When I was in 7th grade, I was bullied. So, for a moment, I became the bully.
I was the skinny, gawky kid when other girls were developing and getting attention from the boys. In junior high, hormones start raging and a boy liking you does NOT give you cooties like in elementary school. I eschewed makeup and hairstyles for books, writing, and my family. I had a few friends, girls I knew from my Brownies Troop and elementary school. Never popular, I dreamed of certain boys and doodled their names on my book covers, but received no suitors.
There was a girl in our class who wore massive amounts of eyeliner. She had two cronies. The “mean girls.” I imagine now they are all linebackers for the NFL, because that’s how they looked -- even as 7th graders. They walked as a team with their arms bowed and eyes cutting left to right.
I was changing out in the girl’s locker room for PE when they circled me, making me cower. I do not recall what was said. I do remember I ran out, fighting tears. I told no one. Why? Who knows … I was afraid my friends would laugh. The gap between school administration and students was the Grand Canyon; they were adults. I was a backward 7th grader trying to find my way.
Once again, at another time, I was surrounded by the mean girls. I had no idea why I was selected for this torture, except I had limbs like pipe cleaners and a pacifist's heart. This time, I debated, and then went to the principal’s office. I told the story in quaking words, wiping tears. Hell yes, they scared me. They collectively outweighed me by several thousand pounds and had the expressions of serial killers. Or so it seemed.
This was way before “bullying” was a household word. The mean girls were eventually called into the principle’s office. As days passed, I became invisible to them.
A few weeks later, the mean girls returned to our PE locker room. This time they surrounded “the fat girl.” She was the girl who was lousy at sports, lumbering and oafish, and her last name was King so kids called her “King Size.” She cowered against the wall, the mean girls surrounding her, and suddenly I stepped into their circle. I joined to clench fists and narrow my eyes at the new target. I was finally part of the pack of Amazonian wolves, not the mewling lamb. I had some sort of power, a reputation to be feared. When we dispersed, I was suddenly so ashamed. I watched Linda run out, trying not to cry; I was clueless on what to say.
Writing the story of Sherokee Harriman, I know why Sherokee did not want to report the bullying she endured, how she was puzzled at the natural meanness of a teenage girl. So many adults can tell you how they, too, were bullied. They can recall details at ages 40, 55, 68. The big difference is: we grew to adulthood. Sherokee Harriman committed suicide at age 14, stabbing herself to death while standing in front of her tormentors. Her last known words were, “so you want to call me a ‘bitch’ and a ‘ho’?”
And in some ways I understand the bullies who tormented her.
Sherokee is not the first child to take her own life, nor will she be the last. She represents all that is wrong in the world of youth: bullying, suicide, mean kids, mixed emotions, the feeling of never quite measuring up to an invisible line of where “cool” and “not cool” is drawn by peers and held in esteem. Instead of remembering how she liked singing, loved animals, and yearned to be the owner of her own salon one day, we recall the heinous act of stabbing herself. Wondering how a kid could take her own life, and in such a manner. Wondering what would drive her to such depths of such sorrow. We will hope the education system can begin progressive programs for both kids like Sherokee ... and her tormentors. But this is doubtful in a business where budgets are limited, staff is underpaid and overworked, and the system is more concerned with teaching to a standard instead of the fine art of combining compassion, education, and social etiquette.
Sherokee Harriman leaves behind a grieving family who wants answers. While her bullies graduate, she will have flowers placed at her headstone. The public will say “how sad” and move on when they can vote, write, and speak out for tougher laws and better reporting systems for bullying. And me? I want to apologize to Linda King, Rogers Junior High School and Class of ’81, for those few minutes of terror in the girl’s locker room.
According to the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, about twelve people in the U.S. between 15 - 24 commit suicide every 125 minutes. Most adolescent suicide intent “appears to be to effect change in the behaviors or attitudes of others.” For suicide information, support, and intervention, GO HERE.
For Sherokee’s story, GO HERE.