“Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.”
We often hear this rhyme chanted during recess at school, but the reality is much different. In fact, a scraped knee will often heal much faster than the verbal jabs that kids use to taunt each other. Bullying affects many children, but people with disabilities seem to be targeted more often. That was the case for Eric Matthes, who is an outreach and advocacy coordinator at The Arc of King County. As schools headed back to session this fall, we sat down with Eric to talk about those memories of being bullied.
For Eric, the bullying began in kindergarten. He told me, “I remember kids calling me a retard and it hurt. I didn’t know it was a derogatory term then, but I could tell they didn’t say it to be nice”. Eric learned that some people would be mean, but he expected his friends to stand up for him during these moments. Unfortunately, they ignored the bullies who would sometimes shove Eric while taunting him with names. His friends just walked by as if nothing was happening.
Eric wished that his friends would have said something so he didn’t feel so alone. Eventually, he started to isolate himself. He didn’t want to keep getting knocked down – literally and figuratively. He’s embarrassed to admit that he even turned into a bit of a bully himself. He wanted to switch places to see what it felt like to have the power and be on the other side for once. Eric said, “it didn’t feel like me at all. It just made me sad and angry.” In those moments, he thought about a favorite hero: Spiderman. “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Now, he stands up to bullies. When he used to work at a movie theatre, he remembers the day that two teen boys came in with a girl on crutches. They made her carry the popcorn and the movie tickets, and they even called her the R-word. As the usher, Eric had to tear their tickets to let them into the theatre, but he decided that the boys needed to understand that what they were doing was bad. He said something to them in the most professional way possible. Although they didn’t respond, Eric is certain that the girl had to feel better knowing that someone stood up for her.
Eric noted that sometimes we may find that our own family and our closest friends can also be bullies and say things that hurt us very much. However, because of Eric’s work as an advocate, he has done a lot to make a difference for people with disabilities. Part of this work includes speaking at public gatherings where sometimes his family members are present to watch him in action. Eric spoke at The Arc’s annual meeting in 2014, and he received a standing ovation from his family, even the ones who have been challenged to end their hurtful remarks. Now they tell him how proud they are of him.
Eric has a lot to be proud of himself. He shares his story for audiences all over the country, and he invites the audience to share their experiences as well. On numerous occasions, people come up to him after presentations and tell him that they don’t feel alone anymore. Other people have lived through being bullied are able to do great things as an adult.
Spiderman was right. With great power comes great responsibility, and Eric is happy to use his power to be a role model for others.