Bullied as a youngster, former Miss America endeavors to help, educate

RANTOUL — Erika Harold sat in her ninth-grade class, the target of The Uncool Game. Classmates wrote down everything she did — if she coughed, if she scratched her forehead, if she took notes. Every gesture, every mannerism. Then the teacher allowed a classmate to come before the class and recite everything Harold did.

Students were allowed to sing vulgar songs about her.

She was the victim of severe racial and sexual harrasment.

“At the time I just thought if I could sit as still as possible, then they won’t have anything to write about,” Harold told those attending a luncheon Friday at The Linden Banquet Center, sponsored by the Rantoul Area Chamber of Commerce. “At a time when you should be trying to figure out what your talents are and trying to express yourself, you shouldn’t be sitting there trying to be invisible.”

The harassment escalated to a death threat. Her home was vandalized.

When Harold would talk with teachers and administrators about what she was experiencing, they didn’t take it seriously.

“I was told you need to separate the wheat from the chaff and told if I would be submissive like other women that it wouldn’t happen to me,” Harold said.

The bullying lasted for a year and a half, and Harold doesn’t know why it happened. She transferred to another high school to get away from it.

The year before, she had been elected class president.

Ahead of her lay being crowned Miss America in 2003, graduating from Harvard Law School and becoming a candidate for Illinois attorney general.

In between, however, was a life-altering, painful experience that has shaped much of Harold’s message.

Harold had a strong support system from her mother and father that helped her through the year and a half of darkness, helped to build her confidence and self-esteem. She used that experience on a quest to help others who are being bullied, and to help many to realize that, maybe not knowing it, they are exhibiting bullying behavior.

Harold speaks to young people whenever she can. She spent most of Friday in Rantoul. In addition to appearing at the luncheon, she spoke and met with junior high and high school students.

She is always encouraged by those visits.

“So often people talk about young people in negative ways,” Harold said. “I want to highlight there are so many good young people. You should be proud of how they represented your community.”

She said the students’ behavior was “terrific.”

“They were very enthusiastic and asked great questions,” she said after the Eater assembly.

Harold gave students a chance to participate, and they were on point with their questions and comments. She brought along a tiara and gave the students a chance to be crowned Mr. or Miss America. Two Eater students came forward. Harold asked each what they wanted to be when they grew up. The boy wanted to join the military, and the girl wanted to be a lawyer.

It took time for Harold to get over the bullying.

“I felt very defeated,” she said. I had never retaliated against other students, but I was the one who was having to leave.”

Harold said the experience is what prompted her to become an attorney. And when she became Miss America, she realized it was a prime opportunity to impact the community by speaking about youth violence and bullying.

“If you can engage (students) on a personal story, then you can engage them on things that matter,” she said. Among the messages is, “first of all, you don’t deserve to be treated that way.”

“There are so many young people who feel beaten down and as if they don’t have a lot of worth,” said Harold, who noted that many also face negativity at home, “so they will come to school and almost feel as if it is something they should expect.”

Harold also tells victims of bullying about the importance of talking to an adult. But many are reluctant because they believe it is tattling. There is a difference between tattling and telling an adult for a good reason, she said.

Young people should also stand up for others whom they see are being bullied and develop moral courage, Harold said.

“So if you see people being bullied and people being victimized, it’s not OK just to be a bystander,” she said. “Don’t just say, ‘I’m glad that’s not me’ and carry on. Try to find ways to reach out to people. They need to understand they are leaders and have power to treat people with kindness.”

Harold asked Eater students how they can prevent bullying, and she said they provided good answers.

“One said to 'treat others the way you want to be treated.’ I said, ‘exactly!’”

Another said it is important to talk to an adult if they are being victimized.

One young woman suggested “to be generous about giving people compliments.” Harold loved that idea and had the young woman stand up and gave her a compliment.

Like Harold experienced, the things in young people’s lives they find the most challenging can be the vehicle that gives them the opportunity and moral credibility to fight for change. They can take a negative and turn it into a positive to help others.

“As Ghandi said, ‘Be the change that you wish to see in the world,’” said Harold, who added another of her favorite quotes from the writer Leo Tolstoy, “It’s by those who have suffered that the world has been changed.”

The victims of bullying face greater consequences than just emotional upheaval  and trauma. For many, it affects their self worth for the rest of their lives. It can be manifested by eating disorders, cutting, self harm and suicide.

Harold said she has met many people whose children have committed suicide. Probably the most heartbreaking, she said, was a young man in Wisconsin. He had been bullied persistently. The young man set up a tripod-mounted camera to capture his final moments.

“Many times people will say glibly, ‘Well, kids are resilient.’ Well, kids shouldn’t have to be resilient,” Harold said. “It’s not their job to figure out how to keep themselves safe. That’s our job.”

Harold encouraged adults to be specific with their children about how they are doing. Most children won’t tell a parent if they are being bullied. She urged parents to ask questions such as:

“So tell me who you eat with at school.”

“Tell me how people treat each other in class.”

“When kids pick partners in class, tell me who they pick. Who picks you?”

She also encouraged parents if they have had an experience where they’ve been bullied, to tell their children about it. Make it real to them.

Bullying has gone on since the dawn of man, but it has risen to a new, more public, level with the advent of social media, which can make victims feel like the whole world is laughing at them.

One young woman during a public assembly said if she sees someone wearing a terrible outfit, she will tell them online because she believes she’s helping them.

Harold asked the young woman, “So you consider yourself some sort of public servant” by making the target feel bad about themselves?  

The young woman responded, “Well, if you say it that way, then I guess I am some sort of a bully.”

“Well, you said it!” Harold said.

“Oftentimes a bully and a victim can be the same child. A lot of kids end up bullying other kids and have been bullied themselves. They want to find another way to reassert power,” she said.

Many bullies do so because they haven’t developed a proper sense of empathy and don’t know how their words affect other people.

Harold said things began to change for the better in schools when the Supereme Court ruled that schools have an obligation to protect students, to develop policies in that regard.

She also believes society has moved past the idea that it’s weak to talk about an experience like bullying or being threatened.

“I think fortunately we’ve framed it that it’s strong to stand up for yourself and other people,” Harold said, “and you don’t have to be ashamed, and people have no right to put you down.”

She encouraged adults to get involved in mentoring programs.

For instance, in Rantoul schools, 463 children have been identified as being in need of a mentor. However, only 21 mentors have volunteered to be mentors through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.

dhinton@rantoulpress.com

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