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‘Harmless Teasing’ Hurts
I spoke up against bullying, and finally someone listened
Mariam Akanji
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When I was in elementary school, I loved the idea of learning something new every day, and that’s why I loved school. I loved writing, math, and reading. Books took me from reality and dropped me into a place where anything could happen. The characters and settings left me amazed. As a shy kid, I wasn’t good at making friends, and as a result, books mostly took their place.

In 4th grade I only had two friends. We talked about school, boys, and what we wanted to be when we grew up. Thaleyha was small and bony, and she loved fashion and drawing. She wanted to be a fashion designer. Isabella was happy, energetic, and overprotective. She wanted to be a nurse. I loved reading and drawing, and I wanted to become someone the world would remember.

The three of us began to get bullied. I was called Cooties Girl; I was no longer Mariam Akanji. Thaleyha was bullied for being too skinny and was taunted that her family didn’t feed her. The implication was that she was poor. Isabella was bullied because she got in people’s personal space too much. She was like this mostly with girls, so kids called her gay.

The group of kids who bullied me made up a rule: No one could touch me or be friends with me or they’d get cooties. But one day, a new student, Cheyenne, joined my class and we became friends. She was tall with pale, milk chocolate skin and fluffy, curly hair. A few days later, I was sitting in the lunchroom with Cheyenne. In my elementary school each class was assigned a table, and as usual all my classmates were sitting on one side of it, away from me and Cheyenne.

Being with Cheyenne made me feel free for the first time in a while, like everything that had happened to me before was an old chapter in a book. I felt like I was flying as we talked to each other.

Suddenly there was a hard smack on the table.

“Cheyenne, you should come sit with us instead of with Cooties Girl,” one of my classmates said.

All I could do was look at my feet.

“Who?” Cheyenne said.

“You know, Cooties Girl. You don’t want to have cooties, do you?” the female classmate said, pointing her finger at me.

Cheyenne got up and said, “I guess not. Talk to you later Mariam?”

“Yeah sure,” I said. But I wanted to say, “Just stay with me a little longer.”

Even though Thaleyha, Isabella and I had each other for support, the bullying was awful and we tried to get help. A few times a week we told different teachers about the bullies. Sometimes we’d go together and sometimes separately.

“There are girls calling me names and bullying me. I don’t know why they are picking on me,” I’d say. Yet it seemed like the adults didn’t care, because all they said was a variation of, “They’re just mindless kids, it’s harmless teasing.” When my mom came in to speak to the principal, he said the same thing.

My mom didn’t know what to do. She suggested I try to look at their taunts this way, too. She didn’t understand either.

But the teasing wasn’t harmless to me and my friends. It hurt.

Middle School Brings More Loneliness and Fear

After two years of bullying, I finally started middle school, which I hoped would be a fresh start. But I was on my own: Thaleyha was being homeschooled, and Isabella and I had grown apart.

In 6th grade, no one bullied me. In fact, I was known as the class clown, and I quickly befriended everyone in my class. I finally thought I could have a life without bullying.

But at the end of 6th grade, I was told I’d be switched out of special ed and into general ed starting the next year. So I had all new classmates.

Seventh grade was my worst year. The bullying began again. Every day I felt the same old pain of loneliness and fear.

My new bullies called me “stank b-itch.” Once puberty hit, unfortunately, I began to smell really bad. I didn’t feel close enough to my mom to talk to her about hygiene. I felt worthless, lower than everyone. I felt like everyone in the world hated me and I hated myself.

Kids threw food at me during lunch in the cafeteria, so I coped by eating while I walked up and down the hallway. One day I heard whispers behind me. They grew closer, and giggling soon followed. My body felt cold and my legs were numb; I just kept walking in a hallway that seemed to be endless.

image by YC-Art Dept

“Hey stank b-tch!!” someone yelled out behind me. My stomach was in knots and my throat felt as dry as the desert. As much as I didn’t want to turn around, my mind made me, as if I was being controlled. When I did, I saw four of the boys who usually bullied me.

I ran into the bathroom to escape them, and fortunately no one followed me. The bathroom floor soon became my safe zone to cry and wonder: “Why me? What did I do? Was this all my fault?” I felt as if I wasn’t pretty, smart, or skinny. I compared myself to other girls. I think bullies target kids who seem insecure.

I didn’t have a good connection with any of my teachers, so I didn’t try to get their help. Plus, the last time I’d spoken to teachers about being bullied I got nowhere, so I thought the same thing would happen.

Adults Sound Like Robots

Eventually, I decided to try my guidance counselor. When I sat down in her office, my mouth felt dry. I looked down at my feet. I could feel the tears pushing through my eyelids. I was begging them not to come out, to just stay hidden, but they had a mind of their own.

“What is it? Are you OK?” she asked, handing me a tissue.

“I can’t stop them, they are everywhere I go. They just won’t stop bullying me.”

I told her everything.

When I finished I felt like the lock on my chest had been released. But that feeling did not last long. She looked at me as if I had told her the same old story.

“Sorry, I can’t do anything. They’re just kids. You will get over it.”

I got up, left her office, and my tears were back again.

Just ignore them? How? You say they don’t know what they are doing? Does that make it right?

I kept replaying the words, “They’re just kids,” and “You will get over it” in my head. It felt as if the adults were on the bullies’ side. Each time an adult dismissed my feelings, I felt as if I had been slapped in the face. My body felt worn out and tired.

Looking back on it now, I wish I’d had the courage to tell the adults in my life that they all sounded like robots and were no help. But at the time, I only fantasized about what it would be like if I did: We’d be in a large room, with me on one side and all the bullies and dismissive teachers on the other. I would tell them about the pain and suffering that they put me through. They would break into tears and tell me how sorry they were. But my dream never came true, and my daily nightmare continued.

I decided there was no point in talking to anyone else about the bullying. So I stopped. But I also stopped trying to feel strong. They had won and I had lost.

My grades dropped and I stopped taking care of myself. Some teachers noticed my grades falling and tried to talk to me, but it was too little, too late. I was tired of talking to teachers who did nothing, so eventually they gave up, just like I had.

Unexpected Friendships

After everything I endured in middle school, I went to high school assuming that I would not make friends. I didn’t even try. But then something unexpected happened.

I met a girl named Ariel who was in all my classes. We started talking and just clicked. She joked with me and called me weird and then she added, “But I’m weird like that too.”

She introduced me to another girl named Ashleigh, and now they are my two best friends. Through them I made other friends. I also made male friends, including a boy named Javeonte.

Recently a classmate started harassing me, Ashleigh, and Ariel, telling people she was going to fight us. I thought the same old thing would happen all over again. But this time, when we spoke to our teachers, they listened. My algebra teacher, Ms. Wang, and my Global History teacher, Mrs. Cardona, actually spoke to the dean on our behalf, telling him we were good students. They seemed to care about us and made sure this person was stopped.

Yet it wasn’t just my teachers’ involvement and support that felt different. I have supportive friends now. We even established a rule that we call the “we” issue. If one of us has a problem, we handle it as a group. We take on each other’s problems and solve them together.

I don’t know why I got bullied so much when I was younger. But if it happens to me again I know that I am strong enough to handle it and I have my friends to help me. Now that I have support, I can stand up for myself and tell them their words don’t faze me. I know I am better than they are.

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(NYC-2018-11-12)

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