For me, the first time was when Michael Chernin, a Woody Allen look-alike, punched me in the stomach on the way home from school for no apparent reason. A few years later, D.B. French threatened to beat me up after school — from third grade to sixth grade. In seventh grade, it was the boys from Silver Lake, chasing my friend Jenny and me around the stark hallways of our brand new junior high and calling us bruta at our lockers. When she kicked one of them, they got a group of their girls after us, and for a year we saw their faces, full of braces and hate, in the little windows on the doors of our math and English and French classes, mouthing the words: You die after school. You die after school. Not a day went by without the threat of being dragged into the girls’ bathroom and getting our heads dunked, then flushed, in the toilet (a.k.a., getting a”swirly”).
In those days, we didn’t tell our parents. Or our teachers. We suffered in silence and usually it went away (I don’t remember any problems in high school, besides my own adolescent misery). But it’s different now. Bullying doesn’t end at three o’clock the way it did for us: it’s on a 24-hour cycle, just like the news. It’s also public. Kids can be hunted down at all hours of the day and night and humiliated online. We’ve all read the tragic stories of teens whose spirits were crushed and whose lives were destroyed by non-stop cruelty and harassment. And we all know someone — a friend, a friend of a friend, the child of a friend — who have been targets at school.
When I first met Nataly (we’ve been friends long before I started working at Happier), she told me stories about moving to the U.S. from the former Soviet Union and how hard she tried to fit in at school those first few years. One of the most heart-breaking stories was about the day she was made fun of for a sandwich she brought to school — and how she came home and heard that her father had been made fun of, too, at his job, for the same sandwich. This past spring, when I came to Happier, the most interesting data point Nataly shared with me was that emails were pouring in from teens who were grateful for the safety of Happier and who were telling us that it was the only place they felt comfortable expressing positive things about themselves — and about their parents. Families are using Happier together — sharing small positive moments with each other throughout the day and cheering each other on — instead of playing a perpetual game of hide-and-seek online the way they do on other sites. And Nataly is working with a large charter school system in San Diego to kick off a Happier in Schools program in early 2014.
We’re committed to spreading the word about our very special community to teens and families everywhere, and we’re devoting this week to anti-bullying. We’ll be asking you to share moments about standing up for others and moments when others stood up for you. We’ll be asking you to reach out to people who feel alone, and to open your heart just a little more than you already do to make room for those who feel like they don’t easily fit in to the world. We’ll be asking you to be braver, and nicer, and kinder than we know you already are.
In between getting ready for the holidays this week, make someone else, and yourself, happier: spread some compassion and inspire others to do the same.