Updated: Feb 14
It didn't start out with the stapler. These things rarely do.
Up until third grade, I had a pretty normal life at school. I played t-ball with my peers, ate cupcakes alongside everyone on birthdays, and joined lunchtime conversations in the noisy cafeteria.
But then she arrived, and things slowly started to change.
At first it was just confusing. She began by huddling up one day with a couple of other girls who I'd thought of as friends. Whose houses I'd slept over at, whose pets I'd cuddled, who had been with me throughout my daily school life with no signs of tension or strain.
But there she stood with them, heads bent together. Every so often, she’d turn her face to me with a cruel smile and a snicker. The faces of the other girls would follow, each of them jagged with incomprehensible expressions of contempt.
What had I done wrong? I had no idea. The sense of bafflement was profound and complete.
Once, after our swimming class, we were all getting changed in the locker room and she was presiding over a conversation. The air was thick with chlorine and trills of laughter. Ordinarily it would have been completely normal for anyone standing nearby to join in the ongoing chat, so I thought nothing of piping up to add something. Immediately she turned to me, disgust etched in her features, and snarled, "No one was talking to you, Paige." The rest of the girls laughed and returned to their conversation.
Eventually the snickering and the looks turned to more active physical bullying. Shoving me in the hall, tripping me when teachers couldn’t see, throwing wadded up balls of paper at me in class. And then there was the ignoring, which also started gradually but eventually ended in my entire grade pretending I didn't exist, except for episodic instances of physical or verbal violence.
In sixth grade, our class moms organized a Secret Santa for the holidays. The idea was that, over three days, we'd each hide presents for our secretly-chosen recipient to find. At the end of the three days, we'd guess who our Secret Santa had been.
On the first day, I hid my gift for my classmate in his locker, but got nothing of my own in return. I thought maybe my Santa had forgotten, or was absent that day. The next day there was still nothing, though the other kids were all showing their gifts to one another and guessing who their Santa might be. Unsurprisingly, the third day revealed that whoever had pulled my name from the hat had simply chosen to give me nothing, and let me watch as everyone else enjoyed the spirit of the exchange without me.
There were the parties they talked about openly in front of me, to which I was never invited. There were the comments I made that were completely ignored, as if I didn't exist. As if my voice made no impression whatsoever.
And then came the stapler.
That year, the ringleader bully wasn’t in my class, but her second-in-command was. No less brutal or tenacious, she launched daily campaigns of exclusion and humiliation.
Coincidentally, I was suffering at the time with extreme physical pain from an ear condition for which I was scheduled to have surgery. But that day I was still in school, and our teacher exited the classroom for a moment or two, leaving the class alone.
Bent over my notebook, I was focused on writing when a heavy object thudded into the back of my head, just behind the ear that had pained me for years. Shocked, I turned to see the second-in-command with her hands over her mouth, giggling with barely-suppressed glee.
Behind me on the floor lay the stapler that had just bounced off my head. The rest of the class laughed alongside her, and I sank into a humiliation so profound that this memory was pushed from my consciousness for years afterward.
What these years of bullying taught me was to hide. What they taught me was that it’s not safe to be seen, not safe to speak up, not safe even to exist. The only possibility of safety---and it wasn’t even guaranteed---was to hide in plain sight. To be quiet, unobtrusive, and as invisible as humanly possible.
I’d love to be able to unravel a seamless tale of redemption for you about how I recovered from all this, but the truth is I don’t have one. What I have instead is what I’ve assembled piecemeal in retrospect, insights stitched together by the kind of self-awareness that comes only from decades of perspective.
What happened is this: slowly, resolutely, I teetered my way into finding my voice again.
More than anything else, it was a process of shedding anything I found within myself that had been put there by someone else. Anything that wasn’t truly me. It was a process of returning to the root of who I really was by challenging myself and getting to know my deepest, most genuine self as fully as possible.
One tiny step at a time, I stepped out of my comfort zone and did things that were difficult for me. I learned to trust myself again, and to see myself more and more through my own eyes, and less and less through theirs.
Through this slow and steady reclamation of myself, I did things I thought I’d never be able to do. I became a vociferous contributor to classroom debates in high school and college. I learned to speak a couple foreign languages and communicate clearly in them, even during times when I shook with nerves. I stood in front of countless classrooms and conference rooms to share my knowledge and ideas. I even agreed to use my voice on professional recordings to teach English, and in advertisements.
And, since 2012, I’ve used my voice and my professional coaching skills to help people overcome the obstacles facing them in their creative projects. My clients have filled galleries with paintings, started photo blogs, launched businesses, written novels, finished long-unwritten albums, revitalized their daily creative practices, and much more. Each and every one has also learned to enjoy creativity again in ways that may have been lost to them for years, or even decades.
Despite all my work, I’ve still held back in sharing my coaching with the world, especially online. Especially when I can’t discern who will receive what I put out. Because even if a stapler can’t traverse cyberspace, we’ve all been direct witness to the fact that bullies can.
But the hiding ends today. I’m here to share this with you, because witnessing my clients overcome their blocks has inspired me to overcome mine more fully. Building on the courage I’ve witnessed and encouraged in them, I’ve grown to feel ready to be seen, to be heard, to share who I am and what I do, without holding back---even online, where it feels scariest.
My work as a coach shares one major commonality with recovering from the effects of bullying: both have taught me that by owning every aspect of who we are, we draw our own power back to ourselves. And in so doing, we’re able to use it for anything we want.
I choose to use my education and experience to help bring more creativity to the world, one person at a time, one project at a time. How do you choose to use yours?
If there’s a creative dream you’ve held back on for years, just know you’re not alone. Your voice matters. Your power matters. Call it back to you, and show us what you’ve got. I promise, the world will be all the better for it.