Bullying and Juvenile Arthritis: A Memory of Childhood
I flew across the schoolyard, adrenaline blocking out the pain in my ankles. Behind me I could hear the pack of five or six girls chasing me. As I ran, harder than I'd ever run before, I could feel them getting closer and closer. The bike racks were in view and to be safe, I just needed to get there, grab my bike and ride home. And then it happened. One of the girls lunged and sank her teeth into my right shoulder. I don't remember what happened next or how I got home. My next memory is of sitting on my bed, shaking.
I was different from the other kids in my class. I was absent a lot because of juvenile arthritis. As is so often the case with JA and RA, there were many days where I woke up with morning stiffness and a fever and my mother would keep me home. And as is so often happens with JA and RA, I'd feel better as the day went on. By the time my classmates walked home, passing by my house, they'd see me up and dressed, playing in my room or the yard. It gave me a reputation for skipping school and an underlying current of getting away with things they didn't.
When I did attend school, I was a bit of an odd duck. Being away so much made it hard to make friends in the shifting alliances of grade school pecking orders. Spending a lot of time alone meant I was much better at reading books and solitary play than interacting with others. The pain in my joints made it difficult to be part of active games or gym class and when I tried, I wasn't very good at it. I spent a lot of time looking on, standing on the edges and that was fine with me. Rather that than some of them paying attention to me. I learned how to keep myself apart, yet not quite so. Present enough to seem part of the group, but not so present that I stood out even more.
It didn't always work, though. Two girls in particular knew I was there. They were the little queens of the class, the popular girls, the leaders and yes, the mean girls. I was the butt of their jokes, recipient of the "good-natured" teasing and caught in the push-pull of popular girls pretending to be your friend, only to knock the legs out from under you. I remember two incidents in particular. Once in music class before the teacher came, they thought it would be fun to yank off my sweater in full view of the boys. I remember sliding down the wall, fighting hard against their hands. The other starts with me hiding in the big girls' washroom, sitting on the toilet with my knees pulled up so no one could see my feet under the stall door. They did find me, though, and I slammed open the door and ran for my life. The next thing I know was flying across the schoolyard towards the bike stands, chased by a pack of girls.
At home, I sat on my bed, shaking. My mother was sitting next to me, trying to find out what had happened. I eventually told her about this event, because it was so big and so bad that I couldn't possibly go back to school again. In those days before bullying had a name, my mother instinctively knew what to do. She put my sister in her pram and we went back to school right away. I remember standing next to my mother, feeling protected and important, while most of my class circled around us, entranced with the baby in their midst. In that moment, I was cool because I had something the other 11-year-olds didn't: a baby sibling. My mother later told me that she went to talk to my class a few days after that when I was not at school. She told them about JA and what it meant. After that, they left me alone.
Kids who have chronic illnesses or disabilities are more likely to be bullied. I was the perfect example: physically vulnerable, socially isolated and behind my peers in developing social skills. The environment contributed, as well - this was in the early 70s when kids were left more to their own devices by teachers. Luckily, my mother paid attention and noticed that the signs that something was wrong. She talked to me in a way that made me feel it was safe to tell and acted instantly when she found out what had happened. I was lucky, too, that my homeroom teacher was a kind and compassionate woman who acted just as instantly when approached by my mother. Together, they made the bullying stop.
To learn more about bullying and find resources to stop it, visit stopbullying.gov.
Lene is the author of the award-winning blog The Seated View