When I was in the third grade, I passed out on the playground and had to be taken by ambulance to the hospital.

She, the girl across the street who bullied me for over six years, told me that she was going to poison me, so I stopped eating and drinking, pulling a huge one over on my parents who later blamed themselves for not seeing it. Eventually, my tiny body couldn’t hold out.

It wasn’t their fault though.

“You just have to get a thicker skin with this stuff, Stephanie,” said the guidance counselor two years prior when I was in the first grade. “She really can’t help being that way given the home life she comes from,” she explained as I stared at the dark black eyeliner that outlined her eyes. I was the bullied, but I wasn’t the victim. Somehow, I was the problem; it was me who needed to change. I needed to be “tougher.”

When I was in the fifth grade, I contemplated if things would be easier if I disappeared. Could she poke fun at my “orange” hair if I didn’t exist?

I never took up for myself. I never said a word. I stared at my shoes and I took one day at a time. I interpreted a thicker skin as developing a shell—a shell I learned to hide in for a huge chunk of my childhood.

I learned to smile when I was hurting.

I learned to take a punch—not how to throw one.

I learned to bottle it up and let it out when no one was watching.

Because it wasn’t her fault, it was mine.

I told myself that every single day.

To this day, I can still smell the guidance counselor’s perfume and feel the chill of the AC in her office as she sat across from me and explained that it was my responsibility to take the punches.

Because she couldn’t help it, but I could.

For the duration of my childhood, my momma fought for me. She spent hours crying at the dining room table after all of us kids went to sleep. She spent her mornings driving me to school and her afternoons picking me up from school because it wasn’t safe for me to ride the bus. And sometimes in the evenings, we’d share a bowl of cottage cheese and pineapple and she’d remind me that I was perfect and beautiful. She spent countless hours fighting for me; she was my advocate. Unfortunately, my momma never got anywhere though because the easier thing to do was doing nothing at all.

By the time I was in the seventh grade, my bully was a small fish in a huge pond. My orange hair and freckles weren’t so strange in such a large school and while I carried my shell daily, I had learned to carry it most of the time instead of hiding in it. Nevertheless, Momma stood outside and waited for me every day. Middle school changed everything for both of us.

Unfortunately, the scars of my childhood have never faded though. Even as an adult, I still carry that shell. I’m never one to say anything or take up for myself, and honestly, I will never be that person.

By telling me to get a thicker skin, I didn’t get tougher, but instead I created a shell for hiding.

To this day, when I hear someone saying that phrase— “get a thicker skin”—I cringe. Do you know what that does to a person? Because I do.

I carry the advice of my elementary school guidance counselor every single day, tucked neatly underneath that heavy shell on my back.

Almost every 1 in 4 students are bullied during the school year according to the National Bullying Prevention Center, and an online survey by the Harris Poll of more than 2,000 U.S. adults found that 31% of adults have been bullied in adulthood.

Isn’t that disturbing?

I’ll leave you with one question—why are we still letting this happen?

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