April 25, 2012 - Graduation day is a day of pride and happiness for most high school seniors.
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But for Gabrielle Ford, who fell on her way to get her diploma, it ended being a day of humiliation and sadness as she was laughed at and made fun of by a classmate. What should have been a special day was again marred by the bullying Ford had endured most days for years.
"I felt so ashamed and embarrassed," recalls Ford of that moment nearly 14 years ago. After her graduation from Lake Fenton High School, she withdrew and became a recluse.
"I hid away in my house and became very depressed and lonely," said Ford, now 32. "I started to believe all the bad things they said— that I wasn't worthy, that I wouldn't amount to anything in my life. I even became angry, because of how I'd been treated."
She will share her story and an anti-bullying message with Brandon Fletcher Intermediate School students on May 4, accompanied by a special animal companion.
Ford had been tormented daily by bullies starting at around 12-years-old when she was diagnosed with Friedreich's ataxia, a neuromuscular disease that affects balance and coordination. The disease weakens the muscles and sufferers will eventually be confined to a wheelchair. Besides affecting motor skills, the disease also slurs speech.
The teasing began in seventh grade, which was when Ford had to switch schools for other reasons. She didn't know anyone at her new school and had no friends. Her disease made her more of a target for bullies, who she notes like to prey on kids weaker than they are.
Most hurtful were the names she was called, the rumors about her, and the exclusion from groups.
"Kids made fun of me right to my face about the way I walked, the way I talked," Ford said. "Every little thing that was different. Multiple kids, some more than others."
In the hallways, kids would knock books out of her hands, knowing it was difficult for her to bend over and pick them up. They would kick the books down the hall and back and forth to each other when teachers weren't around. She was shoved into walls and tripped. Some teachers witnessed the abuse, she said, but didn't get involved. She didn't want to go to school, but knew it wasn't an option.
Lacking confidence and physical strength, Ford never confronted her tormentors and never told her family until her senior year after her mother found her bruises and demanded to know what was going on.
"I thought I could handle my own problems," Ford said. "I didn't want her to think I had no friends, I wanted her to think I was liked."
Her mother spoke with the principal and Ford did get an apology and became friends with one of the worst bullies.
The years of bullying had taken their toll, however. What brought Ford out of her deep depression that lasted for nearly four years after high school was her dog, Izzy, a black and tan coonhound she brought home as a puppy in 2000. When Izzy became sick with a life-threatening liver disease at 6-months-old, Ford felt a kinship, and the bond between her and the dog was evident. They appeared on Animal Planet together in 2001 and soon after, Ford was asked to speak at a school about the obstacles she had overcome. She began giving anti-bullying presentations around Michigan, taking Izzy with her. Her beloved animal friend died three years ago, but Ford continues her presentations with Dinah, another black and tan coonhound and cousin of Izzy.
When Ford visits Brandon Fletcher Intermediate School, she will bring Dinah and an anti-bullying message that is not meant to shame anyone, but to encourage sympathy and compassion.
"Bullying is a choice," she said. "For the kids that are the ones bullying, I talk about how there is something going on in their life and a reason they are acting out that behavior. I want to educate on how bullying impacts the child that is bullied so they know the effect they can have on another person. I hope they think about their actions or their words, not just being funny for that moment, but how it can impact another person for the rest of their life."
The presentation will fit very well with the anti-bullying focus the intermediate school has maintained all year. Every Monday, the school has an assembly, part of which has been dedicated to anti-bullying and a continuing discussion on what bullying is, what it looks like, how kids feel when they are bullied.
"I tell the kids they have more power than any adult to stop bullying in our school," said Principal Jeff Beane. "We're trying to get them to understand they need to help change the culture in the school. It can't just be consequences, it has to be kids standing up for each other."
In Beane's seven years as BFIS principal, he said bullying has been a continual problem with students, but this is the first year a school-wide approach has been taken with the issue. He has seen more reporting of bullying incidents as kids become more comfortable with the conversation.
"It's a very serious issue, exhausting, but you have to get students involved in putting a stop to it," he said.
"Eighty-five percent of any group is silent bystanders—not victims, not bullies, but they're not doing anything. That 85 percent is the group that needs to stand up and help out their peers, so they realize people do care. We have a big group of kids that won't sit by idly anymore."
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville