head down. This upset me—these students were not only being rude but very immature.

High School or 2nd Grade?

I didn’t expect to witness teasing so late in my high school years. It sent me back to elementary school. I tried to ignore the students, but now it was Amani’s turn to speak. The whole time she spoke, those same students laughed and joked around until the teacher finally stepped in and told the ringleader to stop or he would be asked to leave.

image by Elijah Hickson

As I walked back to my desk, I stopped to ask Jason, one of the students who was laughing and joking around, what was so funny. “Your fat friend,” he sneered. I couldn’t even think of something to say in response; the words just echoed in my head, making me more upset. I squinted my eyes and tried to make sense of it all. What made him act this way—was it a need for attention or acceptance?

“Why is that funny to you?” I asked.

“Why do you care?”

By then the class was very quiet and all eyes were on us. No one said anything, although I was sure they must have been on my side after witnessing the incident. But everyone just looked on in silence.

“Because I don’t find it funny, but I’ll be sure to find something to laugh at when you’re up there,” I said, and walked away.

I was proud of myself for letting Jason know how I felt. Someone needed to put him in his place. I wasn’t worried about what anyone had to say about it.

It Felt Personal

For the rest of class Amani didn’t say anything, and I knew the things the students said had hurt her. I thought about how I, too, had made a snap judgment about her. Before class was over, I gave Amani my number and told her to text me if she ever needed someone to talk to. She smiled and responded, “OK.”

I’d seen people being teased before, but I never took it as seriously as I did in this instance. I think it was because I spoke to Amani and got to know her that the incident felt personal.

Although no one said anything in support of my standing up for Amani, most of the students had smiles on their faces, which I took as smiles of approval and confirmation that I had done the right thing. It was just a pity that I was the only one out of a class of 25 students who said something.

I couldn’t exactly put myself in Amani’s shoes. Being an only child in a household that wasn’t hurting, I got everything I wanted: the latest clothes, footwear, and gadgets. When it came to school I was a social butterfly, so mixing and mingling was never a problem. I like to speak and give my opinion, so class participation has never been an issue for me either. Because I had a lot of friends to stand up for me, I never got teased.

Amani helped me to see how it feels to be teased. That day, I spoke up because I saw how badly it can affect someone. I felt bad about the judgment I had made without even knowing Amani, and I told myself to remember it the next time a cruel thought crossed my mind. We are only human and making judgments is a part of living and learning, but I’d like to think I learned a lesson that day.

We’re All Responsible

Unfortunately, some people don’t stop at silent judgments. Teasing is often the next step. It’s how some people cope with their own problems and fears. Making others feel bad makes them feel better. But in the end when they’re all alone with no one to pick on, their problems will still be there; it only helps for the moment.

Teasing also results from peer pressure. Jason’s friends laughing added more fuel to the situation, and made him want to keep going. Had his friends not laughed, he would have shut up and felt stupid.

Often people who tease others want to be accepted, and they’re afraid of being teased themselves if they don’t tease others. But the consequences of teasing can be terrible. I have even heard about teens committing suicide because of others’ cruelty.

I was hoping I could be the friend Amani needed and make a small difference in her life, even for a moment. Amani and I never got close, but we stayed in contact, texting occasionally. She thanked me once for my support.

“Hey, thanks for standing up for me that day,” she said.

“No problem, it was only right,” I replied.

It was brief, but it made me feel good. I don’t want to be associated with immature people who don’t know when enough is enough. I think that this experience made me a better citizen and friend, someone who helps people around her when they are in need.

Helping others means getting involved in their lives, not standing on the sidelines all the time. In the end, I made new friends by standing up and not being like everyone else.

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(NYC-2012-03-17)

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