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.
The ritual was sealed by an incident where a bunch of boys chased me, pinned me down and one of them ripped out a fist full of his own pubic hair to shove in my face while calling me a faggot in front of everyone waiting to be let into the school. Though that might sound reminiscent of a "movie" some of you watched before you went to bed last night (wink, wink), it was a horrifically humiliating event for 13-year-old John.
Instead of tempting fate with a repeat attack or perhaps something even worse, I hid from the crowd gathered at the front of the school and walked around to enter from the side of the building, as usual. When my carpool friend and I parted ways, I remember feeling less than equal for having to use a different entrance. Around the corner from the vibrant, energetic crowd in front of the school was a quiet handful of students waiting for a kind teacher to open the side door entrance and let us sneak into class unnoticed. While in the front of the school, kids were running around, playing games, and talking to each other, here the children kept to themselves. Their posture was slumped over and they appeared to be already defeated. There was no light behind the eyes of these kids. Their body language and demeanor seemed to be saying, "Don’t notice me, I'm not really here."
We were the undesirables of the junior high school caste system — the misfit toys. There were gay kids like myself, some overweight kids, a kid who was rather tall for his age, the geeks, the nerds, kids with disabilities and kids, who for whatever reason, just didn't fit in. I met a girl I had become friendly with who was very tall and overweight for our age group. The kids in school called her Sasquatch. I can't imagine being a young girl trying to figure yourself out and constantly—and it was constant—being told you were ugly and called Sasquatch.
Fortunately I found an escape in my childhood that saved me from the hell I was enduring at school. I always say, "There but for the grace of God go I." God's grace for me was dance. Without having something in my life that I was good at and passionate about, I would not be here today. No matter how bad things got at school, I could always go to the dance studio and heal myself through the music and movement. Whereas at school people told me I was a faggot, worthless, and didn't deserve to live, in the dance studio, I was told that I was amazing, talented and would go very far. I was blessed enough to be able to imagine a light at the end of the tunnel and a way out of my shit hole of a hometown.
Just as in physical abuse, bullying has long lasting consequences. Bullying a child doesn’t just end when the names and punches stop, the ramifications last for years. If I hadn't been humiliated, isolated from my peers, and made to feel like I was worthless, I wouldn’t have needed to find a sense of community and self worth in sometimes dangerous places and destructive situations.
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