His name is Ismael, which means “May God hear. ” It is an appropriate name for this 15-year-old young man of slight build, whose warm smile and lively brown eyes reveal he has wisdom to share. I met him at a conference on bullying where he was part of a student panel. Ismael introduced himself and told me that because I wrote Hey, Back Off! Tips for Stopping Teen Harassment, I was his hero. I had a feeling if I heard this young man’s story, he would become mine. I was right.
Ismael is being raised by his grandparents. He is quick to point out there are no other people on this earth who could have done a better job. Ismael is an old soul who would prefer to live in a time when Doris Day was in her prime.
“I am a Democrat, and becoming the first Hispanic president is something I might do, ” he tells me. “I am not just Catholic, I am an ultra-Catholic. One item on my bucket list is to someday meet a pope. And I want to be like Mother Teresa and help as many people as possible. I think being a priest is also a future possibility, as is marriage, family, and being a deacon. “
Ismael’s smile fades after I ask him when his problems with bullying began. It was the sixth grade. Although uncomfortable with going into too much detail about how he was harassed, Ismael reveals he was rumored to be gay. He believes this happened because he didn’t like sports in a school where athletes were kings. He was bullied verbally and physically for being outspoken about political and religious views.
“One time, some of the kids played keep-away with my rosary I carry with me, ” he recalls. “I was pushed, shoved, and even choked. “
I ask Ismael the question I always ask when speaking to teens about their struggles with bullies: I want to know if he told anyone about what was happening to him. Ismael glances at his grandmother apologetically before answering: “I went to my school counselor. He told me, ‘Kids will be kids,’ and that I should ‘toughen up.’ I didn’t tell my grandparents because I didn’t want to worry them. I told God, but I didn’t want to tell anyone at my church. I guess I was ashamed. “
Sharing any problem with adults is difficult for teens, but issues with bullying seem to be particularly rough. The reason may be that they lack the knowledge about harassment they need to express themselves. Alternatively, teens also recognize adults who do not know or understand what they are going through and, therefore, cannot help them.
It is imperative for teens, parents, and those working with teens to know what constitutes harassment and the laws and policies in place to stop and prevent it. Teens who know about harassment are provided a way to analyze their experiences and a vocabulary to discuss what is happening to them. Adults who are educated realize harassment cannot be solved with quick fixes or useless clich s.
A Hostile Environment
Sixth grade was only the beginning of Ismael’s victimization. He followed the advice of his counselor and tried to toughen up and stand up for himself. It didn’t work. Harassment that goes unchecked escalates and becomes severe, persistent, and pervasive. By the end of seventh grade, Ismael was in a dire situation.
“There were two things that made seventh grade worse, ” he says. “I got a cell phone, and somehow a group of kids who picked on me got the number. They would send me texts telling me to kill myself or threatening to beat me up.
“The other thing happened in my favorite class: band. We had a substitute. Four boysÑ one of them was my cousinÑ started in on me, saying I was gay and other stuff. Before too long, the whole class was against me. The substitute had no control. The only person standing up for me was my sister. “
Ismael’s grandmother says she attempted to contact the school after the incident, but each time she was told they were taking care of it. The principal’s way of dealing with the situation was to make Ismael work on a charity project with the four boys who had abused him because “they needed to learn to get along. “
Ismael’s grandmother didn’t like this, but Ismael wasn’t talking to her about what happened to him, so she went along with it. I was not surprised to hear the boys were nice to one another while they were working together, but the bullies were unreformed because they had not experienced any real consequence. There was some change for Ismael, however.
“I felt like the things that were happening to me were my fault because I needed to learn how to get along with other people, ” he says. “I think it was because of that I really stopped talking to anyone about anything, except God. It was also after that I stopped doing well in school, and music wasn’t important to me anymore. “
Ismael was struggling, and, once again, adults weren’t practicing genuine listening. One of the reasons we pray is because God is a great listener. He doesn’t lecture or give advice, but he listens, guides us through his teachings, and allows us to come to solutions on our own. This is how you must be with teens as well. Ask them open-ended questions and be still when you get the answers. Then guide teens to come to their own proactive conclusions.
Ismael becomes quiet at this point in our conversation. His grandmother tells me Ismael stopped doing things he normally did. He was always a straight-A student, but during this time he didn’t turn in his homework and his grades dropped. But slipping grades and the loss of enthusiasm for music wasn’t the worst of it.
Ismael’s grandmother fights tears as she tells me: “Near the end of the school year, Ismael began to shake uncontrollably. We took him to doctors; he had to stay a few days in the hospital. It was horrible. After a lot of tests, doctors knew it was a stress-related illness, but Ismael wasn’t talking to anyone about what was going on. He missed a lot of school. In the summer, he was healthy so we sent him back to school in the fall. The beginning of the next school year was no better for Ismael. Instead of shaking, he began falling. On the first day of school, he fell seven times. “
Ismael’s grandparents called meetings and worked with the school to try to help Ismael, but nothing was working. Nobody seemed to be making a connection between Ismael’s illnesses and bullying. I ask Ismael if he thought there was anyone who knew why he was so sick.
“I think maybe some of my teachers did; at least they were nice to me about things, but others weren’t, ” he says. “Some of the teachers and office people treated me like I was faking it or like I was being lazy and trying to get out of work even though I’d always been a good student. “
The breaking point for Ismael’s grandmother was when she met with Ismael’s counselor at school. The counselor told her that Ismael was having suicidal thoughts, but she wasn’t too worried because he didn’t have a plan. Ismael’s grandmother was understandably alarmed. She pulled him out and enrolled him in the school where she was employed. Ismael’s grandparents also got him into private counseling.
Ismael knows my next question before I even ask. “I had a knife that I talked a friend into giving me. I spent nights in my room, crying to the crucifix with that knife at my side, ” he tells me.
The new school was better for Ismael. He thought the kids were nicer, and the administration didn’t let bullying happen as much. But he was angry he had to be there. It felt like failure to him. And even though he wasn’t sick anymore and he was making new friends and receiving the help he needed, Ismael stopped talking to God.
“I guess I kind of became an atheist, ” he admits. “Then I got a miracle. One night, St. Clare came to me. She told me that the Heavenly Father had big plans for me. And she gave me the same promise God gave to her: she would always be there for me. After that, I vowed to become the ultra-Catholic I am today. I attend church every week, I volunteer for as many service projects as I can, and I go to Confession often for the support it gives me. I am better, I know how to be assertive, and I want to help other people so they don’t have to go through what I did. I know God and St. Clare, of course, will help me do that. “
An Assertive Answer
With the help of his faith, private counseling, his family, a priest he considers a friend, and other supportive friends and adults, Ismael is a happy person. He works to maintain his assertive personality because he realizes he cannot help others if he doesn’t take care of himself first.
The comfort, support, and direction he finds through religion are imperative in that. Ismael is a class president, musician, and stellar student. He helps others by educating them about harassment and teen depression. Ismael will have setbacks and trials just as we all do, but he now has confidence in himself, pride in his uniqueness, and the strength to ask for help.
“I know I was passive, and it made me a target for bullies, ” he says. “I have worked very hard to become assertive, and that has made all the difference. I went through a very bad bullying situation and made it out the other side. I want to help as many people as I can become educated and assertive so they can avoid harassment. “
Helping a teen become assertive now will guide him or her toward a lifetime of happiness. In order to truly guide a teen to assertiveness, however, you must first have an assertive personality yourself. I am amazed by Ismael’s faith, which, along with his family, got him through a very difficult time in his life.
Our youth need us to educate, guide, and support them. As Ismael’s hero, Blessed Mother Teresa, said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other. “
When it comes to our current harassment epidemic, we do not have peace. We have to take ownership of this problem because we belong to one another. Parents and adults who work with teens can be more like St. Clare and Mother Teresa and make it known to teens that we are there for them. We do that through becoming educated about harassment, practicing genuine listening, trusting our instincts, and becoming assertive so that we may help teens be assertive. Then will we stop harassment.
Being An Advocate
Trust your instincts about the teens you know. If you feel as though there may be something wrong with a teen, there probably is. Pay attention to changes in routines, appearance, behavior, friends, and activities. In our society today, bullying should be one of the first things that comes to mind when teens begin to demonstrate changes.
Be careful of labeling a teen as difficult or lazy. Perhaps it’s time to look deeper into what’s happening in their lives. Watch for changes in:
- Routines: Is your teen doing or not doing something he or she usually does?
- Appearance: Has what he wears or how he wears it changed? How about his hair? What about his posture?
- Behavior: Is she acting out, getting into trouble? Does she act depressed? Angry?
- Faith: Does his faith seem to be shaken? Is he questioning beliefs he once had? Does he want to skip church or youth activities? Has he stopped praying?
- Verbal communication: Does she drop hints? Make odd comments? Yell? Whisper?
- Social norms: Have her friends changed? Have her hangouts? How about her social activities?
The next step is to get teens to talk about their victimization. When speaking with teens about bullying, focus on what happened or what is happening. Do not focus on how they feel and do not lecture. Ask open-ended questions and be a great listener.
Teens may choose to say nothing, say “I don’t know, ” or give you a shoulder shrug, but this is too important to let them off easily. Keep asking open-ended questions, share a personal experience you’ve had with bullying, spend time with your teenÑanything you can think of to create an atmosphere of empathy, openness, and trust. If your teen is struggling with harassment, he or she needs you.