From the beginning, it seems, I was always going to be different. I began life upside down, and from then on, I struggled to find my place in the world. At times, the difference was visible: the splint I wore as a young child to correct what was then called ‘clicking hips’; the Bells Palsy that for a while paralysed half my face; the period when I made myself stand out with black make up and spiked hair. At times, the difference wasn’t as obvious: a period of childhood deafness; my sexuality; the feeling that I didn’t quite fit. So when, in high school, I was targeted by bullies, I was never sure why. I could only assume there was something wrong with me.
Like many kids, I endured the casual but brutal name-calling so endemic in schools; the name-calling that spotlights any sign of difference. But I was also targeted by an older group of girls for no reason I could fathom. Bullying is a brutal process that kids unwittingly play along with of shaping each other into what is acceptable and what isn’t. It tells us that we are too much of this, not enough of that, stripping us of our uniqueness and telling us that we aren’t good enough as we are. And there is a shame attached to bullying. If there is something wrong with us, then it must be something to be ashamed of. I told nobody I was being bullied. I still have a clear memory of the intervention of a friend, who realised I was hanging back later at school so that I wouldn’t encounter my bullies on the way home, and made me report it to a teacher.
When Cynthia Reyes’ daughter Lauren was bullied for having a black doll, she began to leave the much-loved doll at home. She felt that there was something wrong with her that made her different. To help her feel less alone, Cynthia wrote a bedtime story – Myrtle the Purple Turtle. Myrtle is a heart-warming story about what it is to feel different, how we try to change to fit in, and ultimately that our differences make us special.
At times, we are all Myrtle. Sometimes other people make us see difference in ourselves and tell us it is bad. Sometimes, on comparing ourselves with others, we tell ourselves we aren’t good enough. Often, it seems society is conspiring to highlight and demonise difference. Bullying has a long term impact on individuals. It made me adept at hiding my emotions. It transformed me from a self-confident little girl into a shy, depressed teenager. Some of us will emerge stronger. It will give us insight and compassion for others we may not otherwise have had. But the effects are long-lasting, and some will not come through it at all.
I wish I’d had Myrtle when I was younger. I wish someone had told me that I was special as I was. Myrtle is an important story, helping children to accept and love themselves just as they are. And today, when the pressures seem even greater, and the methods of bullying have expanded with social media, it is more important than ever that children learn that difference is good, that our unique traits make us special and that self-acceptance and acceptance of others is important.
And now we can all have Myrtle. Myrtle the Turtle will be available very soon as a beautifully illustrated picture book. Gentle, funny and uplifting, with a powerful message told in a way that will engage young children, Myrtle promotes the importance of loving the shell we are in. It strikes me that in many ways this blogging community is like Myrtle’s pond. We are from a myriad of countries, races and religions, of all ages, differently-abled and from varying backgrounds. We all have a unique shell that we present to the world and we gather by the pond together and appreciate each one.
Myrtle the Purple Turtle by Cynthia Reyes is published on 9th October.
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