When I was young, I used to get picked on for being a straight-A student who got to sing and dance and act in front of the school all the time. I was in the glee club (before it became this Hollywood phenomenon), the drama club, the “gifted students” club that tutored at-risk inner-city kids, and I was in the “pilot” class where they grouped together all the “smart” kids so that they can all be in the same homeroom. In retrospect, I get that they structured things with a sort of iron-sharpens-iron philosophy, but that class was sort of the barrel where you put fish into to get shot.
So I was basically a cross between Hermione Granger and Hannah Montana. You’re probably thinking, give me a break. Boohoo. There are kids who get bullied for real reasons out there.
While it’s true that it never really got violent or scary for me, I really did get picked on as a kid. Maybe not in the way other kids with “legitimate” reasons get bullied; for example, I never got physically beat up or stuffed in a locker. I never got chased down the street. However, I did get threatened a lot. Older kids would follow me around at school, because they knew I was one of those smart kids in the smart kids class, and they threatened to make my life a living hell. I tried to run for student council one year and out of a class of almost 400 students, I only got 6 votes. People were scratching my name out of the election posters and spreading gossip about me just so I wouldn’t win.
So yeah, it wasn’t a bed of roses.
And I reacted.
I stopped studying. From a 98% average, I let my grades slip so low, so fast, that there was one semester when I was barely passing. It drove all my teachers insane, because we all had to take IQ tests every year and they knew I was way smarter than that. I stayed in choir because I absolutely loved it and I would have never quit singing for anything, but I also started swearing, violating school rules, and overall just stopped applying myself. At that point, I got lucky because my family moved to Canada, and I never got picked on there. I was encouraged to be good at things, and the kids at school actually accepted me and sought me out for all the things I was good at, not the other way around.
I never realized this was a real thing until not too long ago, one of my vocal students’ parents came up to me and expressed concern about their daughter. She is a tremendously gifted singer, but has stopped wanting to sing. Apparently, she’s going through the same thing I went through. This breaks my heart, not just because she’s my student but because she is an incredibly talented singer. It’s sad when any person doesn’t feel like they can be themselves because they’re being threatened our shut out, but when a person with genuine talent feels the need to hide their gift on account of their peers, it’s a tragedy.
Just because a kid is gifted doesn’t mean that they don’t get targeted. In fact, the extremely gifted kids tend to be targeted just as much as the ones who are your typical social outcasts. I think it’s because some kids aren’t affirmed enough in their own families to see the good in themselves. So when they see other kids shine, it makes them feel a sort of inadequacy. Sometimes, they react to this with depression, so they become targets for bullying. In other occasions, they react to this with violence, and they become the bullies.
What can we do about this? I’m not really sure. Teachers and principals can only do so much, and punishment only fixes part of the problem. But maybe if we can all find a way to empower our kids, to help them all see the good in themselves – because they all have good in themselves – maybe less of them will feel the need to bring other kids down.
For now, here’s a message to anyone who is ever made to feel unsafe or uncool because you’re “too smart” or because you’re a singer or a dancer or actor, or for any other reason: whatever it is that they’re telling you, don’t listen. Don’t give up. Don’t just take it. Don’t try to become less of what you are just so you would fit in. The world is way bigger than your school, your playground, your neighborhood, and somewhere there is a place where you would be loved and celebrated for being everything that you are and everything you’re about to be. Just hang on.
It gets better.