Photo: Courtesy of Jodee Blanco
BL: Recently, on Facebook, a woman I went to junior high contacted me and told me how something I'd written in her yearbook in 1980 had wounded her deeply...that she still felt pain around it. Hurts die hard.
JB: Yes. Think about how many people are terrified to attend their high school reunions. I sat in my car in the parking lot of the banquet hall dry heaving into a bag. Thank God I found the courage to walk through those big glass doors. It changed my life, but that night, I realized more than ever just how profoundly school bullying can impact one's adulthood—to this day, I still struggle with a fear of being excluded.
I've always known that I couldn't be the only one, that there had to be others out there just like me. I call us "adult survivors of peer abuse."
Since I first began this journey, thousands of adult survivors have reached out to me, and every day there are more. We are held together by a bond that only someone who knows what it's like to be that lonely, isolated student can understand.
BL: You speak with kids and adults. First, your daytime seminar is an all-school assembly where you get real with your own story of bullying and then have breakout sessions so kids can speak their truth and find relief. Are kids open to changing on this level?
JB: Not only are they open to changing, they are changing. Typically, after my student presentation, about 10 percent of the audience will approach me wanting one-on-one time. Half of them are victims seeking intervention. The other half are what I refer to as "elite tormentors," members of the cool crowd who never realized their behavior was cruel until they heard my story and are asking for advice on how to make amends.
That's when I know I've really struck a chord. It isn't just during the breakout sessions that I witness this change of heart. Often, the cafeteria workers at schools will come up to me and say that they saw several kids from the "popular table" invite a fellow classmate to sit with them at lunch whom they never would have given the time of day to before.
I also receive emails from kids saying the same thing. For me, that's the ultimate reward. As a nation, we have to look at the possibility for change in our schools in terms of one child at a time. Inspire one student to be more compassionate toward his classmates, educate teachers on how to encourage a domino effect, enlighten parents on how to reinforce it in the home, and slowly but surely there is hope for change. I wouldn't spend my life on the road working with these kids if there wasn't!
BL: Then after school, in the early evening, you hold another town hall–style meeting for the parents. I met some folks who were carrying around old hurts from bullying that were just as real today as they were 30 years ago. How do you see those old hurts coming to light? What's the remedy to that pain?
JB: You're talking about "the adult survivor of peer abuse." I recommend several remedies. Find a good therapist with experience in treating post-traumatic stress disorder and who doesn't take school bullying lightly, one who affords it the same respect as any other form of chronic childhood abuse. Also, if you're in couples counseling, make sure your counselor knows about the school bullying in your past and that you deal with it during your sessions.
On a school reunion note, I've always believed that you have to face your fears or they'll hold you hostage. I won't tell you what happened at my reunion because I don't want to spoil the ending for anyone who hasn't read my book. What I will say is that life can be full of wonderful surprises, and if you attend your reunion, you'll likely discover that these people, who once had such a hold over you, no longer wield that same power. There's also the possibility you'll have fun! If you're really uncomfortable, ask a close friend or family member to accompany you for moral support.