If Joanne Greenwood could have said one thing to Amanda Todd before the bullied Port Coquitlam teen took her own life, it would be the well-known Dan Savage line: It gets better.
"It does, it does get better. It's just a small portion of your life. There's a good chance you're not going to go through it forever," Greenwood says over coffee at a Metrotown café. "Kids just need to know it's not going to last forever."
And Greenwood would know. The longtime Burnaby resident was bullied from grades 3 to 7 while growing up in Surrey. It started with one girl who inexplicably turned on her.
"She was really mean. I don't know what changed. I'll never know. She just started picking on me. Then it felt like the whole school started picking on me."
Greenwood was called all kinds of names and mocked for her buck teeth. She was pushed down, kicked, punched and her hair was pulled. She had to carry all her school supplies with her at all times so other kids wouldn't take them from her desk. At one point, she was chased down the hall by kids with box cutters, threatening to slice off her hair. She always sat near the exit in class so she could bolt as soon as the bell rang.
"Just being present made an opportunity for them to tease me, make fun of me, follow me home, whatever," she says.
Greenwood tried to make herself as invisible as possible. She stayed quiet and never raised her hand in class.
"God forbid if I did put my hand up and I was wrong or something, they'd be all over me for sure," she says.
Anyone who befriended her was also singled out and bullied, so alliances never lasted.
The worst part of all was the emotional scarring.
"I carried it for a really long time, and I was resentful. The physical stuff I healed from," she says.
At the time, Greenwood talked to adults about what was happening, but teachers only offered clichéd advice: "Don't let it bother you," or "children can be cruel" and, "maybe you should be more outgoing." No one ever said: "Hey, leave her alone. "
"They always made it sound like it was my fault," Greenwood says.
Greenwood's dad didn't really understand what she had been through until he read a piece she had written that was published in The Province after she was so moved by Hamed Nastoh, the 14-year-old who filled his backpack with rocks and jumped off the Pattullo Bridge in 2000, following incessant harassment at school. Greenwood's outpouring on the pages of the Province shell-shocked her father.
"Why didn't you ever tell us?" he asked. "I did," she replied, but they weren't quite getting the message, so she stopped trying.
"You give up. After you cry so many times and you're hurt so many times, you give up. You don't say anything anymore."
Greenwood is now a 43-year-old single mom with a teenage daughter. She works part time at a local housing co-op, but her anti-bullying work is a full-time endeavour. Greenwood started a website, www. bullyfreezonecanada.org, and she's put together anti-bullying kits in hopes of selling them to schools for fundraisers. The kits include a T-shirt and stickers with anti-bullying messages. Greenwood also set up a booth at a Nov. 7 anti-bullying forum in Vancouver, featuring local TV personality Fiona Forbes and Mary Zilba, from The Real Housewives of Vancouver.
Brenda Morrison, an SFU criminology professor and expert on bullying, was a speaker at that forum.
"When we problematize bullying behaviour in school, we often problematize it as an institutional problem that requires an institutional response," she said.
According to Morrison, bullying is often dealt with by sending the offender to someone higher up the authority ladder - the principal, for instance - while the problem does not get dealt with in class.
"An institutional response doesn't empower the community to stand up and address the problem," she said. "Students are learning in their classrooms to be passive bystanders."
Morrison said effective response to bullying focuses on both victim and perpetrator, as both need "communities of care."
"(Victims) need to feel they belong, basically, because the feeling of being bullied is very isolating," she said.
As for the perpetrators, they may be victims of bullying themselves or modelling behaviour learned at home.
"My experience with young people making poor decisions around bullying, the only way they change is with a community of care," she said. "We often frame bullying behaviour as a relationship problem that requires a relationship solution. Kids being bullied and kids bullying are having a hard time managing relationships differently. They are both at risk for being depressed and being socially isolated."
According to Morrison, anti-bullying programs are effective if they build community within the classroom.
"Enabling the bystander to step up has been shown to be the most effective strategy," she said. "We need to change the paradigm. . The very first step is to think of classrooms as communities, and model what we want to see in our communities in our classroom. . Bullying is about power, if we keep sending the bully up the power authority hierarchy, we are not modelling empowerment in our communities."
Meanwhile, Greenwood is continuing with her campaign, hoping to secure some provincial funding for anti-bullying initiatives to bolster her work, but what she would really like to see is a little more kindness in the world.
"I know that's a really tall order, (but) I want people to know it's not OK to point out other people's differences negatively," she says, adding it's also not OK for people to stand by and do nothing while others are being bullied, and as long as it's safe to do so, people should intervene if someone is being hurt or harmed.
To this day, Greenwood still doesn't know why she was picked on, but she's OK with that.
"I came to the conclusion this week that I was never supposed to know. I was just supposed to move on," she says. And now that she's portraying herself as a survivor, rather than a victim, she comes back to that message: "I'm proof that things are going to get better."