Steff Green is turning her experience of bullying into a story of hope for young children in the form of a new picture book.
She is nine years old. Two girls at her school pretend to be her friends, but mock her and humiliate her behind her back. She confronts them one day, tells them she’s sorry if she’d done something to upset them.
“I just want us all to be friends,” she says.
Their faces break into smiles. “That’s what we want, too!”
One of them says she has something awesome to show the others. “We just found it!” She drags the girl behind the school hall. “You’ll love it.” She tells the girl to bend down and look under the hall.
As the girl bends over, a hand grabs the back of her neck, forcing her head down. She twists away, but not before her face is pushed into a pile of dog shit.
She stands up and watches her friends double over with laughter, cackling like the witches of Macbeth. She floats outside her body, looking down on herself – this pathetic girl with dog shit all over her face. She runs. She runs from the school, their laughter following her down the road, around the corner, somewhere, anywhere away from them. She doesn’t remember how far she runs or how her mum finds her. She just remembers running.
This is a true story. It happened to me.
I have a rare genetic condition called achromatopsia. It renders me completely colour-blind and legally blind. I was also a generally imaginative, weird, and introverted child. I was good at art and making up stories and terrible at sports. I wasn’t like the other kids, so they would ostracize me, call me names, deliberately invent games to humiliate me, lock me in cupboards, tell me that I was stupid, useless, pointless, that I should just go away, that I should never have been born.
This started when I was six years old and continued until I left high school. I didn’t make friends until I was fifteen or so – a motley crew of fellow freaks who all had their own tales of exclusion and fear. Even with friends, the effects of bullying last well beyond the last bell.
It took me years to learn to trust people, to let them see the real me. Social situations still make me anxious, and I’ve struggled with low self-esteem and internalising anger.
According to statistics released by the Pink Shirt Day Foundation, rates of bullying in New Zealand are among some of the worst in the world. One in three Year 4 students report being bullied on a weekly or more frequent basis. Although most media focuses on bullying during teenage years, 68% of teachers believe that bullying begins early in a child’s life, between preschool and year four.
In those younger years, bullying corrodes self-esteem. You think “if I could just be like everyone else, then all this torture would stop.” But I couldn’t make my eyes work – the same way another kid can’t change the colour of their skin or their cultural background or whatever their bullies chose to pick on.
At that age you can’t understand that the bullying isn’t about you – it’s about someone else and their insecurities. And there’s no easy way to make it stop, even if you tell an adult
I was lucky. I went to university. I learned that resilience and creativity are actually valuable assets. I let my freak flag fly. I met amazing people who become lifelong friends. I became a bestselling author and fulfilled my dream of telling weird stories about people like me. I get letters from readers all over the world thanking me for creating worlds they can escape to when life gets hard.
I’m still terrible at sports.
Not every kid who is bullied gets a happy ending, even after they leave school. Researchers often compare the lasting effects of bullying to PTSD. Adults who were bullied as children find it hard to trust, and often struggle with low self-esteem, anger, or anxiety, and this may contribute to depression and suicidal thoughts.
Bullying has been in the media a lot lately, especially with the release of 13 Reasons Why and the conversations it’s sparked. I’ve been thinking about my own story and how I could use that to make a difference for other kids like me.
That’s why I wrote Only Freaks Turn Things Into Bones – a picture book about a cute little grim reaper who gets bullied because he’s different.
I wrote the story to help kids accept and celebrate what makes them special. My friend, illustrator Bree Roldan (also a victim of bullying), created the character of Little Death and brought him to life. We loved the idea of a grim reaper as a main character because he didn’t represent one particular race or religion or disability or quirk. He’s made of bones, just like all of us. He also appealed because we’re total goths and that’s how we roll.
We thought a lot about the story we wanted to tell, and how it would reflect our experiences. I wanted the book to have a positive ending, but I didn’t want Little Death to make friends with his bullies, because that never worked for me. Instead, he finds all the other ‘freaks’ – kids who are excluded – and together, they have more fun than the bullies.
The publishers I approached were a little freaked out by the grim reaper character, but I decided the message was an important one, so we turned to Kickstarter. Our campaign for Only Freaks Turn Things Into Bones is in its last week, and we’re very close to reaching our goal!
Bree and I want kids like us to see themselves in this book and understand that it does get better, and that just because other people don’t accept them doesn’t mean something is wrong with them.
Help us publish Only Freaks Turn Things Into Bones by supporting on Kickstarter, or sharing with fellow freaks.
Help for kids experiencing bullying (and their parents)
Kidsline – Telephone counselling service for all kids up to 14 years of age. Operates from 4pm-6pm Monday to Friday. 0800 54 37 54 www.kidsline.org.nz
Youthline – Helpline 0800 37 66 33, Free Text 234, email@example.com, www.youthline.co.nz
Lifeline – 24/7 counselling and support, 522 2999 (within Auckland), 0800 543 354 (outside Auckland) www.lifeline.org.nz
Keeping Your Kids Safe Online
Information for parents on creating a safe online learning and social environment for your children at home: Netsafe Cyberbullying
NZ Police Kia Kaha bullying programme for schools: School-based programme to help schools create safe environments where bullying cannot flourish.
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