Guiding youth to lead healthy and safe lives.

The Ripple Effect of Bullying

In honor of National Bullying Prevention Month, I’d like to share my story about being bullied, and why I’m so passionate about the work we do at Social Health Association of Indiana.

When I was in 4th grade, we moved to Fishers, Ind. I proudly showed up on my first day of school in the best outfit my dad picked out for me looking more like a business professional than a 10-year-old.

A difficult first day 
Tonja in her youthI wasn’t there long before a boy grabbed and ripped off the dangling belt saying, “We hate nerds!” I had never been called a name like that before. I told the teacher, and she made him give the belt back. But the way he glared at me and gritted through his teeth as he said “sorry” made me fearful.

I was a fair-skinned blonde with an overbite (a.k.a. buck teeth). Another boy asked if I was an albino? When I told him no, he said, “Well I think you are a liar, Albino Girl!” From that point on the boys called me Albino Girl and would pull my hair, throw pencils and gum in it, and tell me I was ugly. I was hurt and embarrassed.

At lunch that day one of the popular girls asked me how to pronounce my name. I took a bite of a carrot from my lunch tray, and the girl said, “Tone-yuh, ewww, what kind of name is that?” She said we’ll just call you Bucky Beaver or Bugs Bunny, and mocked how I was eating my carrot. By the end of that first day in my new school, I was a different person. I experienced humiliation and hurt that I had never felt before.

I hated my school, I hated myself, and I hated life.

A long year
Through the year, teasing turned into mean tricks. Teachers overheard bullying comments but never intervened. I didn’t want to be a tattletale for fear of retaliation. I cried every morning before getting on the bus and due to stress-induced health problems, even began wetting the bed. I hid all of this from my family, because I didn’t think they could do anything about it, or worse, would downplay how I was feeling.

An unhealthy reprieve
I became a different person at home and was angry nearly all of the time. By age 12, I began bullying my 9-year-old sister. All of the powerlessness I felt during the school day, was regained at home. I was the boss in our house. My anger and need to dominate, rather than be dominated, resulted in situations that went well beyond sibling rivalry. She was my scapegoat, and I was not going to be the victim.

I was suicidal at 13 and told my parents if I did not change schools, I would kill myself or run away. They took me seriously, and I moved to a rural school district in Lizton, Ind. where I had many friends and was treated like a star. It’s amazing to me how the same person could be treated so differently. It saved my life. Eventually as the anger and hurt subsided, I became a nicer person at home and a better student in school.

Not that uncommon
The irony is my younger sister was bullied too, sadly, by me! I didn’t realized that until I was an adult. Now I see research that says many kids who bully at school are bullied at home, or those who are bullied at school will bully at home. It makes sense and sadly shows the ripple effect of peer abuse and violence.

I was lucky to have survived my bullying experience. And this was well before the Internet cyber-bullying age. Kids have more ways to humiliate each other as they’re trying to figure out the world around them. I’m proud that part of my job every day is to give them skills like compassion, empathy and kindness to prevent bullying. It’s one of the positive outcomes from my experience.

I had my 30-year high school reunion last week and felt the same love, kindness and acceptance from my peers as when I was a scared teen. It reminded me how kindness from others not only changed my life, it saved it.

Please be sure to read our tips for parents and educators so you can help prevent bullying too.


TonjaTonja L. Eagan, M.P.A., CFRE, has served as the chief executive officer of Social Health Association of Indiana since June 2014.

Help us guide Indiana youth to lead healthy and safe lives.