I was like Amanda Todd
It was the mid to late nineties and things like AOL chat rooms and AIM were just taking off. B had invited me to a sleepover at her house with my only other friends—N and E. B’s parents went to bed early, leaving us alone to their computer in my friend’s family den. The four of us logged into an AOL chat room sometime around 9 p.m. and were private messaged by a man. We, being teenagers, thought this was awesome that we had gotten the attention of an older guy. We gave him a fake first name, told him we were sixteen year olds hanging out at a sleep over and the conversation instantly turned sexually graphic. He could tell by B’s profile that we lived in a suburb nearby, and we could tell by his profile that he was twenty-five—well, at least he claimed to be. He was probably much older, because we were also lying— we were all thirteen.
After hours of sexually graphic conversation, he told us he needed to meet us. He said he had to have sex with the four of us. He said he wanted to teach us how to have sex and please a man the right way. He talked about it like he’d be doing us all a favour.
This was well before “To Catch a Predator” and well before we knew the name Chris Hansen. So after hours of waffling (it was close to 1 a.m. by then), we thought it would be hilarious to see if he would drive to our neighbourhood. His profile said he lived forty miles away from us, and while none of us actually wanted to meet this guy and have sex with him, we wanted to see if we could get an older man to do something—anything for us.
We gave out the address of another house at the end of B’s cul-de-sac. Her neighbor was out of town for the week, as her parents had been collecting her mail. We logged off and laughed to ourselves. What a desperate idiot, we thought. He’d probably get drunk, go to sleep, and forget about us.
An hour later a diesel pickup truck pulled up to the house at the end of the cul-de-sac and we watched from between the blinds in slight amusement, but mainly horror, as this guy walked up to the neighbor’s front door.
He was much older than twenty-five, probably closer to thirty-five. He rang the door bell and then turned to banging on the door. When that didn’t present his throng of sixteen-year-old girls for his sexual pleasure, he got back in the truck, and we breathed a sigh of relief. Seeing him had been terrifying.
But when he got back in the truck, he began doing circles on the cul-de-sac and honking his horn. He rolled down the window, honked the horn, yelled the name we’d given him, and would make another revolution. I remember being curled up on B’s couch under the picture window, and every time the headlights from his truck shone through the blinds and washed over the four of us, now petrified, I would feel my hands and shoulders begin to shake.
What if a neighbor called the cops on this guy? Even worse, what if this guy figured out we lived in the house a few doors down? What would he do if he found us? What if he had a gun?
He did this for a solid hour. Honk, yell, U-turn, repeat. It was around three in the morning when he finally left. I remember I didn’t sleep a minute the rest of the night.
Let me make this very clear; what we did was unbelievably stupid. We learned a lesson that night—or at least I know I did. We never tried that kind of stunt again. In my case, I stopped talking to strangers of any kind online on AOL. If I didn’t know you in real life, I didn’t want to know you in the online realm.
But I couldn’t help but think when I heard about Amanda Todd’s death: what if we had a webcam? What if we’d even had a digital camera? What would have happened? Would a misguided moment result in our naked bodies being exposed to the masses across the internet?
I’m not going to comment on Amanda Todd’s parents. I can only tell you about my situation. Until I was eighteen, my mother and I shared a computer that sat in the family room next to the TV, so as my mother relaxed in the evening, she could monitor my online activities at any point.
She could login to my account, check my browsing history, and talked to me about not giving out personal information online. Despite all her safeguards and an involved mother, I still found myself in a compromising situation with a dirt bag adult that had the potential to get much, much worse.
This was before Facebook, smart phones, and built-in webcams. Every single one of us has made a stupid teenage mistake. What if that mistake lived and circulated online forever? How would you deal with it? What if you switched schools multiple times to avoid it and just when you thought things might get back to normal, that mistake showed up in the inbox of all the teachers and students at your new school?
What we should really be asking is how we rid ourselves of the kinds of creeps who exploit children (because that’s what she was) and now use the internet as a tool of their trade. More importantly, we should be getting youth involved and teaching them how to be proactive about their online safety, how to recognize exploitation, and that they are worthwhile individuals that don’t need to be subjected to treatment like that.
Then there’s the other part of Amanda Todd’s story that is way too familiar; the “bullying” part.
I was in the tenth grade and had been bullied pretty solid at school from sixth grade on, when I made the decision to switch schools starting the next school year. I had a few friends, but it didn’t stop me from the constant barrage of verbal, physical, and even some sexual taunting. On a good day, my classmates would pick me apart for my looks (my eyes, my hair, my body, and my clothes), my family situation (my absent father and the fact that my mother and I lived with my grandfather), and, in this extremely Christian suburban town, my lack of religion.
At its worst, I had someone chase and hit me going full speed on their bike, a girl throw a basketball intentionally at my face, another girl intentionally spike a volleyball at my nose, and a boy repeatedly expose himself, put his genitalia on my thigh and even put strands of his public hair on my desk.
Then it followed me home.
Halfway through my time in middle school I stopped walking the short distance to my house, because a group of students would wait for me in an alley between the houses after school and pelt me with rocks, sticks, or other objects.
For awhile, I rode the school bus with a boy who would get off at my stop, follow me up the hill towards my house, and expose himself to me the whole walk.
Late at night, I’d wake up to flashlights shining in my window and hear teenage voices and laughter outside.
Several times my grandfather’s and mother’s cars were covered with shaving cream and hot sauce, spelling out profanities and my name. Our yard was also speared with metal forks that these people broke off beneath the grass, so if my grandfather mowed the yard he’d be shot with metal shrapnel.
There was no escape—well as a fifteen year old that’s how it felt.
I’ll be straight with you. I too contemplated the same ending Amanda did several times.
I remember crying most mornings before headed to school and saying to my mother, “Please, I just want this to stop”.
No prevention or tolerance programs existed at my school. At no point did an adult try to talk with me and work on coping strategies or ask me what they could to help.
The Columbine shootings happened about halfway through those hellish five years, and not a single assembly, roundtable, or classroom discussion about bullying, violence prevention, accepting others for being different, or self-esteem enhancement program happened. Our school’s reaction? They installed a high-tech camera system and for months on end anyone who wore long coats, leather jackets, or black clothes of any kind were subjected to pat-downs and searches.
I’ll never forget the day that as an A and B student with not a single detention or suspension on my record, I was told by a school counselor that all the people harassing me in class had become a distraction for the other students. Had I considered getting my GED or going to vocational/alternative school?
I’ll also never forget the day a vice principal told my mother and I that I shouldn’t file a formal harassment complaint against one of my tormentors because “If his friends retaliate, I can’t really do much. He kind of runs the halls here.”
I’ll never forget the day a teacher told me to stop coming to his class and to just hang out in the library in the afternoons instead because “I just can’t deal with these kids constantly harassing you. It’s just too much.”
When I was in school, the priority of the teachers and administrators was how can we make this go away quietly? I’d like to think that’s changed.
Here’s the reality; you cannot stand from behind your lectern and boom “stop bullying” to the students below. That is just another way of passing the blame. We (the adults) told them not to bully each other, so now our asses are covered.
You must get in the trenches with these kids, you must walk the halls with them, and you must get to know them as the people they are. You must ask them what they need and what will help. I know you are not paid well, and there’s too much to do, and not enough time—that is an entirely different issue, but believe me, I understand your plight. But it is not an option anymore—you must not treat your students like bodies taking up seats, but like the living, breathing, young adults they are. You must be the one to do the hard work, because if you don’t you will continue to lose them.
Amanda’s death comes twelve years after I eventually switched schools and rode the train forty-five minutes away from my home, to a high school with students who did accept me, and with adults who didn’t tolerate harassment of any kind. I found a place to grow and learn without my past from that old school following me. Finally, I had the chance to wipe the slate and start over. I took advantage of my chance and I thrived.
But what if Facebook and smart phones existed when I was in high school? What if all those students from my old school contacted all my new classmates and teachers at my new school, and told them I was a freak?
What if there was really no escape?