The Aftermath of "Just Joking"

As a nine-year-old, I had no idea how long-lasting words genuinely are. Yet, nearly six years later, one afternoon that was routine for many still lies embedded in my memory like a fiery flame that cannot be extinguished. ________________________________________________________________________________________ I stood there, looking for a way out. No escape was visible, except to once again endure the torment. I knew that I did nothing wrong, yet rarely looked in the mirror anymore without disgust and resent. “Fluffy,” the boy teased as he poked my stomach. He ran away in laughter, only to return to his friends and report as if he were Hermes of Athens. The other boys listened intently, then erupted in hysteria. It is these moments that I wish I could take back, redo, and use my voice; my voice that I now know is so incredibly powerful, that can be used to either build or shatter within seconds. But of course, no such knowledge ever comes to you when you so desperately need it most. Everything that followed soon after would leave me questioning whether we truly are innocent until proven guilty. I was playing by myself, picking dandelions, when my so-called friends came over. They all stood at a distance as if I held a contagious disease. Then, the boy's sister, who had targeted me continuously for some time, walked up and stood alongside the others. For privacy purposes, I'll refer to her as Leah. For many months prior, I had endured her torment, filled with her calling me “fat,” “a whale,” “disgusting,” and so much more. I dealt with this on the bus, on the playground, and anywhere else out of an adult's earshot. When confronted by an adult, her reply was always, “I was just joking.” Remembering this all, I walked towards Leah with hurt in my eyes and shoved her with my shoulder. “Look what you've done,” I whispered. Leah then ignited in a fury, pushing me backward. In retaliation, I went to push back. After she thrust me a second time, I fell to the ground, filled with anger, hurt, and embarrassment. When I got up and walked over to reciprocate, Leah punched the side of my face, leaving me speechless. As any other fourth grader might do, I went to an adult. Later, this same adult whom I confided in would claim that she witnessed the entire exchange and would even argue that she made an effort to separate Leah and me. As I sat in the principal's office later that day, I was in sheer disbelief. I did nothing to deserve the treatment Leah had given me for many months prior, yet I was being treated with indifference and suspicion. Ultimately, I was suspended for several days, despite being a victim of bullying and harassment. This infuriated both my mother and I. I had been in the principal's office countless times, reporting the bullying I fell victim to, inevitably leaving with no solution. However, I was being punished in an identical manner to Leah when I finally stood up for myself. My mother, therefore, made many phone calls preceding my return, discussing this injustice. After much consideration, I was permitted to return to school a day earlier than Leah. Prior to my departure, I was asked one simple question by the two girls who I considered my true friends: “Did it hurt?” Although I understood what they were asking, I still replied with, “Yes.” Though, not because the impact physically hurt. It hurt that I was constantly a target and could do nothing to stop it. It hurt that it took people physically placing their hands on me for Leah's cruel actions to be recognized and dealt with. It hurt that an adult would blatantly lie, making me seem deceitful. But above all, Leah's words hurt. Not only in the moment did I feel their sting, but to this day I still bear some of the weight of her words and actions. Through the entire ordeal, however, one message has been made crystal clear: sticks and stones may break my bones, but words take incredibly longer to heal.

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