It's six - thirty a.m. The first day of school in Italy. For thousands of children across the country it is time to wake up and go back to the usual routine, for my own boys as well. It's funny how things appear different on the first day of school. The sky is usually dull and grey. Where we live the sea seems to loose it's glee. The sun feels less warm and bright. The happiness of carefree summer days disappears behind the gloomy weight of duties and responsibility. As a child I clearly remember the feeling. For every year that passed the hand of approaching adulthood promptly piled on another load to carry. ""It's all part of maturing! " parents and teachers told us.
The house remains silent. I lay in bed staring at the ceiling trying to procrastinate the " maturing " process for my children. Why not let them enjoy their holidays for another ten minutes? Ten minutes should also be enough time for me to return to a positive state of mind, to greet them with a smile when they open their sleepy eyes. Those ten minutes should be able to hide the sadness in my own, because children deserve serenity, always.
As minutes and seconds transpire the ceiling I am staring into, like every " first day of school", becomes the sky and the moving white clouds I saw after seven girls, classmates, had finished beating me up on a beautiful spring afternoon thirty-one years ago. It took them three years, approximately 1092 days to find the courage to carry through with their threats. On every first day of school I can feel the warmth of the cement sidewalk under my body. I can taste the blood trickling from my nose and the cut on my upper lip. I can feel the pain of broken ribs as I inhale and exhale. I can smell the salt of burning tears stream down my temples, cheeks and chin. Arms and legs are numb, heavy. My heartbeat is loud, it muffles voices and the traffic off the street. A million thoughts cross my mind. Yesterday is now. The faces of people, strangers, block the view of my sky .They gather round. Some gawk, others will have a story to tell at dinner time but, most are sincerely concerned. An older lady kneels beside my head. Gently stroking my hair she speaks soft words I wish I could remember. Why didn't anyone stop them? I believe that was the first question I had ever asked God, because nobody else could give me an answer.
Somehow I rose from that sidewalk and carried myself home. Since then nothing has been the same. Over a lifetime I learned to coexist not only with the pain but with the memories, with the triggers that everyday life hands me. A few years ago I finally managed to come out and talk about my experience with bullying. I travel to schools whenever they invite me. During one of my last visits a fourteen year old girl asked me if I had ever thought of taking my life? The answer is yes, many times. I thought about "ending it" every time I went home and tried not to cry in front of my parents, every time the pain that derived from being humiliated day in and day out took over my existence. She then asked me what stopped me from committing suicide? Well, the thought of causing my mother, father and little brother an unbearable grief. I didn't want to die, others were making me feel like I should.
Some of you may be wondering why I'm writing all this? Pity is the last feeling I hope to arouse. What I do intend to inspire is empathy. On every first day of school I think of all the children who are going to be bullied and cyber bullied during the year. I know that life is going to be hell for them, I know that they are going to feel alone and frightened. I know that many of them will probably remain silent because the condition of being bullied has induced them to believe that they are worthless and, in some cases that it is their fault. I am writing to reach parents, teachers and community leaders. We all need to watch over our children, we all need to be informed in order to recognize the signs of bullying and step in when there is the need to do so. All children have the right to live in a safe environment, to be protected. I am writing to reach out to victims. Please, don't give up. There is nothing wrong with you, you are beautiful just the way you are. For these reasons find the strength to go to an adult you trust, your parents, a teacher, call the police, tell someone what is happening. Whatever you do head up and speak up. I'm not going to lie, the pain never goes away but it is possible to overcome and it is possible to be happy. Life is so much more than bullying. Try to remember that nobody has the right to take away your smile and there are and will be countless moments in time to feel joy.
However, there are also a few things I would like to say to bystanders and "bullies".
To the first: don't be cowards, have the courage to do the right thing. Put yourselves in the victim's place, imagine being pushed around, insulted and embarrassed in front of other people or on the internet. How would you feel? Take the victims' side.
To "bullies". I don't like labeling other human beings. In my eyes we are all the same. Inside each one of us there is good and bad. As thinking individuals we have the power to decide which side should guide our actions. Sometimes we grow up living without proper values and guidance, sometimes life hurts us and we think that hurting others will help us feel better. Sometimes we think that in order to appear strong we have to put others down. Sometimes we simply don't understand that being strong is about being a real friend to someone. It's about being there for one another. It's about learning to look at our differences as something unique and fascinating as opposed to using them to make fun and humiliate. Remember, we are all different. Try a smile and a kind word instead of hurting others verbally and physically. It will help you feel so warm inside that you will never bully anyone again. A smile and a kind word will change your life and save you from so many awful consequences that being a " bully " inevitably brings.
I read countless articles about bullying incidents that occur all over the world every day. We ask ourselves why bullying seems to be on the rise in many places. We ask ourselves how this social plague can be resolved. We talk about statistics and laws and punishments but we forget that as human beings we all have one thing in common: a heart. We need to open our hearts and feel. Once this first step is taken, if everyone takes responsibility and does their part, society can heal from bullying.