I don’t remember clearly when I started getting bullied. What I do remember in vivid detail is the few months of winter when I was in third grade, when one of my friends would line a couple of us up on the snow in front of a brick wall and, one by one, shove us in the chest so that our heads hit the wall. This went on almost every day for several months. I never told anyone, because I thought that’s just what friends did to each other. I had such low self‐esteem that I thought that I had to put up with this kind of treatment in order to have friends at all.
As I got older, the bullying grew more subtle but no less harmful. I endured exclusion, condescension, and ridicule from my closest friends, and felt grateful that they had allowed me into their circle. I felt like I had to earn their friendship every single day, and if I did something wrong, I would be alone. I appeared happy, and in many ways I was. But I was worn down with the strain of being made to feel inadequate, as though I didn’t deserve to have people like me.
I changed schools for middle school, and it was the best thing that I could have done. At a new school I learned that pain wasn’t the price of friendship, and by experiencing real friendship, I learned that I was worthy of it. I finally told my parents about the bullying I had experienced in elementary school, and in retrospect I wish I had told them when it was happening. Who knows what they could have done, but what I do know is that I never gave them the chance to help.
While I was in middle school, I had the opportunity to work with PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center on their Kids Against Bullying website. My school’s theater company provided the voiceover talent for the animated characters on the website. This was not only a great theatrical experience, but it introduced me at an early age to the philosophy and resources of PACER. Before that, I had never really thought of what I’d gone through as bullying. To be honest, I had fairly successfully blocked most of it from my memory. But this project opened my eyes to the fact that there were other kids who had had similar experiences. I wasn’t alone. That realization was incredibly comforting.
My high school years were a balm for what I experienced as a child. In a supportive environment, with friends who treated me well, I was able to grow and thrive. So when the opportunity to work with PACER again presented itself, I felt as though I could participate as a survivor, not a victim. My classmates and I wrote and performed skits about bullying for PACER’s Teens Against Bullying website. The production process was both educational and therapeutic, because it gave me the opportunity to demonstrate that I was not the same person that I was in elementary school. I’d grown strong and self‐ assured with the help of supportive friends and teachers.
Several years later, when I was looking for an internship to fill the summer between my junior and senior years in college, I knew exactly where to look. Because PACER had such a powerful influence on me in middle and high school, even more than I’d realized at the time, I wanted to give back to the organization. I spent a summer working at PACER, learning the ropes of both the bullying prevention field and the nonprofit world. I had amazing opportunities to work with companies, organizations, and individuals who cared deeply about bullying prevention. I walked away from that experience more knowledgeable and more inspired about bullying prevention than I could have anticipated.
I graduated from Saint Olaf College in 2013, with my degree in Social Work. As I was looking for a job, I kept thinking that my work at PACER wasn’t done. I wanted to learn more, do more, and be more for a cause that was so close to my heart. I wanted to make sure that my future children, and indeed any children, wouldn’t have to go through what I and many others did. So I applied for a position at PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center and I was happily employed there for over a year. The position felt like the best possible culmination of my previous experiences. I now have the opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of students facing the same kind of challenges I did. I could be there for them in a way that I didn’t feel like anyone was there for me. And I had the opportunity to help create real social change around the issue of bullying. I know what it’s like to feel alone, to feel that no one cares what’s happening to you, and that you deserve to be treated badly. But PACER is working to change the culture so that bullying is no longer considered an acceptable part of childhood, and every child feels safe and knows that he or she is not alone. Getting to be a part of that, and to channel the hurt and fear I faced as a child into helping children, has been an amazing experience.
Sarah Busch has been connected with PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center for more than ten years, but her experience with bullying goes back much farther. Bullied physically and emotionally in grade school, she knows what it’s like to feel alone.