One of my dad's favorite stories when I was younger was one from his elementary school days. My dad was a small kid who attended a quaint Catholic school in a small town. Every day, one of the "big kids" would relentlessly pick on him.
Today, my dad is such a strong, quick-witted man, it's hard for me to imagine him ever facing harassment. But, it happened.
One day, this big kid chased my father home. My dad, being the quick-thinking guy he is, swung his metal factory worker's lunchbox behind him as he was running and clocked the big kid square in the face. Needless to say, the big kid never bothered him again.
Looking back, I know my dad was bullied, but it wasn't nearly as much of a household term then as it is today. It's no secret that bullying has become a hot-button issue. Anyone who has turned on a TV in, I don't know, the last 10 years knows this.
Since the shock of Columbine, bullying and its link to both suicides and violent tragedies has been a topic of much discussion in the media.
The focus on peer bullying in schools and its consequences have sparked efforts, like "It Gets Better," an outreach campaign that aims to support LGBT teens and other young people facing harassment. The campaign spreads the message that circumstances for the victims of bulling will eventually improve.
Let me start by saying, I love the concept of "It Gets Better." I think spreading messages of hope and reassurance to hurt and emotionally fragile young people is a great benefit to putting an end to bullying and harassment.
I can't help but to empathize with children and teenagers today. Life moves so much faster for them, and thanks to the Internet, bullying has become even more prevalent via various outlets. Bullying in schools is majorly different for developing kids, compared to workplace bullying to which adults can relate.
Although I attended school after the generation of metal lunch boxes, I also had my own experiences with the mean kids at a young age. I went from attending a very small, private elementary school to jumping headfirst into a large, public middle school. The transition was difficult, and the kids didn't make it any easier.
But, I didn't have to deal with the type of bullying and torment some kids face today. When I was in school, bullies would shove me in the hallway or snicker with their friends in the cafeteria.
But, when I went home, everything was fine. Back then, any environment outside of school was a safe haven, out of reach from the bullies.
Today, in the world of cyberbullying, the torture can last all day, every day. In most cases, there is no escape, unless kids have no involvement in social media or online communities.
Among today's youth, the prospect of not following trends brings more dread than facing bullies. I imagine asking a high schooler to deactivate his Facebook page is similar to asking him to cut off his right arm. It's just not going to happen.
So, this is where the "It Gets Better" campaign comes into play, to promote a sense of optimism amongst harassed kids and teens. Which, again, I think is fantastic. However, I can't help but question the slogan; I would argue that IT doesn't always get better, but YOU do.
Throughout life, even outside the walls of high school, you're going to face adversity and disagreement, along with rude, mean and intolerant people. As much as I would love to promise teens, "Just make it through these tough few years, and after that, it will be smooth sailing," that's just not real life.
There will be bosses who think teens are the scum of the earth and neighbors who think they're obnoxious. There will be people who are ignorant, judgmental and hateful towards others because of their religion, skin color or sexual orientation.
Unfortunately, a world where every person is tolerant, kind and compassionate does not yet exist. If I could change that, I would. So, I don't want to simply promise impressionable teens that "it" is going to get better. Maybe it won't.
Indeed, I think bullying (or harassment, discrimination, bigotry, whatever you want to call it) extends far beyond your teen years. Maybe we're more "grownup" about it now. Instead of acne and gym class, we have briefcases and mortgage payments. But, people can still be mean; life is not all sunshine and roses after high school.
What I can say with confidence to bullied teens is that YOU will get better. When you escape that toxic bubble of high school and find yourself in the real world, you'll gain perspective. You'll gain confidence and a greater overall sense of who you are, what you like and what you think.
The little digs and comments that were once so earth-shattering and life-altering simply won't matter anymore. At least, they shouldn't. Those snide comments and rude remarks should carry little to no weight anymore because you'll be far too busy being you and, at risk of sounding cliché, finding yourself.
You will try new hobbies, gain new knowledge and meet new people.
So, while I can't guarantee that life will be rainbows and butterflies once you escape the confines of high school, I don't think life will always be miserable.
Mean people will always exist. You're still going to get your feelings hurt. But, if you continue focusing on bettering yourself and being a kind, self-assured and generous person, I think you'll find yourself happy and successful.
As for those mean kids? They'll end up working for you.