In Their WordsBy Alyssa Ahrens
Alyssa Ahrens submitted her essay “Too Late” to a student essay contest on bullying that I held earlier this year for young people aged 14 to 19 in partnership with The New York Times Learning Network and the national magazine Teen Ink. From the 1,200 essays submitted, we chose five finalists. As one of the winning essays, Alyssa’s piece was excerpted in my May 16, 2012 column, “The Winning Essays Are … ,” and was published in full on my blog, On the Ground. The full essay is also being published here, in Ed. magazine. — Nicholas Kristof, columnist, The New York Times
By Alyssa Ahrens, 17, Indiana
A young girl walks through her high school halls, clutching a book tightly against her stomach, as if it were a shield. She has her hair loose, allowing the tendrils of it to gather by the sides of her face. Another shield. She stares pointedly at the floor, taking quick, hushed steps as she reaches the stairs. Gingerly, she climbs up them one step at a time, looking about her for that frighteningly familiar face. She feels the clamor of the students around her, brushing past her, fighting their way through the crowded hallways.
The world turns into blurs around her as she sights a face at the top of the stairs, lounging against the corner in the stairwell, smiling as it recognizes its prey.
It’s too late to turn around. It’s too late to hurry past. She’s been spotted. Too late. Too late. Too late. Hands grab her book, and she is pulled to the corner. Cruel eyes crinkle in laughter. No words are spoken.
In the breath of a moment, the girl’s hands are empty, flailing in the air for purchase as she is tumbling, falling backward. Her head meets a sharp corner, her hand hits the wall with a sharp crack. With pain erupting in her, she slides down the rest of the steps.
She hears something skidding across the floor by her head. It is her book. Her useless shield.
There is one more flash of that gloating smile before it rounds the stairs.
A few kids glance at her. One hands her book to her and gives her a hand up. The girl takes a quick inventory. Her hand hurts, head is throbbing, and ankle is on fire.
She is pushed forward by the teacher behind her, her voice chiming, “Time to get to class,” methodically.
This girl is me. Just another student. Just another victim.
For eight years, this is the world I have lived in. For eight years, I have skipped lunch to get to the safety of the library, bury myself in books, and count the days till graduation. As of today, it is 64. I used to have five very close friends, friends who endured the same hell as I did. Every day. Words like bullets, raining down upon you till there is nothing left. Those words hurt me worse than getting shoved down a flight of stairs ever did. Those words, that smile. Those are what make me wake up at night screaming. Those are what I see when I look in the mirror. Nothing. Worthless. Loser. Sometimes they told us we were better off dead.
Two of my friends followed their advice. One never saw the age of 14, the other never got his license. Never say that they are just words. Don’t think it’s our confidence that is the problem. It is the bullies.
It’s too late for me. Too late for a lot of kids. Nothing will undo the years I have spent questioning what I did wrong. But for millions of other kids, it isn’t too late.
Bullying starts early and gets worse. Tackle it in elementary school. It isn’t cute. It doesn’t mean that the girl likes that boy or vice versa. It is bullying. It is dangerous. And it needs to be stopped. Before it’s too late.