For Olivia Gardner, an epileptic, the bullying began in middle school. It took the form of name-calling after she suffered a seizure in front of her peers. Olivia was singled out as different, rejected by her peers, and tormented in the hallways and on the Internet with an "Olivia's Haters" website created by her classmates. Olivia's bullies dragged her backpack through the mud, taunted her in school, and wore "I Hate Olivia" bracelets. With each incident Olivia withdrew. Wouldn't you?
Olivia considered ending her suffering by taking her own life until one small act of kindness by complete strangers gave her reason to hope again.
In March 2007, sisters Emily and Sarah Buder read about Olivia's story in the local newspaper. They felt her pain and took action. The sisters mobilized a letter- writing campaign called "Olivia's Letters." Emily and Sarah encouraged their peers to write letters to the bullied girl: messages of healing, hope, inspiration, and understanding. Their goal was to let Olivia know that she was not alone and that she had reason to believe in herself again.
As word spread about "Olivia's Letters," the girls' P.O. box started to overflow. Outpourings of stories, support, emotion, and encouragement arrived from complete strangers drawn to Olivia because something in her story touched their hearts.
In these letters, people of all ages and backgrounds share their experiences. Some are young, others are adults who themselves were tormented when they were children. There are also letters from former bullies who reveal years later why they targeted others. This collection of personal memories is the first of its kind ever compiled. The extraordinary honesty in the letters gives us a rare and much-needed look into the life-altering effects of bullying.
From these messages of healing and hope, Olivia was ultimately able to find solace. Today Olivia, who had fled the school environment for the comfort of her own home, is back in school. She has new, caring friends and is forming healthier relationships. Though she'll never forget what happened and is still dealing with the painful memories, Olivia now has reason to hope.
The following pages contain a selection of the more than four thousand letters Olivia received. Though the letters begin "Dear Olivia," they speak to all who have been bullied or who are currently bullies themselves.
Letters to a Bullied Girl exposes the bullying issue with the words of those who know it best. These letters containing real-life examples can help other targets of bullying cope and inspire bullies to change.
This book is only the beginning of what can be a worldwide movement to confront bullying and change the way people treat each other. Through the true stories of the many strangers who reached out to Olivia, Letters to a Bullied Girl proves that it is possible for a bully to become a friend and a target of bullying to become an inspiration.
"Not a year goes by that I don't feel ashamed."
I have one message that I'd like to pass on to you, and it comes from the perspective of the abuser, not the abused.
I am a 45-year-old, happily married, and well-adjusted man. When I was in middle school and high school, I was particularly mean to a classmate. Ruthlessly mean, in fact. She was from a poorer family, heavier in size, had few friends. An easy target. The torment lasted far too long, probably through my sophomore year of high school.
My behavior plagued me far longer than the four or five years I bullied my classmate. After much introspection, I know why I did it. The details aren't as important as the message: bullies feel better about themselves by picking on others. The bullying has nothing to do with the abused and everything to do with the abusers.
I am ashamed of my behavior, just as your bullies may one day be ashamed of themselves. But I have learned from it. If there is one thing that I would say to my classmate today, it is that I was a weak person then, full of self-loathing and with a black hole in my heart. How sorry I am for not being a strong enough person to see the damage I was causing.
Being abused makes you grow up quickly. You probably understand this already, but please, don't let anyone take away your self-respect and self-confidence.
The good news is that this whole mess is temporary. You'll get through it before you know it.
Good luck with all you do in life,
Subject: Olivia's Letters
I am glad you are getting so much support. When I was in middle school (many years ago) I was not at all popular, even though just the year before, in sixth grade, I hung out with the "cool" kids. For some reason, when we went into seventh grade, I was no longer cool. I had hardly any friends. And the other kids just ignored me. What I want to tell you is that I did something that I am really, really sorry about now. There were a girl and a boy who people made fun of. I don't think I ever really said anything to them, but in my heart and mind, I made fun of both of them. Somehow I thought it gave me just a little bit of coolness to do that, though of course it didn't at all.
Now I am a minister and I'm also a Buddhist. I've thought a lot about things I have done in my life that I feel badly about, and the way I thought about those two kids is one of the things I feel really badly about. I have apologized to them in my heart, and I hope they have felt my apology in some way. I know you've heard from kids who have been bullied—but I don't know if you've heard from anyone who has done the bullying. I know now why I did it, and I know it may have caused them pain. I hope they grew up to know they are wonderful human beings, just like you are, Olivia. No person is any better than any other person. We are all the same, really. We all have gifts and things we do well, and we all have parts of us we may not be proud of. And we all have hearts that are made to love—it's the very best thing we can do, I think! And everybody can do it. In fact, if everybody did it, what a great world we would have! And you, Olivia, have helped a whole lot of people to learn what it's like to send love to someone we don't even know.
I'm glad to have the opportunity to share my story with you, Olivia, but I'm even more glad that you've found so many people who DO care about using their hearts and minds to love and to support each other. I hope you can soak up all the love, just like sitting in the sunshine on a nice spring day.
Love to you for the rest of your life,
My daughter is going into middle school this fall, and this story shed light on a situation that is very real and has been around for decades. Your story ripped open an old wound for me.
I was that bully when I was in high school. My "clique" and I said the most awful things to a girl. Later in life, I deeply regretted the words I used to taunt her. It bothered me so deeply that twelve years after I graduated, I sat down and wrote her a long letter.
I told her that I was sorry and that I hoped that my own insecurities when I was in high school did not forever taint her life and that I did not expect her to ever forgive me but that I wanted her to know that I was very sorry.
I never heard back from her, but one day, I ran into her brother, whom I had not seen in many years. He told me that she had received the letter, and it did make a difference to her.
Olivia, I am so sorry for what has happened to you. Bullying needs to stop and I am so so proud of your new friends Emily and Sarah for stepping forward to help stop it. I have raised my three daughters to act the same way as these two sisters. It was hard to tell my children that I was a bully. As a parent I wanted my children to see me as perfect, but I learned how important it is to show my kids that we all have faults and that healing and progressing becomes powerful when we confront our issues.
Olivia, I hope you have an incredibly successful life. Emily and Sarah, I am so proud of you.
Hiiii! My name is Lindsey! I'm 10 (turning 11 in July)!
I'm so sorry people were so mean to you. Bullies can be mean but deep down we are all good people. How do I know? Well, I've been a bully once, too. When I was in fifth grade, I hit a boy in the face! I got in BIG trouble and I learned my lesson.
Sometimes I bully myself about my insecurities, but then I have to remember that everyone is beautiful in their own way! And so are you, inside and OUT!
I want to share with you my story . . .
I wasn't the victim, I was the victimizer. I was the one who, unfortunately, enjoyed making fun of and taunting my schoolmates. And I am extremely sorry for what I put people through!!
I have children now, and I have always addressed this situation with them face on!! "You don't make fun of people; it's not nice to treat people badly . . . always treat people the way you would want to be treated." I think my words of wisdom worked well.
I can't help think that if my parents would have talked to me at an early age, maybe I would have never taunted the kids at school.
So, parents, let this be a lesson for you. Teach our potential would- be bullies to be nice, not nasty.
I have been on both sides of the bully fence. I was a skinny, self-conscious 12-year-old. I hated the way I looked and endured many taunts and lots of comments, which I HATED, about my body! I was a skinny kid, I had asthma, and I wasn't pretty or popular. Somewhere in my self- loathing I turned on another friend and verbally abused her and convinced other friends to taunt her, too. She was a good person, and she and I made amends soon after and we are still close friends. But not a year goes by that I don't think of that and feel ashamed. How could I be so awful??? How could I become the bully that I myself so hated?
I think some bullies are people who don't like themselves. They attack others to make themselves feel better. Maybe those people who are so mean to you are not very happy themselves.
I am 50 now. I still have asthma, and I am still skinny. But I have a wonderful family, lots of friends, lots of hobbies, and I am happy with who I am! And a lot of the girls who targeted me are not nearly as "perfect" as they thought themselves to be wayyyy back there in junior high.
Hang in there, your dreams will be realized, you have some new friendships to nurture, and the day will come when you will know that you are a force to be reckoned with because you survived a trial by fire.
Often kids don't seem to realize how much they hurt you. When I was kid I called a neighborhood kid "neckless" because he was built a little different from everybody else. Years later I found out it was a condition he suffered from. He was bedridden most of his adult life and died at an early age. How I wish now that I could take back those words. Someday this WILL be behind you. Hang in there.
Subject: Olivia's Letters
I saw your story on television this morning, and I felt compelled to join the legions of others who are sending you their support, not only out of concern for you but also because of the terrible guilt I feel for having once been a dreaded bully myself. I, along with several of my friends, made a girl's life utter hell during middle school. I have never spoken about this to anyone because I feel so horrified that I had the capacity to be so mean to someone. It was heartbreaking to see your sad face on TV and hear you talk about your depression as a result of the bullying. I am sure that my actions created similar wounds in this girl. I will always live with the pain of knowing that.
Looking back, I realize how hard it is to be a kid, particularly when you have something about you that is perceived as different. As ashamed as I am to say this, we taunted this girl because we thought she was ugly. Whenever she came into the classroom or out into the playground, a group of us used to bark at her like she was a dog. Sometimes we would howl and pant, but mostly we would bark and everyone around us would laugh. Imagine that! What in the world were we thinking?
It is hard to believe that no teacher or yard monitor during all those years ever heard what we were doing, but somehow no one ever confronted us. The girl we taunted didn't deserve a moment of our torment. I wish someone had educated us about bullying because we were obviously too immature or bent on experimenting with power to realize how we were hurting her.
To make matters worse, this girl's sister was particularly beautiful so people often compared the two of them. She seemed to endure the humiliation all on her own and put her energies into her studies. She eventually went on to become the valedictorian of our high school class; she graduated from an excellent college and is happily married and has several kids. What amazing inner strength she must have to achieve all of that in the face of such adversity. I respect her so much.
I cannot reconcile how I, a smart, caring child who came from a loving family in a close-knit community, could allow myself to bark at someone for their looks. I was not neglected or over indulged by my parents. They modeled values of kindness and respect. If they knew what I had done, I would have been deservedly punished. My bullying was like a horrendous blip on an otherwise normal screen. Today, I am a loving and devoted father to three kids whom I watch like a hawk should they ever be inclined to experiment with power the way I once did.
Olivia, I hope that you are beginning to realize from all the support that you are receiving that you are an amazing, unique person who deserves respect and kindness from others. I commend you for speaking up and telling your mother because you not only helped yourself, but you are also helping the bullies realize their mistakes. How I wish someone had told on me.
Believe in yourself,
Your story has really brought to light a problem that needs much more attention. As the parent of a bully, I admit to being caught completely off guard when I received a call about my 10-year-old son's bullying behavior at school. The call was from the parent of another child at school. She told me that my son and his friends had been calling her son names and throwing food at him in the cafeteria. She said he "often" wound up with nothing to eat for lunch. I was just horrified and upset. Often? How long had this been going on? Apparently, when the boy asked for his food back, my son and his friends threw it back to him chicken nugget by chicken nugget, grape by grape, with much of it landing on the floor.
I never imagined in a million years that my son would behave in this foolish way. He was a good kid and did not show any signs of this behavior at home. I was aware that bullying is a problem in our school system, but I never thought to ask him about it. Well, I learned a lesson . . . bring up the subject with your children. Let them know you are aware and watching!
My husband came home from work early the day I received the call so the three of us could have a chat about the problem. My son first denied it, but then his face turned red and he started to get upset. He finally spilled the beans and admitted the truth. Olivia, I cannot begin to tell you how hard it was to hear that your child has brought pain to another child. We felt anger, shame, disappointment, disbelief, and confusion toward our own son and sadness for the boy who he taunted.
I am writing because I felt this same sadness for you. I know this was a difficult experience for you to go through, but it can lead to important changes. Olivia, I believe you have a strong will and the capacity to turn the pain you've experienced into positive action.
In our situation, we insisted that the parents and the other boys who were involved be brought in to the principal's office to discuss the situation. None of the boys were able to explain why they bullied this boy. Was it a feeling of power? The ability to get away with something? Group-think? Experimenting with being naughty? What we do know is that it had nothing to do with the boy who was bullied and everything to do with our son's (and his friends') poor judgment. What was illuminating to all of the adults in this meeting was that these kids just seemed ignorant about the concept of bullying, what it consists of and how deeply targets of bullying are affected by it. We all decided that what was sorely needed was ACTION.
Each of the boys went over to the child's home to apologize to him, and they took turns making his lunches for a month. They also formed a committee, supervised by the principal, to find local experts on bullying and invite them to come to the school for assemblies. The teachers reinforced what the kids learned about bullying by asking them to write papers on bullying that were hung in the school hallways for all to read. Posters about tolerance and respect were also put up around the school. A parent volunteer program was started to supervise the students during lunch and recess. The school really took charge and the bullying stopped.
Olivia, my son is very remorseful about being a bully, and I know he will never forget the big lesson he learned from all this. I hope that one day your bullies will get to the same point. I am glad that your message is one of love and not hate. Thanks to you and the Buder sisters for being such strong beacons of light to many others.
Keep up the good work.
Maggie (a former bully's mother)
I am the parent of a 4-year-old girl who has bullied two girls so severely that they left her school. I was surprised that my daughter was the one who was being the bully. I am very sorry for your ordeal, Olivia, but I am taking strides to make sure that my daughter realizes that bullying is not acceptable, before she gets to be a teen. I have realized that this has become an epidemic and people should be more educated.
I was bullied when I was 12, and yes, I hated going to school because of it. Olivia, you are very brave to be speaking out and you have my admiration. I support you 100 percent, and if there is anything I can do, please let me know.
I am a junior in high school and a member of a peer resource group where we support students who have issues at school. My motivation for joining the group was because I have had several experiences throughout school where I witnessed bullying and never did anything about it. Some middle school incidents involved name-calling and put-downs, and in high school, they tend to involve mean-spirited exclusion of people who were once friends. I feel so awful and guilty that I have stood by and watched people get hurt and never came to anyone's defense.
Now I spend many afternoons dealing with the fallout from these kinds of problems, and I don't think people realize how devastating and traumatic these experiences can be. Most kids tend to look the other way like I did to avoid causing trouble of out of fear that their friends will turn against them. I feel very guilty that I never supported or stood up for someone the way these two sisters have. Being a bystander to bullying is almost as bad as doing it, because if you remain quiet, it seems like you support what is going on.
Good luck. Your story has taught a lot of kids the right thing to do.
Excerpted from LETTERS TO A BULLIED GIRL: Messages of Healing and Hope © Copyright 2011 by Olivia Gardner, with Emily and Sarah Buder. Reprinted with permission by Harper Paperbacks. All rights reserved.