GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, stories of overcoming. People who were never supposed to make it, never supposed to get past their limitations. When I - like, when I say the word overcome, right, like, you are a person who has overcome something. Do you identify with that or do you just think, who is he talking about?
SHANE KOYCZAN: When I hear the word overcome, I think, you know, it's like you got over top of it every single time. Like, for me, it's like sometimes I dug under that wall or I went away until somebody brought that wall down or did whatever I had to do.
RAZ: This is Shane Koyczan. He's a spoken word artist, and in a lot of ways, what he overcame is kind of common because it happens all the time.
KOYCZAN: I think that's one of the things about bullying it's - when you encounter it, like, when it's right in front of you, like, I mean, you're going to do whatever you can to sort of escape it.
RAZ: And it's probably why so many people relate to him. He wrote a poem about his experiences being bullied. It's called "To This Day." And when he posted an animated version of it online, it went viral. And a few weeks later, he and a friend who plays violin took the poem to the TED stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
KOYCZAN: When I was a kid, I hid my heart under the bed because my mother said if you're not careful, someday someone's going to break it. Take it from me, under the bed is not a good hiding spot. I know because I've been shot down so many times I get altitude sickness just from standing up for myself. But that's what we were told - stand up for yourself. And that's hard to do if you don't know who you are. We were expected to define ourselves at such an early age. And if we didn't do it, others did it for us - geek, fatty, slut, fag. I'm not the only kid who grew up this way surrounded by people who used to say that rhyme about sticks and stones. As if broken bones hurt more than the names we got called.
And we got called them all. So we grew up believing no one would ever fall in love with us, that we'd be lonely forever, that we never meet someone to make us feel like the sun was something they built for us in their tool shed. So broken heart strings bled the blues, and we tried to empty ourselves so we'd feel nothing. Don't tell me that hurts less than a broken bone, that an ingrown life is something surgeons can cut away, that there's no way for it to metastasize. It does. She was 8 years old. Our first day of grade three when she got called ugly.
We both got moved to the back of class, so we would stop getting bombarded by spitballs. But the school halls were a battleground. We found ourselves outnumbered day after wretched day. We used to stay inside for recess because outside was worse. Outside we'd have to rehearse running away or learn to stay still like statues giving no clues that we were there. In grade five, they taped a sign to the front of her desk that read beware of dog.
RAZ: When did it start for you? It probably started around kindergarten. Like, it started, you know, when, you know, the class found out that, you know, I was being raised by my grandparents. You know, and then, you know, it was just a lot of questions of like, why don't your parents want you? And it was an innocent thing. Like, other kids couldn't understand the situation that I was in. And then that developed into something that ultimately became very cruel. And it became a point of, you know, mockery for people. It's like, your parents don't want you. And then it became name-calling. And then, you know, the name-calling became the more violent aspect of what happened.
RAZ: And one more thing you should probably know is that Shane was also overweight.
KOYCZAN: I was a big kid. I've always been a big person, you know. And a lot of the times that's all you need is just one little difference, something to set you apart. And it's like blood in the water, you know. I was very sensitive. I would cry very easily, you know. Something would set me off, like somebody would say something and I'd cry. And then that fed to the fire that they were stoking, you know. It was just - so they just sort of kept doing it because it was - I don't know - entertaining to them maybe? I'm not sure.
RAZ: And one particular afternoon...
KOYCZAN: I must have been 9 or 10 maybe.
RAZ: ...An older boy.
KOYCZAN: It was like a lightning strike.
RAZ: ...Just started to beat him.
KOYCZAN: And just a very violent experience. It felt like it happened for no reason.
RAZ: And later on when they were in the detention room, Shane turned to the boy and he asked him why?
KOYCZAN: And I remember doing that. And his greatest answer was because. Like because is able to sum up everything we needed to know.
RAZ: And after that just the act of going to school became, like, this daily trauma.
KOYCZAN: I would cry. I would be like, please, just let me stay home from school today. And, you know, my grandmother would, you know - she would cry, too. It was so hard because, you know, there would be both of us crying at the door. And her having to be like, you have to go. You can't - you can't do this. You can't just stay here. Imagine this is your life, every day of your life, where you just - you didn't go out the door. And that's where that terrifying feeling came from of, you're right. I just can't let my life be this 'cause if I give up right now, that's what my life will be. I'll never walk out the front door.
RAZ: You look back on it now as an adult and, you know, you can kind of process it. But, I mean, as a kid, how did you endure that?
KOYCZAN: I don't know that I necessarily did. Like, I mean, ultimately, I ended up becoming what I hated. My grandparents, when they retired - I think it was in grade nine - they decided, OK, we're going to move. And I thought, yes. Finally I get a chance to go, and I get to start over. And I started the new school, and the first day of school it started all over again. And something in me sort of, you know, changed where I just - I couldn't keep doing it. I couldn't go through three more years of it. And I remember - it was probably two weeks into the new school - an incident happened in class, and I ended up getting into quite a violent fight. It's one of those things I don't even really remember it.
It just happened so fast. And then being called down to the counselor. And, you know, they'd called my grandmother into school. And then the counselor that said, you know, your grandson is a bully. And I laughed. I could not believe those words came out of their mouth. I was like, do you have any idea what I just came out of? Like, do you have any idea? I was just so low. I was at such a desperate, deep dark space that I said, OK. If this is the coat you want me to wear, this is the coat that I'll wear. OK, you want me to be a bully? I'll be a bully. I didn't want to hurt other people. I had no reason to. But the more I did it, the more I had to feed that reputation then. And that was my life, and I hated myself.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
KOYCZAN: One of the first lines of poetry I can remember writing was, in response to a world that demanded I hate myself from age 15 to 18, I hated myself for becoming the thing that I loathed - a bully. When I was 19, I wrote, I will love myself despite the ease with which I lean toward the opposite. Standing up for yourself doesn't have to mean embracing violence. We weren't the only kids who grew up this way. To this day, kids are still being called names. The classics were, hey, stupid, hey, spaz. Seems like every school has an arsenal of names getting updated every year. And if a kid breaks in a school and no one around chooses to hear, do they make a sound?
Are they just background noise from a soundtrack stuck on repeat when people say things like, kids can be cruel. Every school is a big top circus tent. And the pecking order went from acrobats to lion tamers from clowns to carnies - all of these miles ahead of who we were. We were freaks, lobster claw boys and bearded ladies. Oddities juggling depression and loneliness, playing solitaire spin the bottle trying to kiss the wounded parts of ourselves and heal. But at night while the others slept, we kept walking the tightrope. It was practice. And yes, some of us fell. But I want to tell them that all of this is just debris left over when we finally decide to smash all the things we thought we used to be.
And if you can't see anything beautiful about yourself, get a better mirror. Look a little closer. Stare a little longer 'cause there's something inside you that made you keep trying despite everyone who told you to quit. You built a cast around your broken heart inside of yourself. You signed it, they were wrong 'cause maybe you didn't belong to a group or click. Maybe they decided to pick you last for basketball or everything. Maybe you used to bring bruises and broken teeth to show and tell but never told because how can you hold your ground if everyone around you wants to bury you beneath it? You have to believe that they were wrong. They have to be wrong. Why else would we still be here?
We grew up learning to cheer on the underdog because we see ourselves in them. We stem from a root planted in the belief that we are not what we were called. We are not abandoned cars stalled out and sitting empty on some highway. And if in some way we are, don't worry. We only got up to walk and get gas. We are graduating members from the class of we made it, not the faded echoes of voices crying out, names will never hurt me. Of course, they did. But our lives will only ever always continue to be a balancing act that has less to do with pain and more to do with beauty.
RAZ: I wonder, what was that thing inside of you that, you know, that made you keep trying?
KOYCZAN: I think it was that want or that desire for love. Like, when I say love, I don't mean, you know, like, romantic love. I mean just acceptance or friendship even. You know, it was just that hunger was stronger than anything else. It was just like I need this. I need this in my - I know that I need this in my life. I know that this is important without ever having had it. You know, I just instinctively knew that it's like, I will not make it through this life intact if I don't have this, that was the driving force behind just to keep going.
RAZ: I mean, so for you, like, the idea that it's a balancing act, in a way, that's like a triumph. That your life is a balancing act and everyone else's life is a balancing act.
KOYCZAN: Well, yeah. I think it took a long time to get to that realization. You know, it took a long time to accept that, you know, like, I mean - and to see the way people connect to it, the way people understand it. It just reassures me that I'm not alone in this. There are thousands of us, you know, millions of us that have - you know, we've experienced this in some way or another, you know. I believe everybody's been bullied to a certain extent. Pain is part of this life. It just is. The worst part about pain isn't that it hurts, it's that it's completely normal. We're supposed to feel it. We are meant to endure difficulty. If for no other reason, that it gives us a reference point that allows us to navigate towards something better.
RAZ: Spoken word artist Shane Koyczan. On the TED stage he was accompanied by violinist Hannah Epperson. You can hear his entire poem, "To This Day," at TED. NPR .org.
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