Bullying and the High School Experience: My Story

How To Rise Up From A Painful High School Experience

Posted Mar 06, 2018

Jennifer Lawrence recently revealed to 60 Minutes that she dropped out of middle school and doesn’t have a high school diploma. That was nearly my story. Except for the part about becoming an Academy Award winning actress.

Freshman year of high school, that would be 1992, found me toting a book of Jim Morrison poetry, skulking about with Pink Floyd on my Walkman, and focusing intently on my sole life goal of growing my hair as long as David Gilmour’s circa Wish You Were Here.

weku/NPR
Source: weku/NPR

It’s that kind of inconspicuous behavior that gets you wrapped in duct tape and plunked in an industrial sized garbage can of pine shavings in 4th period woodshop.

If you’ve never grown out your hair, there’s an awkward stage when it’s not long enough for a ponytail so you end up with feathery Princess Leia earmuffs that you’re constantly trying to tuck behind your ears. That’s when you earn the nickname ‘Tom Petty’. And because you’re a pale-skinned kid in a sun-starved town skulking about with stringy hair, people start asking you if you’re sick. If you have cancer. If you have AIDS. That’s when things stop being funny. That’s when you start skipping school. That’s when you nearly drop out.

Our high school had a public speaking requirement. When it came time to pick our semester schedule, we could choose the more rigorous speech class for college-bound students or we could pick the easier communications class for non college-bound students. Guess which one I picked? College wasn't a priority, surviving was.

My guidance counselor was nice enough, but he didn’t hold me up to a higher standard. He supported my taking the easy route: the easy speech class, study hall, library aide, home economics aide—anything to get me through the four years without dropping out. He said he'd reward month-long streaks of no "sick" days with lunches at Pizza Hut. “I’ll even let you smoke in my car on the way there.” Not my idea of a fun time. He asked why I hung out with losers and told me I could do better. I guess the intent was encouragement, but those friends were some of the kindest people I’d ever meet and today have beautiful families and successful careers. 

You see, the high school experience isn't necessarily predictive of our future. Jennifer Lawrence wasn’t voted student most likely to win an Oscar. And I ended up graduating with the yearbook honor of loveliest locks, yet here I am over 40 and battling a bald spot. Life has a cruel sense of humor.

I did achieve my life goal of growing David Gilmour hair and went on to formulate more ambitious goals, but I had to live a little first. I needed to move away to college and subsequently drop out. Yes, I ended up a dropout after all. But it was the very best kind of dropping out. I was young and test-driving life. Cooking school wasn’t for me because something inside was telling me I would have a different kind of impact. Ten years later I earned my Master’s degree from the top rated social work program in the country at one of the most esteemed institutions in the world. Am I bragging? You’re damn right.

So what changed? How did the tables turn for the kid in the garbage can? The first factor I already mentioned: I test drove life. I tried new things, failed, and never gave up on failing. Failing is good, but being a failure is not an option. I can only say that looking back and having come out the other side better for the journey—failing certainly didn't feel good at the time.

The second factor was my willingness to ask for and receive help. Also to shut up and listen. I surrounded myself with good people and, very importantly, I allowed myself to leave behind relationships that didn’t mesh with my growth. I was very conscious about not using my supporters and did my best to offer a helping hand and support in return. This too had a learning curve. There were plenty of times when I didn't want to accept help or didn't know I needed it. To this day I give back in honor of those who gave to me. Find your clan and pay it forward.

Finally, I became much better about listening to my instincts and made space for my authentic self to rise up. What does that even mean? A voice inside resisted some peoples' archetype of me as the longhaired loser. I wasn’t their scrawny, ugly, pale kid with buckteeth and a host of terminal illnesses. I heard a voice that said I was meant to do good in the world. It started as a deep and distant rumble and it took me off guard. To this day I listen for those small tremblors signaling larger earthquakes. They disrupt the status quo and rock the world. Be warned, they might also tell you to grow your hair out.

Funny how life has come full circle. As a career coach, now I’m doing work similar to my high school guidance counselor. Looking back, he probably did the right thing—doing whatever it took to get me to the finish line. But I’ve made a few changes in my approach. Imagine, me helping the dreamers, the disruptors, and the longhairs trust in themselves and make way for their rising. High school never saw it coming.