It started as early as third grade. Aija Mayrock had trouble making friends. Lunch tables emptied when she sat down. Kids called her stupid. She just wasn’t “pretty and skinny and perfect,” said one classmate, by way of explanation for the constant exclusion. “It’s not personal, it’s just you,” offered another, supplying a koan Mayrock would turn over in her mind for years.
But the worst was yet to come. During her freshman year of high school, having recently moved with her family across the country from New York to Santa Barbara, California, Mayrock signed on to Facebook to find that a girl from her school back East—someone she didn’t even know—had dressed up as her for Halloween and posted pictures online. Vile messages flooded in by the hundreds. And then, like history repeating itself, the new classmates she turned to in a desperate search for support only joined in the chorus of laughter and ridicule.
Mayrock told her mom about what had happened. Together, they found the bully’s phone number, called her, and got an apology—but the harassing posts and phone calls from others didn’t stop. Acting on instinct, Mayrock deleted her Facebook page and changed her phone number. She threw herself into writing—screenplays and emotional rap-poems she calls “roems”—and performing, first in the theater department at her school and later in a Tisch summer program where she first connected with other high school students who shared her interests. She made real friends. She saw a therapist. For the first time in her life, she thrived.
But there were all too many reminders that the struggle could have ended differently. When Mayrock heard about a California teen who committed suicide after being bullied the way she had, she started writing what would become The Survival Guide to Bullying: Written by a Teen, which she self-published in October 2014, at the age of 19. The book has since been picked up by Scholastic—following a notable write-up in Publisher’s Weekly—and published in six countries, catapulting its author into the limelight as an international advocate for bullying awareness, prevention, and education. (Mayrock had previously won a Silver Key in Scholastic’s Art & Writing Awards in 2013.) She’s written essays for Seventeen and Teen Vogue, been interviewed on The View, given a keynote address for 500 educators, government officials, and parent volunteers at a meeting of the Learning Leaders organization here at Kimmel, and spoken with thousands of kids at schools across the country.
If the book has struck a chord, it could be because Mayrock’s advice (composed in consultation with educators and mental health professionals) upends some commonly held beliefs about bullying. Take, for example, the canard that bullies prey on the weak. Mayrock has her own theories about why she was singled out—she was creative, quiet, and polite, and she lisped—but in the book she’s adamant that trying to divine a concrete reason someone is being bullied isn’t an especially useful exercise. Bullies choose targets who are tall or thin, gay or straight, rich or poor, timid or outspoken, she writes—and then tend to stick with them. And adolescent bullying in particular smarts because it can feel as though you’re being punished for who you are at a time when even you haven’t quite figured out who that is yet.
That’s why Mayrock’s rigorous protocol for finding what she calls “The Real You”—concrete tips like “do one thing you love every day,” “exercise and eat right,” and “try making a list of what you really believe”—is crucial (and could also serve as a decent self-care regimen for adults when we feel like we’ve lost our way). “I figured that if I were like the people who bullied me, then maybe things would get better. So I changed how I dressed, the music I listened to, and the way I walked and talked,” Mayrock writes. “I thought this would work. But guess what? It didn’t.” What did work was exploring what she loved to do—and what she loved about herself—until she was able to tune the bullies out.
Still, Mayrock knows well that declaring yourself “done” with your bully doesn’t mean your bully is finished with you. She advises those targeted to come up with detailed daily “battle plans” that focus on avoiding places where bullies lurk without adult supervision (think: out-of-the-way hallways and parties), finding a “wingperson” for companionship in vulnerable moments (lunchtime), and even practicing certain maneuvers (changing clothes in a flash) that can minimize time spent in dreaded environments (the locker room). In an age in which school violence has become shockingly common, safety is her primary concern: Confronting a bully—cathartic though it might sound—could get someone hurt. When it comes to social media, too, Mayrock urges caution. “You are a member of the cybersociety,” she writes, “but that doesn’t mean the cybersociety will protect you.” Her guidelines for how to recognize bullying on social media—where teenage cruelty often festers, hidden from parents and teachers—could be eye-opening for adults who were fortunate enough to grow up in the years before adolescence became a virtual arms race for “likes.”
When Mayrock stopped by NYU Stories headquarters, she had just taken the redeye back from Los Angeles—where she’d addressed something like 4,000 schoolkids— and was gearing up for yet another speaking engagement upstate. We talked about her dream job, battling Facebook addiction, and why adults are sometimes as helpless as kids when it comes to preventing bullying. And then she performed one of her roems.
In your book you emphasize that it’s essential for kids who are being bullied to tell their parents and teachers, and yet you also write about how hard it can be to find an adult who’s willing to help in that situation. Why do you think adults aren’t always receptive?
I think that the reason is that bullying has changed a lot over the years, but not all adults are educated in how it has changed. The violence that comes with bullying has increased. And now we have cyber bullying, which is 24/7—it never ends. If you aren’t in the cyber world, if you’re not familiar with social media, it can be hard to understand that dangerous form of bullying.
I have had a lot of people who have said to me, “Well, it's just kids being kids. It's not a big deal and they just need to toughen up.” But when you look at the numbers, there are 13 million American kids bullied every year, and every single day 160,000 kids don't go to school because they're too afraid of being bullied. And there have been numerous teen suicides tied to bullying. My hope that is by reading this book, adults—not just kids—will see how big this issue is, but also how easy it is to fix. There needs to be a zero tolerance policy for bullying in schools, starting very young. And teachers need to be trained to deal with bullying in the classroom.
What about kids? What can they do if they see that someone is being bullied?
I’ve been talking a lot about the role of the bystander, because it’s very important. Fifty percent of the time, if someone intervenes in a bullying situation, that kid being bullied will never be bullied again. Of course, that’s hard. I remember being 12 and not standing up for people being bullied because I didn't want to get bullied more—I didn't want to be embarrassed or judged. But I do remember one boy who, though he didn’t speak up for me when I was bullied, was very, very kind to me. Every day at school, he asked me how my day was. He let me sit next to him. That boy changed my life. I knew I could get up in the morning and make it through the day because one person was kind to me. So I think that being an upstander is crucial, and if kids slowly start to do it, if that slowly becomes cool, we will see a much different world. A much better world.
As someone who survived cyberbullying, what advice do you have for someone who is being attacked online?
When it happened to me—hundreds if not thousands of horrible messages telling me to kill myself and stuff—I trusted my instinct and “went dark.” I logged off all of my social media for weeks. But that was for a very big attack. There are different tactics depending on the intensity of what’s going on, but the most important thing is to know when you're being cyberbullied. It could start as just a few messages that are really cruel, or anonymous posts. If that's happening to you, you have to know that it could grow in scale, and you have to take charge and analyze the situation. It might be that you can handle it by just blocking and reporting everyone who's doing this to you, and by adjusting your privacy settings to the most private. Sometimes what I recommend is going semi-dark, which means taking a “vacation” from those social media outlets that you're getting cyberbullied on. After a day, two days, or two weeks, check back in, see what's happening on those platforms, and see how you feel. And no matter what you do—anytime you get cyber bullied, take pictures of those posts so even if they’re deleted you have proof you can take to your principal, your parents, the police, whoever you need. And don't treat this as though it's not a big deal, because it is a big deal.
It can be hard to just walk away from a Facebook account, though, especially if you already feel isolated. Is there something inherently addictive about social media?
Oh, definitely. I think in a way, it's a game of status. I'll go to a school sometimes and after I do my whole presentation, I'll have a kid say, "How many followers do you have on Instagram?" That's what matters to them over really anything else at that age. That’s the language they speak. And I’m probably unhealthy in a sense that if I don't get a lot of likes on a picture that I take, I think, "Well why don't people like it?" It's always a competition. But on the flip side of that, I think social media can be incredible. I wouldn't know that a girl in Pakistan was reading my book without Facebook. I would have no idea. So it’s all about not letting it consume your life. When I was on The View, suddenly I was getting thousands of texts and Facebook and Instagram messages, so I turned off my phone for the rest of the day, just so I didn’t feel like my world was blowing up. It’s about balance.
You write that you didn’t just survive bullying—you thrived because of it. But do you think bullying is something you ever fully get over, or is it still with you on some level?
I think bullying stays with you forever. I think it's like any trauma. In my roem that I perform when I speak at schools, one of my last lines is “We all must be accepting of our wounds that don't always fade away.” I'm a strong, confident person, but I still have those wounds that will always be there. The scary thing is, I know a lot of people that never healed from the bullying, so it haunts them every single day and it affects their life decisions. It affects the type of people they allow into their lives, and the type of respect that they get. That's where, for kids, getting help from parents and adults and treating yourself the way you deserve to be treated comes in.
Can you talk about the concept of finding The Real You? Isn’t that easier said than done when you are a teenager and so unsure of yourself?
Definitely. When I was 16, I was pretending to be someone I wasn't because I wanted to be accepted so badly, and that's very, very damaging. But there are so many things that one can do to make that migration to the new you—just starting with one thing about yourself that you like. You don't have to be in love with what you look like, but say you like this freckle right here, then just use that to give yourself confidence. Let that power you through each day. Another is to do the things that make you happy. For me, writing made me happy, even though it wasn’t cool. I had no friends in 9th and 10th grade because of that, but it allowed me to enter the Santa Barbara Film Festival, to write this book—to ultimately do really interesting things. So I say dedicate yourself 100 percent to what you love. Listen to the music that you like, not what's cool. And then find people who treat you the way you deserve to be treated.
Do you ever think of your bullies and wonder what they think of you now? Do you ever think, “Ha! I showed them!”
I’m often asked if I’ve heard from my bullies, or if any have written to me after seeing me on The View and in Seventeen magazine and all of it. I haven’t gotten messages from any of them. And that does kind of haunt me in a way, because I wonder why, you know? In a way, success is a nice form of revenge, but at the end of the day, revenge doesn't mean anything because you have to live with yourself. And even if someone did reach out to me and say "I'm sorry," that's not going to change my life at this point. The thing is that I love what I'm doing. The best part of what I'm doing is not the media; it's getting messages from kids who say that my book saved their life.
Is there a book that changed your life?
I was probably too young when I read it, but Night by Elie Wiesel was the most incredible story of strength that I've ever read. I wanted to be able to kind of channel that strength, that fight to survive, in myself. And then when I was writing my book I thought how, in a much different way, can I inject that same need to be strong into words that are a lot more playful?
What is your dream job?
I want to be a writer, an activist, and a filmmaker. So I want to be able to tell these stories, give a voice to the voiceless through books, through screenplays, through movies, and talk about a variety of different issues, not just bullying. So I'm looking at my next book right now and thinking: What is the next big change that I can try to make?