Area children involved in the Milaca-based Pearl Crisis Center’s Teens Against Dating Violence heard an inspiring presentation from teacher and author Jonathan Friesen Thursday, June 27, at the New Life Church in Princeton as part of the center’s Bully Conference.
Friesen used humor in his account of what it was like being bullied as a child with Tourette syndrome. Like most children diagnosed with the disorder, Friesen didn’t start to develop symptoms until he was 6 years old.
“I went from one to nine tics in two weeks to moving constantly,” Friesen recalled. “First grade was all right, but everybody’s weird in first grade.”
He demonstrated how bad the twitching and tics could be, especially when his symptoms first developed. Friesen said his physical display of Tourette didn’t start being the target of his classmates’ torment until he reached middle school.
“Kids weren’t so kind-hearted,” he said. “My seventh grade wasn’t such a pleasant place to be.”
The teasing and exclusion was especially painful as the syndrome compounded the awkward puberty stage.
“There were also girls in seventh grade,” he said. “I’m reasonably certain there were girls in sixth grade, too. I just didn’t see them.”
Friesen explained a particularly embarrassing moment during his first year of junior high when he began experiencing vision trouble. He started to see double and experienced temporary blindness in one eye. In an instant, he was staring at the girl he had a crush on and the next moment he was in an epileptic seizure. Rather than stay and lend support, his teacher left the room. A classmate, “Who was a take-charge kind of guy,” tried to help by sticking pencils down Friesen’s throat to prevent him from swallowing his tongue.
“I snapped those like a couple of tooth picks,” he recalled.
Then the classmate tried pens.
“I snapped those, too.”
After that incident, Friesen retreated into himself.
“I thought, ‘Who is ever going to want to hang out with me ever again?’” he said. “I basically locked myself up for two years. I couldn’t deal with all that stuff people were saying about me.”
One day, out of the blue, Friesen’s life took a major turn.
“My mom came to my room and said I had a visitor. I said, ‘No way.’ Mom said, ‘Yeah, you have a visitor. She’s upstairs.’
“‘She?’” he said, smiling wide. “So I’m standing in the hallway because I have a ‘she’ in my room and I’m not quite sure what to do about that,” he said.
Friesen said it was this girl, whom he called Suzie, that set him on a path of reclaiming his self-worth.
“I said not one word to her. She talked to me for one hour. I have no idea what she said, but she showed up and changed my life forever,” he said. “She left with a vacuum stuck to her or something because she sucked something out of my room that day — it was the hate I had for myself.”
Friesen continued to be teased and bullied during his time in high school, but he managed to persevere. He went on to be a teacher, an author and a well-known speaker on the topic of bullying. He said the two big questions subjects of ridicule and bullying often need answered are: “Does anybody see me? Does anybody like what they see?”
He connected these questions to the development of self esteem in many young children.
“My daughter, when she was 6, she wanted to be a ballerina,” he said. “So, I stuck her in soccer, like any good dad would.”
After six, long games of Friesen watching his daughter skip around the field with a friend, chase butterflies rather than opponents and otherwise be distracted by anything but the ball, his little girl finally came into possession of the ball. Although she missed her chance to score, Friesen’s daughter scanned the sidelines, made eye contact with her dad, waved and smiled with pride.
“Afterward, she was waving and smiling and I couldn’t understand why she was so happy,” he said. “Then I finally realized — she knows I saw her. And I liked what I saw.”
Friesen said 59 out of the 60 teachers he had in school didn’t even acknowledge his Tourette syndrome.
“They made me invisible,” he said. “Suzie made me visible. You know in your life who is hurting; who really needs to be seen.”
His audience at the conference asked Friesen for advice and he was quick to offer support and guidance.
“When you start showing up for people who are bullied, you start changing lives,” he said. “If you start looking for other people who are bullied and you seek them out, it comes back to you eventually. When you make a positive difference in someone else’s life, somebody will show up for you. You start doing that, and your whole attitude changes.”