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Being nice is no effort, and offers many rewards

April 27, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

Poet T.S. Eliot wrote that "April is the cruelest month," but for a child, the cruelest time of life just might be middle school.

Middle schoolers are not yet as self-conscious as high-school students, who want to impress the opposite sex with their maturity and sophistication. Middle schoolers are still operating on the instinct of the barnyard and woe to the child who is perceived as "different."

Just ask Lindsay Cogar, a 14-year-old ninth-grader at Williamsport High School. Cogar, who suffers from a condition called trichotillomania, has been enduring classmates' taunts (and worse) for the past four years. She's speaking out now in an effort to get people to understand her disorder and how taunting might make it worse.

Trichotillimania, or TTM, is an impulse disorder in which sufferers react to stress by pulling their hair out. According to the Trichotillimania Learning Center, the typical first-time hair puller is 12, although some as young as a year old have been affected.

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We're not talking a few strands here. Some sufferers, Lindsay included, have pulled out so much of their hair that they must wear wigs to cover up the denuded areas of scalp.

Lindsay said her hair-pulling began in middle school, as a reaction to teasing she endured from classmates "because I'm not a tiny girl and because my family is not perfectly wealthy and able to buy all the right clothes."

At first, she said, her hair-pulling was unconscious, but when she got it cut very short in an effort to stop herself from pulling it, the teasing got worse.

She said she tried to talk to her classmates, but when that didn't work, she went to a middle-school counselor who said that her tormentors were "just kids being kids."

Coming to Williamsport High didn't stop the teasing, so she and her parents approached the principal and other school officials, who she said seem to be taking the matter more seriously. Recently when a boy tried to pull off her wig, he was made to apologize, Lindsay said.

"It made me feel better, but it doesn't make it completely better," she said.

"There's not much you can do about the bullying, except try to ignore it. I started to get angry about and I decided to write about it on a home page," she said.

On the page (www.geocities.com/daddysgirl14359/index.html), Lindsay says she attempted to commit suicide several times, which led to placement at the Brook Lane Psychiatric Center. She's using to the page to speak out, she said, because, as she writes there, "maybe if I was more understood, I would be less hated."

The Internet has also been helpful because it's allowed her to locate a support group and connect with others who have the disorder, she said.

Adolescents sometimes feel hopeless because they can't see beyond tomorrow, but lack of vision isn't what ails Lindsay. At age 14, she says the future is already laid out, including a decision to go to Wilson College, where she'll study to be a veterinarian.

"I love animals," she said.

She's volunteered at the Washington County Humane Society, walks all the dogs in her neighborhood and has just gotten two new puppies, which are a mixture of Husky and Golden Labrador Retriever that should grow to weigh about 100 pounds apiece.

In between caring for animals and her studies, she said she's determined to be more assertive and her mother said she recently "told off" a boy who was bothering her.

"If they could just understand that I'm not as different as they think I am," she said.

Because of privacy rules, the school system cannot comment on how Lindsay's case was handled, but Bonnie Forsyth, the system's Coordinator of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, said that every student already gets a handbook that states that harassment, sexual or otherwise, will not be tolerated and includes forms to allow victims to file complaints.

The school system is also revising its "awareness pieces" for students at all three levels, Forsyth said. A video was produced to train staff, she said, adding that a new awareness piece for parents will be ready for the start of the new school year.

That's not to say there's nothing in place now, Forsyth said, adding the system is "going to be beef up what's already there."

Before I interviewed Lindsay, I spoke to her mother about the possibility that publicity would bring her daughter more trouble than she already has. But the family believes that speaking out makes more sense than not doing so.

I don't kid myself that I have a lot of high-school-age readers, but I hope some of their parents are reading this column. If so, think about saying something like this to your kids:

What we learn when we're very young stays with us all our lives, as do the hurts inflicted then. Tell your children that although they may not realize it now, 20 or 30 years from now they'll look back on what they do now with pride or regret.

At that point, there'll no going back to fix what you did wrong. So be nice now, while you've still got the chance.

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