The taunting started in elementary school.
First, they nicknamed her fat face.
Then, crooked face.
By middle school, they were calling her fat and ugly daily.
Each cruel word muttered by bullies lurking in crowded halls, stores and restaurants adds to the internalized pain she carries everywhere she goes. The torment never gets easier to take.
But Sarah Atwell tries her best to cope.
The 16-year-old Garlands Crossing resident recently earned the admiration of people across the globe when a homemade video featuring her flashing cue cards decorated with her life story in front of a camera, while country singer Mark Willis’ popular anti-bullying anthem “Don’t Laugh At Me” plays in the background, went viralon the Internet.
The video starts as a playful introduction to Sarah, a thumbs-up giving Grade 11 student who likes to smile. But the smile quickly fades and, with the flip of a few cards, she reveals a heartbreaking truth.
“Sometimes I wish I looked different. Maybe the hurt would go away.”
The tumour on the right side of Sarah’s face has been growing with her since birth. When she was an infant, one cheek appeared to be slightly swollen. By primary, the mass had grown enough that Sarah had to have surgery on the affected eye.
Some people act as though she has a contagious disease that can be contracted by the slightest touch. A cashier once refused to take money from her.
“I wish people could just understand, there is nothing wrong with me,” another flash card reads.
Sarah’s tumour is the result of type 1 neurofibromatosis (NF1), an extreme form of a rare genetic disorder that causes growth in tissues enclosing nerves. She’s undergone three reconstructive surgeries to reduce the size of the tumour since November 2010, and she plans to continue with plastic surgery until the tumour is gone.
Until that day, she’ll tolerate the blurred vision, and live through the headaches, but, she hopes, the bullying will subside.
And it just may.
She received a flood of well wishes from as far away as Central America, Germany, Italy, Florida, Texas and Australia within hours of posting her tell-all video to Facebook.
Complete strangers are now calling her beautiful, strong, courageous and inspirational.
“Little kids see the good in everybody. They just see you as who you are.” - Tara MacAskill
Some, including others living with NF1, say she’s a hero.
Sarah says it feels good to receive positive attention from people outside of her supportive circle of family and friends, but the widespread response has been completely unexpected.
“I mostly made it so people could understand… it’s been hurting and I don’t like being bullied.”
A few of Sarah’s bullies have apologized. She hopes more will find it in their hearts to correct their cruel behaviours, and other victims will find a way to “stay strong,” knowing they’re not alone.
Sarah’s mother, Tara MacAskill, shares the same dream. She caught a sneak peak of the video before it was posted online.
“I cried and cried and cried because, I mean, I always know she’s hurting, but to have her put it right out there and say it, it makes me cry because I can’t fix it.”
Sarah insists her mother walk away when the taunting begins, and MacAskill obeys out of fear of embarrassing her daughter, or making the situation worse. She hopes more people will stand up for Sarah now that she has shared her story.
“It makes me ecstatic that she’s got so much good feedback and people actually care out there,” MacAskill says.
MacAskill lives with NF2, a milder form of neurofibromatosis that causes smaller tumours to sporadically form on various parts of her body.
More than anything, she wants people to see Sarah for who she really is: an outgoing girl who started learning sign language at just six months old, a strong supporter of the Canadian Cancer Society, a poet, a teenager, a human being.
“Sarah’s just amazingly strong and beautiful.”
Sarah says she takes life day by day, looking forward to a future where she can make a living working with kids.
“I connect with them really well,” she said.
“They ask me questions, and then they’re all good and they say they love me.”
MacAskill says a lot can be learned from little kids.
“Little kids see the good in everybody. They just see you as who you are.”