The silent, deadly curse of bullying

Jan 24,2007
Kim Hye-min, 21, trembles when she visits her memories. They are kept deep inside her, in a place she kept locked up for many years.
“I try not to but when people ask about my past and when I tell them, the horrific memories resurface and my body starts to tremble,” Ms. Kim said. “In the winter I can hide it, telling people it’s because of the cold weather, but in the summer it’s hard to cover up the shivering.”
The memories that make Ms. Kim so uncomfortable come from her early years at school. Back then she was was picked on and isolated by older girls and her peers. The bullying lasted for a period of seven years. Such abuse is called wangtta and it has been a growing problem. In extreme cases, some of the youngsters who are bullied suffer mental breakdowns or commit suicide.
The tall and slim Ms. Kim, who has lived in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang province all her life, said no matter how many years go by or how much counselling she receives, the mental and physical damage inflicted while she was targeted as a wangtta (the word can also be used as a noun) remains deep within her.
Today Ms. Kim looks no different than most other women her age. Wearing a denim miniskirt and high boots, she talks about men and how a recent date was disappointing because the man she was attracted to turned out to be shorter than her. However, there are a few differences between her and other young women.

Kim Hye-min with secret letters she received from friends when she was being isolated. By Lee Ho-jeong

First, she is majoring in counseling at Inje University. Second, she spends much of her time counseling children or adults who have endured bullying at school or at work. When she counsels she draws heavily from her own experience. She says she often hears of incidents far worse than what she went through. “Branding kids with cigarette burns is basic. There were incidents where the student’s head was forced into a toilet bowl.”
In 2002, when she was 16, Ms. Kim took over an online community that provides counseling for wangtta students.
The Web site (http://cate.daum.net/smillingschool) has also had inquiries from those who inflict abuse. She has now given advice to more than 800 students and the number continues to grow. “The online community was originally created by a group of students suffering from wangtta and their parents,” Ms. Kim said. She said the parents passed the management of the site to her because they believed a person of similar age would find it easier to establish a rapport with young victims.
In March 2005, based on the experience she had gained from running the Web site, Ms. Kim became the youngest counselor at the Prevention of Youth Violence Foundation. They keep records on the number of calls for help they receive. In the first six months of 2006 there were 1,771 calls. Over half of these came from middle school students, a figure that represented a 4.8 per cent increase on the previous year.
Ms. Kim also takes calls at the local YMCA, where she communicates with runaway teenagers.
“Sometimes people will call me well past midnight. I keep telling myself that I should not answer because the next day I will be exhausted. Yet I end up talking, as it is truly hard to refuse their cries for help.” Ms. Kim is glad she takes the calls. She knows from her own experience that bullying is most deadly when the victim says nothing. It is the silence that kills, because it isolates and sometimes ends in suicide.
Her devotion to others has recently been extended. She is now working part time as a Korean teacher at a local hagwon for middle and high school students. She has been using the money she earns to buy snacks for the students she is counseling and for financing trips to other regions where she makes house calls to bullied students and delivers lectures about her work.
Ms. Kim’s wangtta nightmare began when she was in the third grade. “Although my mom said there were some earlier signs that my classmates were picking on me since first grade, it was in third grade that I really became a target,” Ms. Kim said.
She said she was picked on by a student who was two years older. The reason she was attacked, according to her tormentor, was simply because she was relatively tall for her age. The harassment started with crude comments such as, “you look horrible.” When she came to school in a lacy dress, the older girl shouted, “What do you think you are? A princess?”
Then the older girl began to bar Ms. Kim from boarding the school bus to go home. She said her father had to pick her up or she had to take the bus to another neighborhood.
This torment ended when Ms. Kim’s mother found out what was happening and spoke with the older girl. The wangtta, however, did not end there. Although she was no longer harrassed by the older girl, Ms. Kim began to be bullied by her peers, who thought her naturally kind behavior was hypocrisy and a form of showing off. The means of torture was isolation. Ms. Kim said she thought the bullying was the result of a misunderstanding so she tried to improve her relationships by inviting her peers to her birthday party. She also tried to help them if they were in trouble. “I believed that changing myself when the others did not would improve the situation I was in,” Ms. Kim said.
Thanks to these efforts the bullying did not go on every day, although from time to time she would be harassed or isolated again. After graduating from elementary she moved on to middle school.
She ran into trouble again on the first day. “In my class there was a girl whose sister was in her third year. The older girl came to our class to meet her younger sister. Since the school uniforms in all three grades were the same I thought the older girl was one of my classmates so I talked to her without using the honorific.”

Kim Hye-min with students at the hagwon where she teaches in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang province.

A friend of her warned Ms. Kim to keep a low profile because it was apparent the older girl was about to pick on her. The warning came too late. The next day, Ms. Kim suffered fresh harassment.
The older girl started to beckon her for no apparent reason, curse her or hit her on the shoulder every time she passed by. The older girl was a troublemaker, known to the teachers as well. It took Ms. Kim a whole month to get the bully to back off. She took the same approach she had used in elementary school. “I would go up to her and bow properly like a Korean gangster would to their Godfather or smile at her whenever I met her. I tried to be as friendly as I could. And finally she started to accept me and treat me nicely.”
Although her situation with the older girl was resolved, her peers now turned on her.
“I became the class outcast because this girl that used to be my friend started to bully me.”
When a person becomes a wangtta it is common practice for other classmates or friends to isolate the person. If someone approaches or tries to be friends with the wangtta, that person also becomes a target of abuse.
In Ms. Kim’s case, classmates began writing nasty stuff on her books and isolated her at lunch time. They would hide her slippers in the trash. This was all because she had accidentally lost or broke another girl’s pencil. Word spread and she became a wangtta. In her second year of middle school the situation got worse. “There was a student who came back to school after a year’s absence. A classmate said we shouldn’t play with the student because she was bad. There were rumors that the girl even got pregnant and anyone who plays with her will likely be influenced. But when I talked to the student she was really nice. I liked her. But because I was nice to her I was once again a target for wangtta.”
One of her school-mates told some other students at the hagwon Ms. Kim attended. Consequently, she was not only picked on at school but also at the hagwon.
She was exhausted with trying to please others just so she could protect herself.
“I wondered why the others did not understand my feelings when I tried so many times to change myself,” Ms. Kim said. “People ask, “What’s so devastating about being isolated.” But only those who have eaten alone or walked home alone or spent time alone and isolated would understand how it can drive a person insane and make them weak.”
She said she even received threatening notes. “There is no feeling more distressing than when you realize you’re a target. It is really hard when you realize you have no one on your side.”
It was about this time that she started to inflict wounds on herself. “One day I accidentally cut myself on the back of my hand with my fingernail,” Ms. Kim said. “Warm blood came out and for a moment I felt a sense of peaceful relief.” It would take a long time for her to realize that she was torturing herself. “It was a brief sensation of relief but somehow I felt like I was doing something bad, although it felt good.”
She said she started to make the same wound with a retractable pencil.
Later she moved on to x-acto knives. She said she would wait for the wound to heal and then do it all over again. “The physical wound would help me forget the pain in my heart.” Ms. Kim still has a scar on the back of her hand.
She even thought of committing suicide and actually ran away from home to find a place to kill herself. “I thought of hanging myself, jumping in front of a moving vehicle and even taking pills,” Ms. Kim said. “But I couldn’t go through with it.” She said it was the thought of her parents, especially her mother, that stopped her from pursuing her plans. “And being a Christian I wanted to go to heaven, which is forbidden to those who commit suicide,” Ms. Kim said.
Her mother discovered the seriousness of the situation from Ms. Kim’s diary.
“It is hard for parents to know if their child is being a target of wangtta unless the child tells them,” Ms. Kim says. “Many wangtta, however, hardly tell anyone the suffering they go through since many are naturally shy and timid. It is hard to tell adults since admitting that one is a wangtta is embarrassing and hurts one’s pride. Also many students feared retaliation.”
Ms. Kim said she got through it because her mother and a few adults did care. A teacher at the hagwon realized that Ms. Kim had become a target. He tried to complement and encourage her. When other students asked why she was given more attention, the teacher would warn others not to gang up on her. “He was an English teacher in his 30s,” she said. “He would tell the students to be human first. He also said every child is precious to their parents and it is not good to torture someone who is dear to others.” Ms. Kim said the teacher’s words gave her the strength to live.
Letters from friends in other classes were another source of strength that helped her to hold on. Ms. Kim has kept several letters that were sent to her secretly by friends in other class rooms during her most difficult period. They are among her most precious possessions.
Ms. Kim said she would have been better off if adults took more interest. “In middle school my homeroom teacher came over and asked if there was something wrong.” Although she said she told the teacher everything was fine the mere fact that she had been asked gave her some comfort and courage. However, that was the extent of the help she received. “If the teacher had taken a deeper interest I could have gotten out of the mess I was in much earlier.”
Ms. Kim said the bullying stopped after her third year in middle school. “I had finally been accepted by my peers,” she said. “Also the fact that I had new classmates helped.”
Today, as an adult, she is trying her best to help those who are now going through the same trauma. As the youngest counselor in the nation she has been invited to lecture and to visit schools to advise students.
“I always tell the students two things: if you don’t change yourself, others will not change and never give up on life because one day happiness will come and one would miss all that if you’re dead.”
Ms. Kim says anyone can be a wangtta. Even an adult at work can be a target for isolation. “The reasons could be anything from a person not looking nice or being too tall or the tormentor is having a bad day.”
Ms. Kim advises those who are being bullied or picked on to say something. “Speak out, I say. Take a stand. If people have the courage to seek help, counselors will help them to find the courage to face the person inflicting the abuse.”
Your children may be a victims of wangtta (bullying) if they
-always look exhausted
-won’t meet your eyes
-spend a lot of time in their room
-rarely have a friend to hang around with
-are nervous and timid
-talk a lot about other students being harassed
-are often surprised
-frequently complain of stomach or head aches
-frequently ask for their allowance and sometimes steal money
-hate school and talk about transferring to another school
-hate to participate in school activities, including field days
-take unusual transportation routes to school
-have trouble sleeping or have nightmares
-have clothes that are often dirty or torn
-have vandalized text books, bags and school materials
-have grades that have been falling
-have bruises on their bodies

By Lee Ho-jeong Staff Writer [ojlee82@joongang.co.kr]

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