Jodee Blanco is a public relations specialist whose clients have included best-selling authors, Academy Award-winning actors, and professional athletes. So it’s surprising that, from elementary through high school, she was bullied— sometimes brutally—by her classmates. A bright, sensitive girl, she often spoke her mind and defended underdogs without regard for the consequences. But in her new book, Please Stop Laughing at Me...: One Woman’s Inspirational Story (Adams Media), Blanco makes clear that she sometimes tried hard to win her peers’ approval. In the late 1970s, for example, after she’d moved with her family to a new home in suburban Chicago and enrolled in junior high school, she quickly won friends in the neighborhood. On the first day of school, however, Blanco stood up for a student who was being heckled at the bus stop. Later, as described below, she agreed to play a cruel joke on a teacher to redeem herself with the “in” crowd.
Northwest was a large public school with two wings. The lunchroom was located in the middle of the building. Unlike Morgan Hills Academy, the private elementary school I’d attended, Northwest was sunny and cheerful. The halls were painted in bright shades of yellow, orange, and aqua. There were rainbows painted on the ceilings. It was a welcome change in décor.
As I searched for Room 101, where I had first-period English with Mrs. Wackles, I felt a sense of foreboding. Though I hated to admit it, the reason I had become so aggravated with my mom that morning was because I knew what she said to me was true. During the summer, I had practiced what I had learned from the Pitt Players, an acting troupe, about how to transform yourself into a character. I portrayed the role of the “cool teenager” rather than the real Jodee. Even though my new friends seemed sincere about liking me, I still had to act my way into social acceptance. When I was in a situation that made me uncomfortable, rather than choosing to do what was right, I pretended our neighborhood was the stage, my new friends were fellow performers, and we were all in a theatrical production. It made it easier to do things I was ashamed of because I could pretend that it wasn’t me who was responsible, but the fictional part I was playing. There were a few times when the kids were especially rough on Jason. I should have spoken up, but I didn’t. Being in a clique felt too good. I didn’t want to jeopardize that. But my neat little “this is just a play, it isn’t real life” psychological trick wasn’t working anymore. That’s why I reacted the way I did at the bus stop.
Rickie, Greg, Reese, and Emily were all in my homeroom. They had gone to grammar school with many of my new classmates. “This is Jodee. She moved in near us over the summer,” Rickie explained to a couple of his buddies in the back row.
“Yeah, she’s cool,” Greg chimed in.
Instead of feeling comforted and reassured by the genuine kindness being shown to me at Northwest, I reacted like a Vietnam veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. Images of Morgan Hills started flashing through my mind. Everyone had acted nice to me on my first day there, too. I took deep breaths to calm myself. I was overreacting, and not just about this moment right now, but about the incident this morning with Jim, too. Friends have fights, but that doesn’t mean they stop being friends. I had to trust Jim and the others. They had never given me any reason not to. More important, I needed to fight the insecurities that kept rising inside me. Morgan Hills was in the past. This was a new school, a new start. Why, then, did I still feel like something was going to go terribly wrong?
Junior high was a new experience. I no longer had only two teachers. I had a different instructor for every subject, and PE was required. I wasn’t too pleased about that. It was one thing goofing around with the kids in my neighborhood for fun—when I swung and missed or came in last in a relay race, it wasn’t a big deal. Now, I would be graded on my performance. Worse still, gym class was divided into teams. If you didn’t pull your weight, it wasn’t just your grade that suffered. Your entire team paid the price. I had never been athletically inclined and was awkward in sports, especially gymnastics. I couldn’t even do a somersault, let alone swing from parallel bars. At least it wasn’t coed.
It didn’t take long for me to get into the rhythm of junior high. My favorite class was creative writing. Our teacher, Mr. Bufert, was a lovable eccentric. He had the sweetest disposition of any teacher I’d ever had. He rarely raised his voice, and he liked to make people laugh. He even gave students extra credit when they brought jokes to class. I was truly fond of Mr. Bufert, but some of the other students didn’t appreciate his unconventional style. He had absolutely no idea that they thought he was peculiar and snickered at him behind his back. He took pride in what he falsely believed was a universal popularity that gave him the confidence to be uninhibited. Yet this lack of inhibition was the very reason he was such an effective teacher.
My first setback at Northwest came when my classmates wanted to play a particularly nasty trick on Mr. Bufert. One afternoon, A.J., one of the most popular girls at Northwest, had me in a predicament. She and several of her friends, including Kim and Emily, had been on a ruthless roll all day. First, they had replaced the head cheerleader’s Bonne Bell lip gloss with a Pritt glue stick. The humiliated teen was still in the nurses’ office trying to soak the adhesive with solvent. Then, still riding on a high from their morning mischief, they decided to stuff a bottle of Head & Shoulders dandruff shampoo into Mr. Bufert’s briefcase.
I didn’t feel too bad about the cheerleader. She had an imperious attitude, and I didn’t think a little dose of humility would do her any harm. But the stunt they wanted to pull on Mr. Bufert crossed the line. He struggled with a chronic skin condition that caused his scalp to flake. He was self-conscious about it and always wore white shirts so it would be less noticeable.
“Hey, Jodee, he likes you the best. You do it,” A.J. demanded.
“No way. We’ll get caught!” I cried, desperate to wriggle out of this one.
“There’s still five minutes before he returns from break. Come on,” everyone urged.
“Jodee, it’s just a prank. It’s no big deal,” Jim jumped in, his eyes twinkling.
I can do this, I tried to convince myself. Mr. Bufert has a good sense of humor. His feelings won’t be hurt. Stop feeling so guilty. Remember what Jim said: “Nobody likes a wuss.”
“A.J., I’ll stand lookout in the hall, and you do it,” I whispered, the knot in my stomach belying my confidence.
Realizing that time was running out, A.J. agreed.
Five minutes later, our deed done, A.J. nonchalantly addressed Mr. Bufert as he entered the room. “Do you have our papers from last week? I’m anxious to see my grade,” she gushed.
“Certainly, A.J. I wasn’t going to pass them out until the end of class, but since you’re so eager, we can do it now,” he replied, pleased to see such enthusiasm over a homework assignment.
As he reached into his briefcase, he suddenly stopped, looking puzzled. Giggles exploded from the back ofthe room.
“I can’t stand the suspense,” A.J. whispered into my ear, excited. I wanted to throw up, but just kept right on smiling. I was not going to be the outcast again, bloody and defeated, sitting on the sidelines. Social acceptance was a battlefield riddled with land mines. I was a soldier who had to survive, and Mr. Bufert’s dignity was a casualty of war.
“What’s this?” he asked, shaking his head, holding up the blue and white bottle of Head & Shoulders. “I give you people extra credit if you bring a joke into class, not for making a joke out of someone,” he said, his voice weak with humiliation and shock. He suddenly realized that his beloved students didn’t adore him at all—they disdained him. “I’m not going to say anything more about this,” he added, his words tinged with the sadness of one whose illusions have been completely shattered.
I wanted to crawl inside a foxhole and die. I guess I wasn’t cut out for war. Everyone in class thought I was so cool. Why couldn’t I just revel in it? The truth stank. It was either be liked by everyone but hate yourself, or respect yourself and be hated by everyone. What a choice. I didn’t know how much longer I could keep up this charade. Teenagers are perceptive. Eventually, my classmates would figure out that my “coolness” was an act.
With each passing day, maintaining my summer friendships became more difficult. I was so tired of pretending to be someone I wasn’t just to ensure my social status at school. As 7th grade turned into 8th, my resolve weakened.
Excerpted from Please Stop Laughing at Me...: One Woman’s Inspirational Story, by Jodee Blanco. Copyright(c) 2003. Reprinted by permission of Adams Media Corp.