The Bullies And The Row Boat

I was only bullied for one summer. I was nearly twelve years old and at my second year of sleep-away camp. For two weeks, I was pushed, yelled at, set up, lied to and lied about.

Some of it was so subtle I didn’t even realize what was happening until it was too late. And other moments were downright dangerous. Like when one girl tried to kick me off the top buck. I clung to the sides, desperate and afraid, hoping she would stop. Even today, my arms clench when I think about it.

It wasn’t just in the cabin though. At the activities, the albatross around my neck came, too. Once in awhile, a girl would take pity on me and agree to sail or canoe with me. Mostly, the girls refused.

My sailing instructor went out of his way to be kind. He encouraged me to sail alone. He promised that it would be amazing. Did he stop the girls? No. But it helped to have one person not think I was weak.

One afternoon, I was allowed to be with the other girls. I sat in a rowboat with two of the girls. They forced me to row. Then they took away a paddle and told me to row again.

I said: But we’ll just go in circles.

They responded: DO IT ANYWAY.

My shoulders slumped, and I began to row berating myself for getting in the boat with them. They laughed. We were quite far from shore, and I was afraid. Suddenly, I stopped rowing. They yelled and taunted. And I sat there. Terrified and surprised at myself and my unwillingness to obey.

One girl threw the other oar into the lake. And threatened me again. Told me to get the oar. I said no. We sat at an impasse as the three whistles blew to come back to shore. I quietly prayed that we would get back to shore. Eventually, a boat came out to find out why we weren’t heading back. Someone said (maybe me?): We lost our oars.

They hand us oars, and I rowed us home. No counselor asked anything more. I didn’t volunteer it.

Now, the bullying didn’t stop because I didn’t row. Standing up for myself only meant I didn’t have to row in circles for twenty minutes. I still had days of snickering and exclusion to go.

But I held on to that moment as proof that I had a voice underneath all the confusion and terror. And I survived.

I told no one about it, but I just didn’t go back to camp the following summer. I slept. Like eighteen hours a day.

But, by the end of eighth grade, things had changed. I was more popular.

I don’t know why.

I went back to that camp that summer. Those girls became my friends.

I don’t know why.

No one ever mentioned the summer before seventh grade.

And I was glad.

I didn’t even realize there was a name for what had happened to me until a few years ago when I read about the children being harassed for months and years by classmates. I thought bullies were giant boys from bad families who punched small boys and stole their lunch money. I didn’t realize that the helplessness of my seventh grade summer, when people thought that it was okay for ten girls, who lived in the same cabin, to hate one, to accuse one, to scare and ignore and lie to one, well, that was bullying, too.

I can’t imagine what years of that would’ve been like.

But I can imagine wanting to die rather than face another day of it. Two weeks stayed with me for years.

Which means I need to be more vocal. More aware. I’m sure our counselors had no idea how often I was afraid. But maybe they should have.

Regardless, I believe those moments of encouragement, as I sailed the lake alone and capable, allowed me to retain a sliver of dignity. For twenty minutes, I didn’t feel like the the smallest person in the world.

A friend often reminds me: Courage is not lack of fear but taking action despite fear.

I found courage those two weeks.

Maybe that was the gift. I would need that courage again and again in my life. The stamina to take a stand. Or just hold my ground for a bit longer.

Today, I remember to smile at the children and adults eating alone, brows furrowed, or standing just on the edge of the group. Hopeful.

I make an effort to be kind to everyone I encounter.

Because I’m never sure who’s in that row boat.

And what it’ll take to get them back to shore.

Alex Iwashyna

Alex Iwashyna went from a B.A. in philosophy to an M.D. to a SAHM, poet and writer by 30. She spends most of her writing time on, a humor blog (except when it's serious) about her husband fighting zombies, awkward attempts at friendship, and dancing like everyone is watching. She also has a soft spot for culture, politics, and rude Southern people who offend her Yankee sensibilities. She parents 2 elementary-aged children, 1 foster baby, 3 cats, and 1 puppy, who are all Southern but not rude. Yet.

22 thoughts to “The Bullies And The Row Boat”

  1. I was bullied in the third grade and it stays with me to this day. I relate very much to what you wrote. The year I was bullied was the year I started disordered eating behaviors that followed me through decades of my life. I’m glad it’s all over, but the pain lingers in the darker corners.

  2. I heard someone say, maybe it was here or another blog, that “you can be as strong as you want, but you don’t have to be mean”. I hope I raise my son to feel that way. Strong. Strong enough to stand up to the mean. Strong enough to help those who are targeted by the mean. Because no child should have to ever be made to feel that way. Ever.

  3. This is my favorite piece of yours yet. This needs to be in something somewhere where teen girls can read it and cling to it. So. Good.

    I don’t recall bullying or being bullied. Then again I may have just been to clueless and naive to know any different. Well, I take that back. I was an early bloomer. And I remember walking into homeroom, choir, and science every day being harassed by two different boys (depending on which class it was) about my chest. I guess that’s more sexually harassed though (I was an 8th grader). I would pray daily that my boobs would shrink or fall off. I dreaded going into class. My face would get red, my eyes would sting, and I would immediately hunch my shoulders. One day I finally chose to acknowledge the comments. I either laughed, thanked them for the compliments, or something – I can’t remember, but it stopped after that. One of the guys was older and went to high school. The other eventually became my friend. Kids are vicious. It breaks my heart to think what you described is happening to someone right now.

  4. I’d like to speak up for your readership, if I may. We go along with posts of Zombies and weeds and nose hairs. All good stuff. But then, once in a while. You slam us with one like this. The ones that make us cry. Make us think. Make us remember.

    Thanks Al

  5. It’s nice to know that even though ugliness can stay with us forever, so can small moments of courage.
    Weird, I also blogged today about when I learned to make an effort to be nice to people who seem to need it.
    Thank you for this post.

  6. I was also bullied on a few isolated occasions but, like you, I was somehow lucky enough to not have to deal with that over a long period of time. I wish I’d said something to someone. My heart goes out to kids who are bullied and I hope that when I become a teacher I can make at least a small difference in stopping bullies’ behavior.

  7. That’s awful. 🙁

    I was bullied from 5th grade through about 8th grade. It really does stay with you. To this day, I have a tendency to assume that people won’t like me.

  8. I was the straight A student whom everybody loved to hate. I didn’t like myself a lot either, but when I remembered why I was like that, I didn’t mind too much. You see, my mother had 10 pregnancies, full term, and I was the one that survived, and when I saw my parent’s look of admiration, love, devotion, every time their little girl got called to the podium ” Juanita Cusi, first place”, I forgot the mean treatment… By the way, I hate being called Juanita, but I’m an active person in politics, a wife, a mother and a member in several organizations, and in a weird way, popular because I don’t care what people say anymore…

  9. I was bullied, too, and you’re right, it’s not something you easily get over. The worst thing about it, I think, is the way that adults act like it’s no big deal. Like it’s just “kids being kids” instead of discussing how it’s a problem, or calling out the bully, the leader. I think kids need to know they don’t have to be best friends with everyone, but they do have to treat people with respect and civility. I get really pissed when I see this happening, still, right in front of adults and the adults don’t do anything about it.

    It’s funny, when I read this, I thought–“But why did you become friends with them later?” And then I realized, I did, too. It’s crazy the way that happens.

  10. Brilliantly written.

    I hate that you suffered like that. I love that you took that suffering and turned it into compassion.

    I was just talking to a friend about this earlier today – our girls are the same age, and we wondered why one of them [hers] is singled out to be bullied [not by my kid, but by other girls] when they are all so similar – smart, talented, funny kids. And yet so mean-spirited sometimes.

  11. I love this. I was bullied. More by my mum and whichever partner she had at the time than at school, though there was a bit of that as well.
    I withdrew a lot and had a heck of a lot of issues because of it for years.
    It really does make people want to die. It’s terrifying.
    Now I’m a lot healthier and happier and don’t stand for bullying. I am so glad you got through it and had the guts to say something about it as well.
    Go Alex!

  12. Beautiful post.

    I too was bullied. It happened in 5th grade, I had to transfer schools and it changed the way I perceive myself and others. Even though I know the bullying wasn’t really about me, there have been times that I can’t help thinking I’m fundamentally flawed in some way.

  13. I came by earlier and read this, but didn’t have time to comment (mostly because my daughter apparently thought it was a good time to see how long it would take the sink to overflow if she stopped up the drain and let the water flow.)

    This brought back memories of the one summer I went to sleep away camp. It was girl scout camp when I was 9. I had a light bulb moment of my own, reading this, because I had never really identified that camp experience as being full of bullying, but it so was.

    I only really knew two girls there (neither of which were in my bunk because they were older) and the girls I was bunking with were already friends before they came. That made me the immediate outsider. There were all sorts of things that happened that week, big and small, but the thing they did that hurt the most was this…One night, when I was in the shower (there were shower stalls with no locks on the doors) two of the girls from my bunk ran in the stall and grabbed my clothes and towel and ran away with them (I never did get those clothes back…which makes me wonder what they did with them). I tried asking other girls who were in the shower area if I could borrow a towel or clothes or something, but they were all laughing and wouldn’t let me.

    Finally, I ended up walking back to my bunk naked (and that was one long walk.) I’m not sure where all the counselors were when all this went down, but as I remember it, they pretty much disappeared each night after dinner and no one saw them until morning, and I didn’t run across any of them on the way back to my bunk. I did try to stand up for myself the next day and complain to one of the counselors…but she turned out to be related to a girl in my bunk and she didn’t believe me.

    I am so glad that you found courage in that row boat, but so sorry that you had to go through that.

  14. I’m so sorry for the way those girls treated you! Bullying is a HUGE problem & should never be tolerated. I never experienced much (if any) bullying myself… I was one of the popular girls, but in such a small school it was hard not to be friends with everyone… I’m proud of the fact that I was nominated homecoming queen based on my kindness, character & personality – something my parents instilled in me, and not because I was the easy cheerleader (although I was a cheerleader too for a couple years, just not easy) 😉

    A friemd’s son killed himself several years back after being bullied… he was 13. His parents have been working ever since to get legislation passed for the prevention of bullycide… Michigan is one of a handful of states that hasn’t passed any anti-bullying legislation… hopeful for the day Matt’s Law is put into action…

  15. I was the victim of mean girls all throughout 7th and 8th grade. Plus there was one horrible stint at sleepaway camp the summer after fifth grade. It was the same scenario– a bunk of eight girls who were all best friends and me. They were horrible to me and I remember there were two counselors– the cool one and the one they all made fun of. Guess which one always came to my defense?

  16. Alex, this was so good. I was never outright bullied, but I definitely went through a period of not being cool enough for the “in” crowd. The boys in that group would poke fun of my zits and tell me I was ugly. The girls would ignore me or giggle once in awhile while looking in my direction.

    Middle school just sucked.

  17. Thank you for sharing this. It’s terrifying how children can turn on one another. My heart especially aches for you because you were away from home.

  18. That was touching.

    I remember there was a rather nasty, big girl some years older than myself, who had decided she would bully me. I’m not sure why.

    Now, the funny thing is – I didn’t care. It just didn’t bother me. Not because I told myself I wouldn’t get downt. I just didn’t. I found her rather ridiculous. And funnily enough, some of the girls in her posse seemed to, as well.

    Afterthought: one day she was trying to be nasty to me, again. On her own. A kindly teacher of ours appeared, and she began to pretend to cry. A job rather well down. She said I was bullying her. My teacher put his arm around her, and walked away with her, turning his head to give me a stern reprimand.

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