How Comebacks Gave Me Confidence as a Bullied Kid With a Disability

The world isn’t made for little girls who have “broken” bodies. My illness has always been invisible. But I have always been in constant pain, extremely uncoordinated, and unable to physically do what my peers can do.

Even in elementary school, kids can smell differences like a shark to blood. In first grade recess was everything, and all of my friends began to want to play sports — something I have never been gifted at, or honestly physically capable of doing. I thought I was doomed to be an utter social outcast! When my friends would all want to play kickball, I would hide behind the tree and cringe when people made me take my turn. I would try not to cry when people openly commented about how awful I was, because they didn’t know how truly hard I was trying. This was the story when I tried any sport, or anything that required an ounce of athletic ability.

But my dear mother realized something I didn’t quite understand at my young age. Even though I wasn’t as physically capable as my peers, I was a natural performer, and incredibly quick-witted. Noticing how much this was affecting me, my dear, sweet, service-oriented angel of a mother, who has way more spice to her than people who don’t know her would ever realize, taught me how to laugh at myself. And most importantly, she taught me the art of the “verbal comeback.”

Yes, you heard that right… my mom taught me how to talk back. And it was the best thing she could have ever taught me.

I would tell her situations at school that involved people being mean about my disability, and we would come up with comebacks and rehearse them in the house or in the car, so I would be prepared for when the situation came my way. I remember one time; it must have been in about fifth grade. I was attempting some kind of sport at recess and one of my classmates started commenting about just how “stupid” and uncoordinated I looked. It led to a conversation very similar to this:

Classmate: “You look really stupid and aren’t good at doing that.”
Me: “My cousin has a pet goldfish.”
Classmate: (confused)  “Why did you say that?”
Me: “Because by telling me I looked stupid, I thought we were talking about things that truly don’t matter.”

As you can imagine that shut my classmate up pretty quick. I can’t tell you how many thousands of well-crafted comebacks I had and used for situations just like that.

Kids can be mean. They always have been and always will be. Some kids pushed and shoved. But my mom taught me to defend myself in a different way. My greatest weapon was my tongue. To those who think it’s a terrible thing to teach your children to “talk back” — I believe you are completely and utterly mistaken.

I could have never defended myself physically. I knew that, my mom knew that; anyone who knew me knew that. And I was never rude first. I never threw the first “verbal punch.” I only used words to defend myself. But I believe a kid needs a way to defend themselves, or their confidence will be utterly uprooted before it has a chance to fully grow.

Learning how to “talk back” and defend myself verbally gave me confidence. I no longer felt like the weakest kid in my class, even though physically I most definitely was. Learning how to “talk back” gave me courage to laugh at myself and find humor in the things I’m not good at doing. I would often point out just how ridiculous I looked before anyone else did, because I knew I could verbally destroy anyone who tried to tear me down. Believe me, when you’re an 8-year-old, “comebacks” are like throwing knives at anyone who tries to tear you down. The bullying ends quickly.

Talking back taught me that just because I didn’t have the strengths my peers did, it didn’t mean I didn’t have different strengths that were just as or even more powerful! Sticks and stones may break bones, but learning the power of words is what truly saved me.

Being a sick kid, the world often isn’t in your favor. And as you get older, you may find a deeper realization that the world is far from kind. It won’t “adapt” to your health challenges or what you need. You have to find ways to adapt your life to fit in this world. I’m so grateful my mother taught me to defend myself and in so many ways gave me the arsenal I needed to not only survive, but emotionally thrive.

Even while growing up in a body that was trying to kill me.

This story originally appeared on The Life of Me, Smile Magee.

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