Growing up in South Florida and Georgia, I was always considered to be the all-American boy with blonde hair and blue eyes. I was also well behaved, earned good grades, and was very athletic.

Elementary and middle school were equally the best school years of my life, and I expected high school to be no different, even though it would be my seventh different school since kindergarten.

I had always been on the passive and quiet side, but still had little difficulty befriending others up until this point, mainly because of my easy-going and well-rounded image. My looks and image belied one who was preoccupied by having a father with lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease that affects the entire body (skin, tissue, and organs).

My parents divorced when I was just six years old, and it was decided that I would live with my dad in high school, even though I had been living with my mother, stepdad, and sister in middle school. Although I was still practically the same good-natured and well-liked student as before, I started going through puberty, which affected me dramatically.

Stephen as a teenager

In addition to wearing braces, my hair turned darker, and I became very thin. I started ninth grade very self-conscious, which attracted the attention of a couple of bullies. For the next two-plus years, I was body shamed, mocked, and insulted in front of my peers and classmates. My self-esteem suffered and I developed social anxiety, and for the first time in my life, I underachieved academically and socially.

Even though I attended the Sadie Hawkins dance from the sixth to the eighth grade, I never had a high school girlfriend, and would have gone dateless if it had not been for a blind date to the Senior Prom.

My High School years were the worst years of my life, and the scars carried over into college, especially my freshman year. It was not until my sophomore year when I returned to my all-American image once again and college became the most meaningful years of my life, from becoming the strongest weightlifter and earning a bachelor’s degree, to meeting my future wife, Cymonie.

Unfortunately, bullying continues to this day, and victims do not even get a respite like I did on weekends or summer vacations. Bullies now have social and electronic media at their disposal, and there is very little escape or relief for the victims.

Like the majority of victims, I used to keep it a dark secret from my family and friends because I was unwilling and unable to admit that I was a victim of high school bullying. The only thing worse than a victim being incapable of sharing his or her ordeal is actually confiding with a loved one, and nothing is done until it is too late, such as school violence or suicide.

Thanks to the inspiration of actress Gabrielle Union, the support of my wife Cymonie, and of my sister Lisa, I no longer stay silent – I now publicly speak and write about my experiences. By doing so, I not only hope it inspires at least one reader or listener who has been suffering silently, to finally take a stand against this injustice and learn how to enjoy school and life again.

Several schools are now adopting ‘zero-tolerance bullying’ policies, which are a step in the right direction. But, empowering one to learn how to no longer be afraid or ashamed is also what can defeat a cowardly bully.

By Stephen Hinkel