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Guest storyteller: Healing after childhood bullying

courtesy of Janet Heller

Janet Heller is one of State of Opportunity's many sources in the community. She shares her true story of how childhood bullying has continued to affect her life. You can share your story with us here.

When I was five, my parents moved to a different city.  I began afternoon kindergarten, but the students already knew one another and did not want to play with me during recess.  They treated me harshly.  Bobby pushed me down, and Charles threw stones at me.  Karen told me every day, “You’re so skinny I can see right through you!”  Her name-calling was the hardest for me to deal with because I was thin, so there was a grain of truth in the taunt.  I did not know what to do about the name-calling, and I did not know that Karen was bullying me.

I did not tell anyone until one day, Mom saw me crying after school and asked what was wrong.  I told her about Karen’s taunts.

Mom said, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.”  This was typical advice to children in the 1950's.

Even though I was very young, I knew that this proverb made no sense:  I felt deeply hurt inside by the name-calling.  What I needed was advice and help in dealing with abuse.  After Mom’s dismissal of my story, I concluded that adults were not interested in my pain.

My classmates’ continued to exclude me from play and Karen continued her bullying of me for four more years.  The constant harassment made me feel damaged and inadequate.  I often walked around alone at recess to avoid my tormentors. 

Because my family needed a larger home for four children, we moved to another area when I was nine.  I found myself in a new school and worried about bullying and about making friends.  However, the teachers at my new school were much more proactive in discouraging bullying and in advocating for new students.  Mrs. Lagerman, my classroom teacher, persuaded Bill, a very friendly boy, to invite me to play baseball with the other kids. 

Happily, I agreed. 

Miss Prince, the physical education teacher, heard some girls making fun of Julie, the tallest girl in the class.  Miss Prince sat us down and told us, “I don’t want to hear anyone make fun of Julie.  Each of you has a body that is unique and perfect for you.”  I was very glad to hear an adult condemn bullying.  Gradually, my social skills improved, and I learned to trust my fellow students.

Years later, when I told my story about bullying to other adults, they told me about their own experiences as a target of bullies.  Some people were bullied because they were overweight, wore glasses, were short, came from a family with little money, etc. Eighty-year-old adults clearly remembered childhood torment.

In 1992, I was reading Native American legends for a research project.  I decided to write my own legend about bullying.  In How the Moon Regained Her Shape, the sun bullies the moon, telling her she is ugly and no one needs her.  The moon feels so upset that she shrinks and leaves her orbit.  Then the moon turns to her comet friend and her new animal and Native American friends on earth, who comfort her by telling her that she is beautiful and that she is important to them.  After regaining her full size and self-esteem, the happy and wiser moon returns to the sky. 

How the Moon Regained Her Shape was published in 2006 and has won four national awards.  Since then, I have gone to many schools, bookstores, libraries, and conferences to discuss bullying.  I urge everyone to appreciate the diversity in Michigan, to confront bullies, and to assist bullied individuals.  I’m pleased that schools, religious groups, sports teams, and other organizations are now combating abuse.

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