This is Shira’s story:
I was nine years old and chubby, with short frizzy hair, buck teeth, and very little confidence. Today I know what confidence is, but then, anyone could have walked all over me. And that’s exactly what happened.
At the start of fourth grade, I had friends. I actually had two friends I was close with, but they were friends with everyone; one might say they were a little cooler than I was. But that didn’t faze me.
There was another “cool” girl in my class, who was friends with everyone, boys and girls, and always wore a bra strap headband, which she claimed her mother invented.
To be honest I can’t remember the first instance of her bullying me. All I can recall is the amount of crying I did after repeated episodes of bullying. She made fun of my hair, my weight, my looks, my style (or lack thereof – I was nine!); she zeroed in on me for just about anything. She turned classmates against me and I felt worthless. When she picked on me none of the other kids ever stood up for me, and I remember feeling so lonely.
I have a vivid memory of coming home one day, running down the very steep hill of our driveway, bursting into the house, and crying in my mother’s arms on the stairs. I remember her holding me as I cried uncontrollably while recounting the day, and her telling me, “It will be OK.”
This particular day stands out to me, as I feel that after this day, something changed.
Soon afterwards, my mom came with me to school to meet with the headmaster. When you walked into the lobby of my school, on the right were the main office secretary and assistant principal’s desks, and on the left was the headmaster’s office. Outside of his office was a small waiting room. Since it was the beginning of the day, lots of kids were inside the waiting room with me and my mom. Everyone asked why my mom was there with me. I didn’t respond.
It wasn’t until all the students went upstairs that my mom turned to me and gave me a silver ring, which had a tiny pearl with two gold ball accents. My mom said, “Shiri, this ring will give you courage when you need it and I can’t be there. When you need me, just rub the ring and know I’m sending you courage. QUOTATION MARKS. After that moment the headmaster invited us into his office. But following this visit to the headmaster, the bullying I experienced didn’t get better. It escalated.
My mother’s main concern was that the teachers were not handling it properly. (Of course, the teachers couldn’t watch every move and every action.) So late in the spring, my mother asked me if I wanted to switch to another school. I said an emphatic yes.
I remember visiting the new school. It was a unique situation since it was the end of the school year and they weren’t accepting new students, but the circumstances required extreme measures so they made an exception.
I don’t remember my last interaction with the girl who bullied me. To be honest, when I switched schools, I forgot about the Shira from fourth grade – that extremely fragile, lonely girl. I was so focused on making new friends and not looking back. And that’s what I did for over 20 years: I never looked back.
Or, more accurately, I almost never looked back. Even though I felt as though I had shoved all those painful memories of being bullied into a box and hidden it in the closet, sometimes I WOULD still remember what I had gone through. And since I still had my courage ring, I wore it for that reason, in case I needed courage.
One of the times that I did was about four years ago when those painful memories came rushing back after i came across the story of a girl who had been bullied when she was nine. i so identified with her that I really needed my ring. This girl was just like me but she had taken that negative experience and turned it into an empowering message for other girls. And suddenly I was saying to myself, “if she can do it at nine, i can do it at 29!”
So in 2018 I decided to create an anti-bullying campaign called #HATNOTHATE. While my passion for preventing bullying is clearly personal, bullying is, unfortunately, also a universal problem, an epidemic that seems to have no antidote. Around one in four kids in the U.S. is bullied, and recurring bullying can lead to depression, anxiety, and suicidal behavior.
The concept of #HATNOTHATE has been to get knitters and crocheters to knit, crochet and loom blue hats (blue represents awareness and solidarity and is the color to wear in support of bullying prevention) and to donate them to the cause. Now we are asking prospective drop off points around the country to rally the makers. Then we will work with our Educational Director to create an assembly program to be presented at schools all over the U.S. during October, National Bullying Prevention Month. The collected hats will be brought to the event for students to wear throughout the month, empowering them to be strong and stand up to bullying, and to feel encouraged by the love and purpose with which these handmade hats are created. Since the inception of #HATNOTHATE, we have collected over 90,000 of them and it is our hope that number will continue to grow.
But this is not only about the symbolism of the hats. Our purpose at #HATNOTHATE, is to educate students about ant-bullying and tell them how they themselves can make a change, can make a difference in the day of someone who has been bullied just by being kind.
When I started this for the little nine-year-old Shira, I did it simply because I didn’t want anyone else to feel the way I had. I remember being in my mother’s arms and asking “Why me?” Of course, I could not have imagined that the lemons I was given then would eventually turn into blue lemonade in the form of a dynamic movement that has already touched and helped so many thousands.
And they are not only students. Adults who have been bullied or who were bullies have taken part in making hats as a source of therapy for themselves.
So nothing could make more apparent what I repeatedly say: We have all been affected by bullying, because we have all either witnessed bullying, been bullied, or been the bully. And, gratifyingly, #HATNOTHATE has become an avenue through which all ages and both the bullied and the bullier can find and give help.
But even that isn’t everything. #HATNOTHATE also brings us together as equals and makes us realize we are a community, a powerful community, in which no one can be a bystander. By listening to one another, respecting one another, and showing a little more kindness to one another, we can make the world a safer and gentler place. And, most important, through devotion to ending the plague of bullying we can show those who come after us a better way.