I am honored to have award-winning author, Karen Mueller Coombs guest blog on my site. Ms. Coombs is a former elementary school teacher who knows first-hand what bullying is like. She shares her knowledge and experience in the blog below and in her book, Bully at Ambush Corner. I am truly honored to have her share her story with you here. ~Alan Eisenberg
The words came unexpectedly, harsh and sneering. Mean words. Cutting words. As in a bad dream. But this wasn’t a dream. It was daytime. School time. Fifth grade. And the words were directed at me—by boys who I’d been in school with for two years. Boys I thought liked me. Boys I thought were my friends.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me? Ha! The words withered my confidence, stole my joy. They hurt more than sticks and stones. They hurt my heart. They hurt my soul.
“Who do you think you are?”
“You think you’re so smart.”
“Look at you. Wearing a brown coat and WHITE shoes!”
My shoes? They were picking on me because of my shoes? I was proud of those shoes. They were new and I’d been excited to wear them to school for the first time. After all, they were “white bucks,” the same shoes made popular by the singer Pat Boone, and I was the first in my school to get a pair. Now I wished I’d never heard of Pat Boone and his stupid shoes.
The day before, I had been accepted, popular, sought out by my fifth grade classmates. Now, it seemed as though a conspiracy had sprung up overnight among the boys. GET KAREN!
I attended a county school that drew students from miles around. Even so, the enrollment was small, likely fewer than two hundred, with only one fifth-grade class. It was impossible to fade into the background with so few classmates. And I didn’t want to. After all, I was smart. I was cute. And I was popular.
Other kids got picked on and taunted. Not me. I’d been known to throw a verbal jab or two, as I describe in my Bully at Ambush Corner blog entry Yuck! Cooties!, but I’d never been a target. Until now.
As the day passed and the taunting went on, rather mild in words, but stinging in tone, and shocking to the inexperienced 10-year-old me, I felt smaller and smaller. Recess was a nightmare, class time not much better. We were working on projects that sent me to the back of the room, where the boys could isolate me and hiss their biting remarks at me without the teacher overhearing. I prayed she’d notice and step in, but that didn’t happen. I became a bundle of nausea, anxiety, and confusion, longing for the day to end. I’d always been a tough kid, a tomboy. Now it took every bit of my strength to keep the boys from seeing how badly they hurt my feelings, to keep from bursting into tears.
Apparently I wasn’t much of an actor, because when school ended, one of the boys approached me. He was alone, but as I braced myself for one last volley, he simply looked down at his boots and said, “I’m sorry.” He was the boy whose mother had recently died. A boy who knew pain and had recognized mine, even as I stoically tried to hide it.
Naturally, I didn’t mention the bullying to my mother. For some reason I felt embarrassed by the day’s events, as though admitting I’d been picked on meant I couldn’t stand up for myself, meant I’d lost my standing with my classmates. Meant I was no longer the popular girl.
I dreaded going back to school the next day, dreaded what new taunts might be waiting. But it was over. As quickly as it started, the bullying ended.
I never learned why my classmates turned on me so suddenly and unexpectedly. Surely they weren’t jealous because I had new shoes. It had to be something more, some sort of pack mentality. Whatever the cause, it left me reeling.
The boys and I were in the same class for another three years before my family moved and I changed schools, long enough for youthful crushes to wax and wane, long enough for first kisses, and, unfortunately, long enough for them to have another go at me in a much more shocking fashion.
My experience in fifth grade wasn’t the first time I’d been affected by bullying, simply the first time I’d been the target of my classmates. Eventually, I’d use my encounters with a bully in first grade and with the boys in fifth grade as inspiration for my book, Bully at Ambush Corner, an e-book about bullying for middle grade readers. My blog, Bully at Ambush Corner, goes into detail on how I came to write the book.
Once upon a time—back in the 1500s—the word bully was a term of endearment, meaning sweetheart or good friend. By the late 1600s, it had come to mean a tyrannical coward who terrorized the weak, today’s current definition. Apparently not everything improves with time. But with rising public awareness and condemnation, perhaps bullying, like its original definition, will fade away. Here’s hoping.
~Karen Mueller Coombs
Author of Bully at Ambush Corner
On Karen’s bulletin board is a quote from Emerson: “May the work that you do be the play that you love.” It’s a perfect statement of the way she feels about writing—at times, it seems more like play than like work. She is an award-winning author of nine published books for children and young adults, including her latest, Bully at Ambush Corner, an e-book for middle grade readers.
Although born in Wisconsin, Karen grew up in the Northern Alberta town of Grande Prairie, where the Aurora Borealis flickered and shimmered across the night sky. The winters were long and cold, so cold her nostrils stuck together when she breathed too deeply, so cold her legs turned blue if she were foolish enough to go outside without warm stockings or pants, so cold she could hear the ice on the slough snapping and popping as she lay in bed at night. Winter days were short. It was dark when she left for school in the morning and dark when she came home. No matter how cold, she ice skated and played hockey, often by moonlight. When she was older, Karen curled, her favorite winter sport. She wishes curling had been an Olympic sport when she was younger, because she would have loved to try out for the Olympic team.
In the summer, the sun rose very early and darkness didn’t arrive until nearly midnight. Days seemed endless, wonderful for a child who loved to wander the countryside, either on foot or by horseback. And both the long nights of winter and the long days of summer were perfect for a child addicted to reading.
After graduating from high school in Grande Prairie, Karen attended the University of Alberta, first in Calgary and later in Edmonton. She taught first grade for a few years, then studied journalism at the University of Utah. There, a class in writing for children unearthed her passion.
Now living in Southern California, Karen is thrilled that she can ice curl in a local league and play golf when she isn’t reading and working at “the play that [she] loves”—writing.