Some people peak in high school. I wasn’t so lucky. I lost a lot of sleep as a teenager, lying in bed with my eyes glued to the stick-on glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling, trying to figure out a way to dodge the assaults from older girls that plagued me each day at John Jay High School in Westchester, New York.
“Bully” wasn’t a buzzword back then. I came of age when the internet was but an adolescent: before YouTube, before FaceBook, back when LiveJournal was the only thing out there and the only person I was able to meet on that site was a 30-something-year-old man with multiple sclerosis—but that’s a story for another time.
Unaware that finding answers or other humans on the internet would ever be a possibility, all I could do after a day of bullying was stare anxiously into a sea of artificial stars.
Nowadays, I still have insomnia but it rarely centers on people’s perception of me, and generally has to do with making rent and other fun young adult problem. Now, when insomnia strikes, the internet is my new distraction. Sometimes I get caught up in Victorian Post Mortems, other times I see what the still-living are up to.
One sleepless night, I discovered a viral video of a teenage girl holding up signs about how she’d been bullied for being a slut. I’m deliberately not linking to it, which I’ll explain later, but her story can be synopsized in a sentence: Kids at her school found out she’d sexted a popular boy, and then they circulated those pictures and she was labeled a slut and terrorized even when her parents helped her to change schools.
Teens in my day couldn’t send sexts—the photographs would’ve been so pixelated that you wouldn’t have even been able to make out a nipple. However, if I’d had the means, I would’ve been snapchatting my barely B-cup boobies to the better looking senior boys.
Yet lack of photographic evidence of my promiscuity or sexuality, depending on how you look at it, did not keep me from being tormented by that evil four-letter word “slut.”
In addition to that nickname, I earned the moniker “rake job” after making the mistake of using my teeth when I gave my boyfriend-cum-ex-boyfriend head for the first time. To this day, I maintain that I read in Cosmopolitan that you were supposed to “tickle the penis with your teeth.” Now that I know more about how penises work, I admit that I might’ve misread something, but who could blame me for not knowing any better? I was only a sophomore.
The senior girls at JJHS were brutal, loudly asking one another if anyone needed a rake when I walked past them in the hall. It was humiliating, and even my friends turned on me and laughed behind my back. I’d go home in tears, unable to discuss my blowjob mishap with my parents, but I was safe in the confines of my pink and red bedroom, as long as I didn’t sign into AOL.
These devils in Abercrombie and Fitch could yell at me during the day, but there was not yet an open forum for their wrath afterhours. Those of us that grew up in the late '90s through the early aughts should consider ourselves lucky. We could use the Internet to cheat on our Latin exams, but not to destroy one another. I can only imagine what this little girl in the viral video had to go through. She changed schools, but kids who clearly had too much time on their hands tracked her down. They found her new school and ruined her life there, too, via social media. The cruelty of teenagers knows no bounds. In a perfect world, the meaner ones would be caged until age 18.
While I watched the girl hold up signs, narrating her sad tale, I scrolled down to see just what made this video go viral. It was compelling, but it was no “It Gets Better.”
I stopped when I figured out why. The video had garnered more than one million shares because the pretty teen, called a slut across two counties, decided it wouldn’t get better. She killed herself.
Suicide, in my experience, has been like a shitty song that’s gotten too much play —the Rihanna’s Umbrella of my life. In my junior year of high school, a friend of mine violently committed suicide. He wasn’t being bullied—we were part of the popular crowd by then.
There were other kids that I remember us mercilessly bullying, but I’ve checked up on most of them on Facebook and it looks like they’re all still alive, though one girl did send me a very long email recently about what a terrible person I had been to her. I had a few choice things to say to the girls in the grades below me when I got older in spite of the fact that I’d been bullied as a freshman. I should’ve been kept in that cage I mentioned earlier until college.
People do frequently attempt suicide because of its presumed effect on their friends, family, and peers afterword. That’s why notes are left. So while I felt very bad for the little girl in the video, I also found the virality of her story distressing. When people shared the teen’s story to bring light to what they consider “a bullying epidemic,” they glorified her suicide.
I used to fucking hate that phrase—glorifying suicide. I heard it for the first time when I was 16. After my friend's funeral was over, we all still felt like we had some unfinished business. We went to the Dean of Students with a grand proposal for a memorial concert for our dead friend. She shot it down. My memory still shades her as being a complete cunt about the whole matter, but with my somewhat grown-up hindsight, I think the dean was trying to be as gentle as possible when she said, “We can’t do that, you guys. There might be other kids who are thinking of doing the same thing, and if we celebrate him, we’re condoning the way he died, and others might copy him.”
We were devastated, and furious. If we had Tumblrs or Facebooks or even lame old Myspaces we might’ve taken to them and created animated gifs of the Dean of Students being decapitated—we were that mad. But we were helpless. All I could do was build a mini-shrine to my dead friend in my bedroom with candles left over from my Wiccan phase—and then I wasn’t even allowed to do that. My dad came into my room (the horror) and made me dismantle it, echoing the dean’s sentiment about the glorification of suicide.
“He chose to leave,” he said. “He’s not a hero.”
Sixteen-year-old me wanted to slosh around in my misery for a bit longer— that was how I needed to grieve. Then, maybe a day later, my older ex—the one responsible for much of that slut talk about me—returned from college. And what he did seemed miraculous.
Above the site of my dead friend’s suicide, my ex erected an enormous, wooden cross. I thought it was the sweetest thing ever. To my knowledge, my ex hadn’t even been very close to my late friend. While he was perpetuating the slut rumors about me, it had been my dead friend who had come to my defense.
Curiously, after that, my ex didn’t go back to college.
“I really like that you built that,” I told him one night. We were standing on the side of the road outside of a high school party. He was the oldest person there, which made me feel important. Both of us were a little tipsy, so we’d forgotten about our history and were making out while I waited for a taxi to bring me home by curfew.
“Yeah,” he said, looking at something just beyond my head.
“I’m sorry that I cheated on you,” I told him then. (When he’d still been in high school, I had kissed his friend who had a lazy eye in my living room in front of the cockatiel cage when my parents weren’t home, as you do when you’re that age.)
He didn’t say anything.
Then I got into my cab, assuming his omnipresent melancholy had something to do with the fact that he really did think I was a slut.
A couple months later, my ex, the 20-year old who’d built the most glorious monument to my friend who had taken his own life, drank a Budweiser tallboy, smoked two cigarettes, and hanged himself from a tree in his parents’ backyard.
As adults, we suffer from collective memory loss, clinging to the ridiculous notion that we were always independent thinkers. We forget about what phenomenal mimics we were as teens, and how willing we were to do things we wouldn’t otherwise do if our friends did them first.
These days, the most extreme performances get the most YouTube hits, and kids will go pretty damn far to be internet famous. Go ahead and Google “girl who ate tampon.”
When that article about the little girl who was bullied and then committed suicide went viral, there were almost certainly kids who came home from school, having endured a day of being called “faggot” or “slut” or “fatty,” and saw the video and the sympathy being expressed literally everywhere online. Perhaps they watched it and thought: just look at how everyone loves her now…If only people loved me and knew me in that way…
Maybe instead of sharing anti-bullying sentiments via the flimsy internet, we should bring these conversations offline. If you see someone sharing a viral video about suicide, make an actual effort instead of clicking LIKE or SHARE. Make a call using that old fashioned voice function on your phone, or, I don’t know, pay your sad friend a visit. If you simply send a link of “It Gets Better” to your young buddy, you never know what videos might pop up in the “Suggested Videos” sidebar of YouTube. And as adults, we should be trying to prevent the darkest domino effect of all.
Maia McCann is a writer and artist based in lower Manhattan. A graduate of Tisch at NYU, she has worked in theater and television. She was sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts for her New Media Series, Practice of Artemisia. She's currently working on a young adult novel, and she occasionally blogs at NYC Life Advices and NYNightlifer. More of her's work can be found at www.maiastarmccann.com, and you can tweet at her at @maiastar.
[Image by Jim Cooke]