Did you feel a powerful energy in the air last Saturday? Yeah, that was us. A bunch of authors, teens, librarians, teachers, and activists gathered in St. Louis for the Less Than Three Conference. Less Than Three was organized by the phenomenal Heather Brewer as a way to bring everyone together to rally against bullying. We all knew it would be an important event. But I was not prepared for how monumentally life-changing it was.
First off, I have to point out how profoundly words can hurt. The effects of verbal and emotional abuse can last a lifetime. If more kids understood this when they were very young, bullying wouldn’t be so prevalent. It just wouldn’t. One of the ideas to end bullying I discussed at Less Than Three was the need for every single elementary school to integrate an anti-bullying curriculum in first grade. Or even sooner. The earlier a person understands the power their words and actions have on others (in both a positive and negative context), the less likely they will feel the need to make others feel bad. Instead of stomping all over other people to make themselves feel better, potential bullies would know that the answer is this: reaching out for help in ways that will actually help them make their lives better.
This was one of the Bullying in School Panel’s hot topics. Fellow panel members Alethea Kontis, Jennifer Brown, and Dale Basye were freaking amazing. We talked about our own experiences with bullying back in the dark days. I told my story about the mean girl who wouldn’t let me sit across from her in the caf. She lied and said the seat was taken when it totally wasn’t. I had to sit alone at the next table while that chair stayed empty the entire lunch period. Letting me sit across from her was such a heinous concept that she would rather watch me sit alone. Which was more fun for her because then she could laugh at me the whole time. That’s the example I gave when we were sharing ways in which we were bullied. And yep, I used her real name. Just like I use her real name every time I tell that story at an event. If you are a dumbass, there will be consequences. We all used their real names. And I think we were all surprised by how raw their torment still was.
Heather Brewer is someone I’ve admired from afar. I love that she is badass. I love that she paves the way for her tons of loyal fans to let their freak flags fly. She understands what it’s like to be an outsider. She understands the relentless, unbearable pain loneliness brings. For these reasons and many others, we are kindred spirits. I cannot tell you how impressed I was by Heather for creating such a warm, safe space where everyone felt welcomed. Everyone felt like they were part of a group that would change the world.
Heather’s keynote address was amazing. She shared some of her own experiences with being bullied. Even though it was not easy, Heather felt compelled to reach out to everyone in that room and let them know they are important, the same way she reaches out to the whole world with love and support and virtual hugs. Heather ended her keynote with a slide show that blew everyone away. She compiled inspirational messages like you are not alone and keep holding on. The end had several slides with different images, but all with the same message, repeated over and over:
You are loved.
You are loved.
You are loved.
That’s when I lost it. I was all determined not to need a tissue from any of the tissue boxes Heather had put out. Next thing I knew, Alethea was handing me a tissue like the princess she is. Why did this repetition resonate so strongly with me? I’d just found out why that message was so important for Heather to hear. It made me sad that I couldn’t be there for her in high school when she needed a friend. I remember being 17 and feeling like I had to cling to my first boyfriend because no one else would ever love me again. For the rest of my life.
That’s how I felt at 17.
I know I’m not alone. So many teens (especially teens from broken, abusive homes) have told me they feel like no one will ever love them. That they will never, ever find love. As someone who felt the exact same way, I’m here to tell you that I was wrong. You will find love. You are loved.
There was a special guest speaker during the keynote. Jordan Brooks was in the house. Jordan and I met in person at the Rochester Teen Book Festival, but we’d been communicating online for a while before that. Jordan had also been communicating with Heather and they’d already met and general awesomeness ensued. One of the things that makes Jordan so magnificent is that she takes a stand against bullying by intervening when she sees other people being mistreated. She helps her friends when they tell her they can’t hold on anymore. Jordan is the kind of person I wish I had been back in high school. I was so focused on surviving my own bullying that I was afraid to reach out to anyone else. That is unacceptable. I regret that I didn’t speak up every single day. Which is why Jordan is a role model. She is Not Afraid. She stood there in front of a huge crowd and shared her experiences with being bullied. I wish every teen had the same courage to speak up. Snaps for Jordan for being an inspirational ripple of positive change!
Jordan wasn’t the only friendly neighbor I’d been communicating with online who I got to see in person. Sisters Sara, Catherine, and Rachel traveled many miles to be there. Here we are with David Levithan…who might still be there (corny inside joke!). I cannot adequately express what a thrill it was to meet the Less Than Three Sisters in person. They had been so immensely kind and supportive online for years. Fortunately this event was in the middle of the States and they are also in the middle. It made me so happy to finally see their smiling faces in person after all the photos they’d shared. As if that weren’t the ultimate gift, the Sisters arrived with warm fuzzies and more sweet gifts for me: a painting, framed artwork, collages, cupcake floss (you read that right), and enough scrapbooking paraphernalia for a year. How did they know what I loved?! It’s like they were inside my head. But of course the greatest gift was having us all gathered at one time in one place to enjoy the Now.
Everyone who was there is already counting down to next time. So will Less Than Three be happening again next year? The official word from Heather is YES. I wish we could have Less Than Three gatherings every day. You could, actually. Check out the Born This Way Foundation for resources to help you start a support group in your school or town. There is strength in numbers. You could feel the strength at Less Than Three, the energy of our group taking a stand against bullying, the power of us. You hold the same power. How will you use it to change the world?