ELIOT, Maine — When you meet sophomore Owen Clark you would never know that this 16-year-old, a talented musician and artist who loves skateboarding, has been through hell over the last four years. Owen says he's been bullied by several of his classmates nearly every day.
"I have no idea why or how it started," Owen explains of the bullying that he says began in seventh grade. By eighth grade the insults were unrelenting: They called him "creep," "f----t" and "weirdo."
When Owen finally told his parents, Jody and Erica Clark, they thought it was just one or two kids and they encouraged him to "walk away." To "let it roll off [his] back." To "ignore it."
Things got so bad, Owen began cutting himself.
"Sometimes you just kind of need to feel something different than mental and emotional pain every single day so you replace it with physical pain and something to focus on other than all that negativity," says Owen.
His parents had no clue. They thought that their only child was doing fine. They were a "tight-knit family who talked openly and did a lot together." They had not allowed their son to be on social media, and they thought that was protecting him.
Owen's lowest point came in eighth grade.
"I was standing on a ledge contemplating suicide," Owen remembers.
His parents learned about the cutting when they received a call from his school. They could not believe it. They immediately got Owen into therapy and started working on helping their son realize he had support and could overcome his struggles.
Things got better but the bullying at school continued, Owen says.
According to the Clarks, although Owen doesn't have social media accounts that did not prevent kids from taking pictures and videos of him at school and posting them online. They found out through other friends and parents.
Owen's parents offered to send him to a different school but he wouldn't have it.
"I was like this is my school," he says. "I have the right to be there just like anyone else and I shouldn't just leave because other people are impacting me. It's my school!"
The final straw for Owen came when he says his girlfriend started to become the target of bullying because she was associated with him. His father suggested writing a letter to his classmates and Owen was on board.
On October 14, Owen's dad posted his son's "open letter" to his classmates, sharing the personal and painful details of his experience. The letter has since been read more than 1,000 times and shared all over the country.
"I decided to write this letter because I wanted to be heard," Owen explains."I felt like for the past four years or so I feel like I was really secluded into myself and I didn't speak out at all. I wanted to be the voice a lot of people don't have and I want to give my voice out to the world."
As painful as his experience has been, Owen decided sharing it was a way to give it meaning and potentially help others like himself who have been bullied or felt alone. The support has been overwhelming.
Strangers and students have reached out to Owen and his parents saying they support him. Owen says the bullying and name-calling at school have gotten better and Owen says two of the people who targeted him have even apologized.
In his letter, Owen wrote, "Words matter."
"Those words are what brought me to that ledge, those words are what made me almost kill myself, but positive words also kept me here," he says.
Students at Marshwood High School will soon all have the opportunity to read Owen's letter. He says the words stopped hurting a long time ago but he hopes sharing his story will make a difference for someone else.
With a maturity beyond his years, Owen says he's not angry and he even has empathy for the classmates who have made his life hard.
"I am sure that the bullies who are being negative towards me [are] dealing with their own problems and insecurities," says Owen.
If people take away anything from his letter, Owen wants it to be this simple: "Be kind."
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Hello, my name is Owen Clark. I am 16 years old and I am a sophomore at Marshwood High School.
I decided to write this letter and make this video because I’m tired. I’m tired of being treated like shit, tired of constantly being made fun of. And I’m not talking about one or two kids, I’m talking about dozens and dozens – both boys and girls, groups in the hallways, before class, in the cafe, anywhere people congregate. Loser, f----t, creep, weirdo.
That's why I’m writing this letter, to let everyone know exactly what words can do to a person.
In 7th grade, I started sitting by myself at lunch. It was NOT because I wanted to be a loner, it was just a case of not fitting in with any other friend group. I didn’t have a clique. It quickly became obvious that I didn’t belong in any of them. I tried. I honestly tried sitting at random tables, but it was always made known that I was not welcomed there. Sometimes by their expressions, and sometimes by their comments. Other times, it felt like no one even looked up at all.
As I sat by myself at the empty lunch table, it felt like everyone was staring at me. I was made fun of for not having any friends, for how I dressed, and even for the music I listened to. I remember in elementary school when teachers would talk about anti-bullying and helping students feel more involved and to not leave people out. They’d say, “If you see someone at lunch sitting alone, or someone at recess playing by themself, go play with them or go sit with them.” All the students would say, “Oh, I always do that!” But I knew firsthand, they didn’t.
They were calling me the usual names - Loser, f----t, creep, weirdo - and giving me the usual attitude. I just couldn’t take it anymore, so I started cutting myself. A lot. I just wanted to feel a different kind of pain for once - a physical pain. It distracted me from the constant emotional and mental pain. It gave me something to focus on.
I sprawled out across the cold bathroom floor with my music blasting around me. I’d be sobbing and clawing at my face and at the cold tiles around me. The music in the background would begin to go distant, becoming distorted and blurry. I would grab the blade beside me and try to cut the pain away. Over and over and over. On multiple occasions I thought, should I just do it? Should i just kill myself? I thought of multiple ways, stood on multiple ledges, yet something deep down prevented me from doing it.
I used to constantly wear long sleeve shirts to hide my scars, but on the last week of school, my parents found out about the cutting. Seeing the looks on their faces and the tears in their eyes made it one of the worst days of my life. But looking back at it now, it was a blessing because I was able to get the help I needed.
That summer I started therapy, and I was diagnosed with clinical depression. The doctor prescribed Prozac for me, and even though I wasn’t a fan of being on medication, I did notice a difference. An even better therapy was when I started skateboarding. Every time I had the urge to hurt myself, I'd go and skate instead. It felt like lucid dreaming and all those words - Loser, f----t, creep, weirdo - seemed to fade.
The close of summer came, and the fear of 8th grade came with it. I started the year off with more confidence. But it didn’t last… The same mean people. The same mean words. And I started to believe it. I could brush off a mean comment here, a mean comment there. But when it happens almost every day, for 1000 days, it starts to deteriorate your sense of self worth. Even though I cut myself, it was those words that lead me there.
It wasn’t as often as the year before, but it was just how I dealt with how others were treating me. Eventually, I decided it was best to get rid of as much negativity in my life as I could, so I left my new group of friends and chose to once again sit by myself at lunch. I figured it was better to be alone than to be treated like shit, especially from so-called friends. Even though I felt like I made the right decision, I was still so sick of sitting alone again and feeling so empty. My science teacher, Mrs. Sanzone, noticed what I was going through and offered me to hang out with her in her classroom each lunch. We would either listen to music, watch TV, or simply just talk. To be honest, if it wasn’t for her, Ms. Gray, and Mrs. Vernace, I’m not sure I would have survived middle school. I will be forever grateful for their generous and caring hearts.
It was now February break and my family and I went to NYC. Big buildings and even bigger ideas. So many people with their own identities and no one seemed to judge them for being themselves.
Then COVID hit. Isolation was bigger than ever, but I honestly loved it. I didn’t have to go to school. I didn’t have to deal with all those people. Instead, I’d get all my work done on Monday, hang out with my family the rest of the week and just relax. I’d go out and skate every single day. Summer arrived and that was the best summer of my life. My best friend and I would go to either Portsmouth or York Beach almost every night and just skate and talk. As the summer went on, I began to find out who I was as a person, and I felt like I was mentally growing stronger. I met a lot of cool people that summer while I was out skating. I’ll just summarize that summer: Peace Tea on curbs, scraped knees, parking garage sunsets, cheap food that makes your stomach sick, and cheesy music that made me feel a sense of euphoria. It was probably the best few months of my life.
Despite the growth of my confidence and self-esteem, it didn’t change anything that coming year. If anything, it just started to get worse. Luckily, I learned to just ignore it and block them out with music -but that didn’t always block their constant attacks. I didn’t know why they hated me so much. Why have they targeted me for the past few years? I swear I have never done anything to any of them.
My parents never allowed me to have any social media. They called it “unsocial media” and told me it was just a place where people could hide behind their keyboards and be fake. I kind of agreed with them, but I knew if I didn’t have social media then I would certainly never be accepted or make friends. I ended up going behind their backs and joined Snapchat and Instagram. Big mistake. It didn’t take long for me to realize my parents were absolutely right. There was nothing special, or real, or even social about any of it. It was actually easier for kids to be cruel and mean online even more so than in person. I deleted my accounts.
At one point of my freshman year, I stood on the ledge of the parking garage. The same one where I laughed and watched the sunsets. I wanted to jump so badly. It felt like none of my classmates wanted to get to know me for who I was. I know it is so much easier to conform than to go against the grain and be who you are. But the thing is, I liked who I was, and I didn’t want to be someone else. I didn't want to hide behind some fake identity just to be liked. I knew I wasn’t popular or an athlete, and I knew if I wasn’t on any social media that I would be looked at as a loser. But none of that mattered to me. I don’t care about being popular! I don’t care about having a million friends. All I ever wanted was a small group of friends who treated me right and who liked me for me! I just wanted to be accepted.
Overall, freshman year wasn’t terrible, especially due to the fact that it was less than half the school in the building because of covid. But this year, now that the school is back to full capacity, I wasn’t even there a week and people were already calling me out. Calling me - loser, f----t, creep, weirdo. But because of the constant love and support of my parents, friends and teachers over the years, I have become stronger.
I know I'm a good person, and I know I deserve better. I know my self-worth now and I was determined not to let them walk on me or get to me. Another person who has been super supportive to me is my girlfriend. Unfortunately, because she’s dating me, they have all started to target her as well. I felt like I was to blame for this. If she wasn’t dating me maybe they would leave her alone. We are constantly being filmed at school by them, and we find out later that they are posting it on social media with sarcastic and hateful taglines. Two kids even set up a “petition website” humiliating both of us online. I was pissed that two kids would take the time to create something so hurtful, but I was devastated to find out that over a HUNDRED of my classmates joined in and signed their little petition to embarrass us.
I know most of my classmates and probably most adults out there are saying, What’s the big deal? It’s just kids being kids. It’s not like anyone was physically abusive to you. It’s just words. But it’s because of their horrible words and posts that my girlfriend has started to regularly talk about suicide and self-harm. It kills me to hear this, and I can’t help but think of my little broken 7th-grade self. Words DO matter, and EVERYONE needs to understand that.
My parents offered to remove me from Marshwood and send me anywhere I wanted to go, but I said no. If I leave, they win. Most of my grade might hate me, and I might only have a couple of friends in the entire school, but it’s still MY school too, and I shouldn’t have to leave!
Like I said, I feel like I’m a lot stronger now, and I thought it was time to share my story and try to put an end to this. Over the past few years, I swear I have tried my best to just ignore all of these mean and unprovoked comments, but not anymore. I’m done. I’m done staying quiet. I’m done hiding in the shadows. It’s time I try to do something about it. As much as I’d like to punch everyone in the face who has said mean things to me, I know I can’t. I don’t want to stoop down to their level. So, I decided to write this letter and make a video. I’m not sure it will make anything better, but at least people will get to hear my voice and my real thoughts, and maybe some of you will understand just how real this is. Some of you are laughing right now, at how stupid this is. But deep down you feel guilty. I’m sure of it. You can’t hide that from yourself.
I know I'm not the only one being treated this way. It's everywhere around me. This letter is not only for myself but for all the other outcasts, loners, and anyone else being discriminated against because they’re “different.” You are NOT alone and I’m happy to talk to any of you if you need someone. I don’t wish these words and thoughts upon anyone.
This letter and video are to show you who I am and to show you how I feel. And hopefully I can make you understand that words matter! I want change. Let’s make it happen, please.
Sincerely, me, Owen Clark