John Carroll: Dancing Saved Me From Humiliation of Bullies
Not to sound like my grandfather describing how hard he had it during the depression, (“When I was your age, I had to walk 1,000 miles in a snow storm, chased by a tornado followed by a hurricane, and that was just to get to the toilet!”) but when I was growing up there was no It Gets Better campaign, no gay-straight student alliance, no Bully documentary.
As someone who was ruthlessly bullied in elementary school through high school, it's amazing to watch a very important light finally being cast on this problem in our schools. My heart breaks each time I see, read, or hear about another innocent child’s struggle, or even worse, suicide because of ignorance, intolerance and hatred.
I grew up on Long Island, just 45 minutes outside of Manhattan. You might think living in such close proximity to a metropolis would make a difference in the mindset of its inhabitants, but I might as well have lived in the middle of Nowhere, USA. Few of my childhood school memories do not involve being made fun of. I remember being called names like “homo” and “fag” in the first grade, way before I knew what those words meant.
We were taught about the signs and symptoms of child abuse but were told it was something that usually happened at home and was always committed by an adult. There was no dialogue —at least not that I heard— that suggested children could be the perpetrators of abuse. Children are cruel. If you don’t believe me, just watch Lord of the Flies. Poor Piggy! I’ve been toying with this idea for a great way to end capital punishment: take all the inmates on death row and send them back to junior high. That’ll teach ‘em!
Though I was bullied throughout elementary school, it became particularly unbearable in junior high. Bullying escalated to the point I would pray to God every night before I went to bed to not wake up in the morning. Then when I did wake up, I'd ask Him to just make me invisible for the day. Being called names, having things thrown at me, having derogatory words carved into my locker and written across my books, being shoved, pushed around, spit on and threatened to be beat up and killed, it reached a level where I no longer felt safe being in a crowd of students.
I used to car pool with a girl who lived around the corner. We were both dropped off in front of the school, where we were expected to wait for the bell to ring and the doors to open to let everyone inside. But while she went to the front entrance where the rest of the students gathered, I hid my shame by waiting for my mother to drive away and then went to the side door to enter.
I have proudly been in therapy for several years now and have worked through many issues and residual scars left from my years of childhood abuse. Though I know life is a work in progress, I can stand strong today and say I love the man I have become. I can honor the strength it took for my younger self to hold on to some sort of self worth when so many around me were trying to prove otherwise. I went on to graduate from The Juilliard School and dance across the stages of the world. I married the man of my dreams the very first day it was legal in the state of New York. When things would get to be unbearable for me when I was younger, I would dream of my future and what it would be like. God is good, and I have seen those dreams come to fruition. For me, it hasn’t just gotten better, it’s gotten mind bogglingly amazing! Part of my healing is to help young people who might be going through a similar story to my own.
We can heal, and we can prevent bullying. One of the most important things I have found to be helpful, not only to myself, but also to other people, is to talk about my personal story with bullying and how it has affected my life. As with sexual abuse, the stigma and shame must be lifted and children should know that they are not unnoticed and alone.
Parents can talk to their kids about all forms of bullying, including cyber bullying. Parents can also become more active in their kids' PTA organizations to see what can be done. Even if you do not have children, attend a school board meeting in your district and find out what education, precautions and ramifications are in place for bullying within the school system and beyond. Call or write your local and state representative’s and see what is being done on a state and national level. Force legislators to enact anti-bullying laws. Laws with the same level and severity as ones in place that protect children from other forms of child abuse. And, please, help the children in your life find their passion that will lead to their success.
To all the boys and girls who are struggling with being bullied right now, all the men and woman who were lucky enough to make it through and all the souls who were not as fortunate, there is no longer a need to feel invisible. We stand together in a common, shared experience and I, for one, see you.
JOHN CARROLL is a Broadway performer who will appear in the Los Angeles production of Follies beginning May 3 at the Ahmanson Theatre. For more information, visit TheJohnCarroll.com