by Matthew Keranen
Twenty-two years ago, I graduated from Clatskanie High School. I left that school with a diploma and scholarships in hand, secure in the knowledge that in a few months I would be studying halfway across the country in Minnesota.
For some of my high school classmates, graduation was the culmination of four years of friendship, learning, studying, exams, sports, club activities, concerts, parties, dances and growing into young adulthood. For me, it was a long-awaited end to years of bullying, harassment and general torture.
My childhood was sheltered enough that I did not know what “gay,” “faggot” or “homo” meant until after schoolmates began calling me those names in sixth grade. It was a great mystery to me why people would call me such names. I wondered whether they saw something in me that I failed to recognize myself.
Each school-bus ride and each day at school became an exercise in survival. I learned to avoid coming in contact with certain classmates. I learned to act like I did not hear the verbal abuse of others. I learned to give no reaction whatsoever to the classmate who scrawled the word “queer” on the top of my Social Studies assignment or to the one who asked to borrow a pen and then used it to write the word “faggot” on my yellow Pee Chee.
I learned to act as if harassment in the locker room before and after P.E. had no affect on me. If I wanted to, I could list many more examples of the humiliation inflicted upon me day after day by some of the boys and girls with whom I attended school.
When each new school year started, I thought perhaps my schoolmates had outgrown the need to prove something by tormenting me.
How mistaken I was. Each September it did not take long for the ostracizing to begin, the name-calling, the unveiled gestures and outright laughing at whatever was so despicable about me. I was publicly humiliated. I was constantly reminded how insufficiently masculine I was. This treatment was an everyday occurrence from 7th until 10th grade. In the upper grades of high school it lessened, but did not end altogether. There were many days when I was not strong enough to stomach what I knew was in store for me. In 8th grade, for instance, I missed 45 days of school – in effect a quarter of the school year – because it was easier to feign illness and stay home than face the daily onslaught.
When I think back to my school days, I remember many fun moments and stimulating lessons, interesting discussions and projects, and encouraging teachers. I have nice memories of many friendly people and the various academic and extracurricular activities we participated in together. I recall enjoying the challenge of competing and participating in various events at the district, regional, state and national level. It still feels like a great honor that school officials arranged an assembly to announce that I was a National Merit Scholar.
I can truly say I received a solid education in Clatskanie schools under the expert guidance of many wonderful teachers, and for this I am grateful. However, I regret to say that these memories are overshadowed by memories of dread, humiliation, rejection and shame. How I wish I could open my high school yearbooks and remember only good days and good times.
As stated, I learned to act as if this bullying had no effect on me, but in truth it did. I never learned to ignore what others spewed at me. I feel that with every insult and instance of verbal abuse and harassment, a piece of me died. Bit by bit, the harsh words crushed my sense of self-worth and self-esteem into oblivion.
I am not sure how the aforementioned incidents seem when printed on this page, but in real life they were extremely soul-shattering. They emphasized what a reject I was in others’ eyes and how unworthy I was of humane treatment.
I wish to state here that it was a relatively small number of schoolmates who actively bullied me. Some others laughed and jeered from the sidelines. Many did not dare get involved; perhaps they were fearful of being ridiculed themselves. Or perhaps they considered it normal that some classmates were bullies and others got bullied.
Of course there were a number of classmates who were kind and friendly to me, and to these people I remain very grateful. I am also well aware that I am not the only student at CMS or CHS who was bullied. I am sure that there are others in this community who have experienced similar things during their school years
I have discussed my experiences with a few, trustworthy friends over the years. They often ask why I was singled out for bullying and ridicule. I do not know. I realize there were qualities about me that differed from some people in my class, but each person is unique and is not a carbon copy of some ideal specimen. I used to wonder what characteristics within me were such that others found so strange and threatening. And why did they feel the need to punish me for it?
Nowadays I realize that bullying is rarely about the victim. Rather, it seems it is the perpetrator who has a need to bolster his or her own social standing and diminishes others to achieve this goal.
I am an educator and the bulk of my students are adolescents and young adults. I know it does not take much for mob behavior to be ignited in a group of adolescents. If a victim shows weakness or does not respond to the group’s aggression, the bullying may feed on itself and escalate. The bullies do not feel personally responsible for their actions because they are part of a group and the responsibility is spread among the group. Also, they might not perceive the cruelty of their words and deeds because everyone else is doing and saying the same things.
As an adult I know that the teasing and bullying were not my fault, no matter how different I was or am from others. No one deserves such treatment, ever. There are no mitigating factors. But I did not know that then. I sometimes wonder if I should have defended myself more. At that time I felt there was nothing I could do or say back. Any amount of reaction might have only made it worse. When you are one against a group and you have no allies, you dare not lash back because there is no one to defend you if the taunting and abuse escalates.
I have been asked whether the middle and high school staff members and teachers knew about this bullying and harassment. My answer is that I do not know. None of them ever addressed it directly. In retrospect it seems hard to believe that no one would have ever noticed anything amiss, since the bullying was so blatant in many ways and lasted for so many years. I, of course, wish that they had made an effort to stop the bullying and stand by me and others who suffered. I am however thankful to many for the kindness and support they offered in other ways.
Many teachers seemed to believe in me and in my possibilities to succeed in life, and this served to partially counteract the bleak, black prospects I otherwise saw reflected in certain peers’ eyes.
Sometimes when bullying is discussed on a general level, people say that the perpetrators should not be blamed because they are only children. This makes me feel sad. I was only a kid too. Being a child does not excuse bad, cruel behavior. Kids or not, they slashed to ribbons my sense of self-worth. They made me wary to meet new people. They made me feel that every new person I meet will agree with them and think I am not worthy of their respect and kindness.
It took me many years to realize that other people might actually have positive thoughts about me, that not everyone thinks of me with derision and ridicule. They tormented me in ways I now understand to be sexual harassment. There is no way to explain away such behavior.
You may wonder why I am writing about these experiences now, decades after they occurred. Well, within the past year I had a chance encounter with a person who was part of my life back then. Somehow we talked about bullying and he was distressed to hear of my experiences. This person was in a position in which he could have potentially helped counteract and stop bullying. However, he had no idea that any such thing had occurred. Discussing my experiences stirred up many memories and made me want to write about them.
I wrote and wrote only for myself at first. Then I began to think that if even one person somewhere benefitted from reading about my experiences, perhaps it would be worth publishing this. If a youth can be comforted by knowing he or she is not alone, or if it helps those who are tormented and bullied to realize that it is not their fault, then writing about my experiences is worth it.
To the bullied I say: what the bullies are saying is not true. Do not believe it. This may sound like a cliché, but life will get better. Also, please tell someone about your experiences. You can tell any adult you trust, whether or not the adult works at the school. I never dared tell anyone, not even my own parents, about what I went through at school. I think I was scared that whoever I might tell would confirm to me somehow that the bullies are right, that I really am a worthless _____ (fill in the blank). That is how little self-esteem I had.
Writing this is also worth it if it makes one bully pause to consider the consequences of his or her actions. Or if it helps school staff or teachers become more aware of the horrible things children do to each other. Or if it gives even one person the urge to stick up for and defend and, above all, befriend the one who is suffering, the one who hangs around the fringes and has a wary look in his or her eyes, the one who hungers for acceptance. Give those poor children compassion, love, and kind words. They might assume you do not mean it, but it will still be a memorable, encouraging message to them on some level.
If you do not understand why I would address these matters now after years have passed, then try to summon a bit of compassion and believe that this is a real issue to me and others who have suffered in this way. If you do not understand how experiences from many years ago could stay with a person so vividly and so long, then consider yourself fortunate
Please do not defend the actions of those who wrought havoc on me and others who suffered in a similar manner. There is no defense. Please do not belittle my experience or the experiences of others that have been bullied and teased. I am not exaggerating anything I describe here. Those who have or had similar experiences know what it is like to have your self-worth entirely negated. I am not asking for pity, only for each and every fellow citizen to look around and make their life and the lives of those around them a better one. Love your neighbor!
I am grateful for how my life has turned out, but I still carry the burden of my past. Please do not blame me for not putting these experiences behind me. I have put as much behind me as I can, but there are scars that never fade and wounds that heal only very slowly.
Sometimes I feel like asking the people that bullied me why they did what they did. But I imagine it would be hard to dredge up an answer after time has passed. I sincerely hope they have gone on to lead lives where they act constructively – and not destructively – towards others. I do not feel ill will toward those people. Instead, I feel sadness and grief for the young boy I was and others like me who suffered silently. I have slowly learned how to rebuild my self-esteem piece by piece. I have learned to live with this past. In my darkest moments I thought that such a worthless being could never marry or have meaningful relationships.
Nonetheless I was blessed with a lovely, loving wife and eight children who mean the world to me. I am fortunate to have kind and caring parents and siblings who stay by my side. I also extend a heartfelt thank you to many kind townspeople who are supportive and friendly toward me to this day.
I have lived away from Oregon and the United States for years. But I still care about my hometown of Clatskanie and above all I care for its youth. My own dear nieces and nephews are attending Clatskanie schools and for them as well as for their classmates I wish only happiness and success.
I hope their school years are free of bullying and meanness.
I hope they can learn and grow in an environment where they are free to be themselves and do not need to worry when the next attack will come.
I hope they learn that humor and good laughs do not need to be at the expense of others.
I hope they can sit anywhere on the school bus or at any lunch table and be met with only friendly smiles and kind words.
I hope they can participate in P.E. no matter what size or shape they are and feel totally accepted.
I hope all the educators and school staff and administration nurture and foster an environment where, by their good example, mutual respect and kindness prevail.
Matthew Keranen holds a bachelor’s degree in linguistics and Russian language and literature from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota as well as a master’s degree in English philology from the University of Tampere in Tampere, Finland. He lives in Jämsä, Finland, and is a teacher and vice-principal at Jämsä Christian High School, a private boarding school for high-school age students.