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Growing up in a small beach town in New Jersey is a life that parents dream of for their children. The popular summer destination, nestled on a Cape May County Island, was my year-round reality. Being in walking distance to the beach, attending great schools, and living in a town that is considered safe and supportive for families, was more than my parents ever imagined to be possible.
They stretched each and every paycheck to allow my sister and I to grow up here, something that many families don't have the opportunity to do. At the age of eleven, my life was fairly typical, for that of an Ocean City kid. We had long summer beach days, we rode our bikes to school with friends, we lived and loved the ghost-town winters after the tourists went home, and were the first back in the ocean when the temperatures warmed up. We played community sports, had neighborhood games of kickball, and loved the quaint life of being a shore town local.
My life changed drastically at the age of twelve, when I confided in a friend about having a same-sex crush. The problem with small shore towns is that word travels fast. Before I could even consider my next move, the word was out, and life as I knew it was over.
The bullying began quickly. The loss of friendships was immediate. Overwhelmed and absolutely terrified, I isolated myself, but there was no escaping the words and actions of my peers. Hateful notes were being slipped into my locker covered in slurs. I was being called disgusting, being excluded from lunch tables and classes, and being told that I was going to hell.
Looking back on this, I realize that the most disturbing part of coming out was not the reaction of the students, but the reaction of the parents and teachers. Teachers who once said hello to me in the hallway with a smile, now ignored me at all costs. Teachers with no bullying policies, were allowing the bullying to occur, as long as it revolved around my sexual orientation. Additional help for my schoolwork was no longer offered, and being called on when my hand was raised in class was a rarity.
I realize now that I did not isolate myself, but rather, I was isolated by those around me. Parents were unhappy and angry. My mother, being the loving and caring parent that she is, dropped me off and picked me up from school every day, even though I lived far enough at this point to take the bus. She was always the first parent to arrive. She was never late, never forgot, and never forced me to take the bus. She was always there when I exited the building at the basketball court, waiting in the car with a smile on her face.
The pickup area changed. Parents were knocking on my mother's car window, asking questions about my sexual orientation, and blaming her for it. They made statements of their fears of me being around their children. They made comments that my mother exposed me to too many gay people, and too many shows and movies with gay characters. It was well-known that I was interested in Broadway plays and musicals, and the musical Rent was most commonly brought up to my mother, by other parents, as being the reason I am a lesbian.
As time went on, things became progressively worse. As students went home and discussed my sexual orientation with their parents, they returned to school with more hatred, more misguided opinions that were being passed down from the mouths of parents to the mouths of children who simply did not know any better.
My parents, who have always been loving and accepting, hit a breaking point when I would begin crying and shaking as soon as I set foot into the car to go home. I would sob before school, begging my parents to let me stay home. I missed so much school that I was only attending three times a week, as the bullying was too much for twelve-year-old-me to handle.
My parents confronted the principal as I sat on a chair in the waiting room of the main office. The school claimed to always have a no "HIB" policy in place, which stands for no harassment, intimidation, and bullying, and my parents were seeking answers as to why, only in my situation, it was not being enforced. It was on that day, that first meeting with the principal, that we realized I would never be safe or protected in this school district, when the principal uttered the words,
"She did this to herself, she came out as gay, she caused this."
Although I was not in the room, I knew that those words turned my mother's face beet red in anger. I knew that she would return home with tears in her eyes, knowing that she could not protect her child, and nobody else had any intention of doing so.
This continued for the remainder of that year, as well as the following year, which would be my last at the school, before high school. Countless meetings with the principal occurred, with no resolution. The bullying remained and became more violent and threatening as time passed. I was told by classmates that I should kill myself time and time again, that I was going to hell anyway so there was no point in living.
The saddest part of this story is that I believed them. I was too young to know any better, and so were they. By the end of 8th grade, I was so exhausted, so beaten down, and so depressed that I completely checked out. I could not accomplish my school work on the two to three days a week that I would attend school. I was tired and withdrawn from most of my classes.
My 8th grade English teacher was the only person I had faith in. It was the only class that could put a smile on my face. We were learning about William Shakespeare, and reenacting some of his famous plays. She was the only teacher to protect me, to see potential in me, and to treat me no differently than her other students. For that, I am forever grateful.
However, it wasn't enough to keep me from falling into a dark place. I was alone, with dark circles around my eyes, struggling to find happiness and accomplish daily tasks, I would barely even eat. At the age of thirteen, I had every intention of committing suicide. Maybe not right then, but at some point. It never crossed my mind that I would make it to the age of eighteen, let alone my current age of twenty-two. I was seeing psychologists and psychiatrists, and even going to hospital emergency rooms for suicidal thoughts. I was simply broken.
By the start of my freshman year in high school, I was having panic attacks in the first few days alone. I was terrified of school, and receiving no assistance from the district. My psychiatrist quickly made the decision to determine me home-bound, and for nearly that entire school year teachers taught me at my home.
This helped my mental health greatly, and gave me more free time to experience the world outside of my small town, and discover comfort in who I am. I traveled for much of that year and began finding myself. At the same time, my grades had shot up to straight A's as I could finally pay attention to school work without the distraction of the bullying. This was the best year of my school life, and I returned to school my sophomore year, again, a completely different person.
This time, I came back with pride. I had traveled across the country and found true acceptance of self. I learned that in the real world outside of my small beach town, love and acceptance existed in many forms. I was no longer shy about who I am. We had taken extra precautions to protect me. I was given an IEP, an individualized education plan, to allow absences and tardies to be excused. I would be granted additional time on tests, and private options for learning if I fell behind. The school would be forced to work with me if I had issues with teachers or learning environments. I returned terrified but ready to be my true self, unapologetically.
I picked public speaking as an extracurricular class, assuming that it would assist me in coming out of my shell and learning to speak up about various issues. The class consisted of around fourteen students, and the teacher was nothing short of a Godsend. She was the first person in my life that was not only supportive of me but also gave me a voice.
She gave me the opportunity to tell my story, to talk about the LGBTQ community, and to express the struggles I had faced as an LGBTQ student. The thirteen or so other students, as well as myself, had no idea just how beneficial this class would become to all of us. We spoke up about things that we had hidden inside of us for years. Even the students who did not personally believe in who I am were kind, caring, and listened with an open mind. This teacher did not just teach the course; she taught peace and love by asking us all to consider the importance of having a voice and listening to others when they used it.
She also taught English, and at the same time, I was struggling with the English teacher I was placed with. His teaching methods were difficult to understand for most, and with English being my best subject, his teaching methods and the lack of understanding from other students was holding back my potential.
He had trouble controlling his class which led to several arguments between myself and other students about my sexual orientation. Some arguments became so intense that acts of violence were threatened, and one student even pushed his desk over to approach me as I sat there verbally defending my sexual orientation and community.
The teacher even provoked arguments, and while talking about the Holocaust he pointed out that, "the gays were killed too, for being an unacceptable difference in society," while staring me straight in the eyes. I stormed out of the classroom in discomfort and down to the guidance counselor's office to demand that my class be changed. The only other teacher who taught the same course was the teacher I had for public speaking.
I was told no. I was told that I would have to drop down a level to change classes, that I could not pick and choose my teachers. This argument went on for weeks as tensions rose with the teacher and students until a meeting was set up with myself, my mother, the teacher in question, the guidance counselor, and the assistant principal.
During this meeting, I was forced to explain to the teacher why I did not want to be in his class. An argument ensued between my mother and the assistant principal. My mother made claims of my IEP not being followed. The assistant principal made claims that I only wanted to switch classes due to my sexual orientation, and because I was confident in the teacher I would be switching to.
My mother broke down and yelled,"Isn't that the point? If the point of the IEP is to make sure she is taken care of, to make sure she has everything she needs to succeed in her education, then her trust for this teacher she would be switching to is exactly the reason she should be switched!"
The room grew silent. No resolution would be made. All of this took place without any real leadership. This was not a formal meeting. This was the faculty pulling together to prevent me from obtaining any assistance with my education.
Finally, the assistant principal broke down and called the principal, who was unaware this meeting was taking place. When he was told I had an IEP, he told them to change my class immediately, and the meeting should not have been necessary to come to that conclusion. The following day, I was switched into the proper class, which meant I would have two hours of classes with the only teacher in the school that I had any trust for.
The bullying continued but to a lesser degree. Some kids were beginning to grow up and form their own opinions rather than spewing the opinions of their parents. The only two classes I struggled with were gym and lunch. During lunch, I often hid in the library or in the classroom of the teacher I felt comfortable with. When the faculty became aware of students avoiding lunch, a rule was set into place stating all students must attend lunch. I still refused to, and more than one member of staff broke the rule and allowed me to sit safely in their classrooms or the library.
Gym class was a separate problem entirely. The other female students felt uncomfortable with me changing in the female locker room. They complained to their parents and to the teacher, as well as making false claims that I looked at them or touched them while they were changing. They called me a pervert and said I should not be allowed to change in the locker room. I stopped participating in gym class and sat out nearly every day, refusing to change into gym clothes and banned from participating in my normal clothing.
When I did participate, there were often arguments between students about what group I should be in. "She's basically a guy," was the most common argument. Students refused to partner up with me or excluded me from their teams. Participation became impossible, and the school called yet another meeting to inform me that they were failing me in gym class, and as a result, would fail me for the entire year of schooling.
I was told that from then on, I was to change in the bathroom closest to my prior class, which was on the opposite end of the school, to keep me away from any other students that were in my gym class. I did this twice, and not only was I late to class, but I was mocked by my peers for having to change in the bathroom, "for being a pervert." Again, I refused to participate in gym class. At this point, I was restricted from entering the female locker room unless there were no other students in there.
There were ups and downs in my sophomore year. I found a lot of peace within my public speaking class, and it encouraged me to attend school more regularly. When it came time to do a speech in the library that would be attended by students from several grades, my teacher encouraged me to take that opportunity to speak about an influential LGBTQ figure.
I chose to do a speech on Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician to be elected into public office in the United States. This led to a confidence boost, and I started frequently wearing pride T-shirts and would occasionally paint a rainbow on my cheek.
I was finally comfortable in who I was, but many of the students still were not. The bullying continued, and we continued addressing it with the faculty, but again, no resolution was ever made. Students and parents began complaining that I was a distraction, and the school labeled me as a "difficult, defiant student" for speaking of the LGBTQ community and displaying LGBTQ pride in my appearance.
Nearing the end of the school year, the school grew increasingly frustrated, as did I. We got together for one final meeting. My family voiced their concerns about my safety and education, as my grades had dropped, and my failing grade in gym class was a barrier preventing me from moving on to junior year.
I was never offered any of the assistance that my IEP was in place for, and when I asked for that assistance, it was never given. The school voiced their concerns about my distracting LGBTQ supportive clothing and narrative and stated that education that was equal to that of my classmates was not possible due to my sexual orientation, mental health struggles, and "defiant nature" which included nothing other than defending myself in conversations of hatred and ignorance.
The school gave me three options. For the following school year, I could be moved into a class for "special" students, where I would be in one room for the entire day with only a few other students, "who have mental health and anger problems and cannot function in normal classes." Another option voiced was that I could transfer schools. I attended public school and in order to transfer my parents would have to move to another city, or send me to the only local private school which they could not afford. My final option was the most encouraged option, which was to drop out of school entirely. These were not suggestions. These were set in stone. Returning to school as a regular student the following year was not an option, and with my IEP not being followed and nobody being held accountable for their bullying or failure to stop it, it wasn't an option I even wanted. I dropped out of Ocean City High School at the age of fifteen in June of 2012.
My school failed me. They failed to protect me. They failed to educate me. They failed to provide me with fair and equal opportunities. They failed to provide me with more care than the care for their own reputation which was damaged by the opinions of parents who did not want me around their children. They failed to follow their own harassment, intimidation, and bullying policy. They failed to follow my IEP and provide me with reasonable accommodations. They failed to allow me to participate like other students. They failed to encourage me to graduate. They failed to allow me to be myself. They failed me on every level they could fail me as a student, and if we had known we could at the time, we would have taken legal action against them. This story you have read is simply the tip of the iceberg. These are the most memorable moments of the absolute failure of education I experienced, but it's nowhere close to the entirety of what I experienced.
In 2014 I returned to Ocean City High School after a fellow student and friend tragically took her own life, to voice opinions about bullying and mental health, as well as describe my own story, at a school board meeting. This turned into multiple school board meetings attended by hundreds of students, prior students, and parents of both, fighting for a resolution to experiences similar to what I had gone through years prior, as well as providing further resources for mental health and addiction. Shortly after this, new resources and rules were put into place within the district to protect students from experiences like mine. Whether they have been maintained and utilized, I cannot confirm.
I place no blame on the students who bullied me. They are all adults now with their own opinions, most of which have changed when entering adulthood. I do place blame on the school district and all of the adults involved in my experience that contributed to the failure that occurred by the school within my education. I am now a twenty-two-year-old legal secretary, and I do not regret dropping out of high school. I truly believe that I would have taken my own life, as a result of the bullying and lack of assistance from the faculty if I had stayed. Most importantly, I am proud of who I am, and I got to spend more time learning that.
Take this as a cautionary tale. Teach your children to love, not hate. Ask your city to provide support for your LGBTQ children. Pressure your school district to make the right decisions. If you are a teacher, a school board member, a guidance counselor, or have any interaction with students for any reason, please protect them and support them. Follow their IEPs, and listen to their cries for help. Punish the bully, not the victim. Your students are our future. Be kind.