An Afternoon with Gillian
When I first met Gillian, a thirteen-year-old girl with NLD who lives a few miles from my house, I was instantly charmed by her openness and her willingness to share her most private details with me—at that point a total stranger. She was friendly, chatty, and so enthusiastic she could barely stop herself from bouncing off the sofa in her large finished basement. What was especially charming was how, whenever she got excited, her entire body illustrated her story as she would leap up to emphasize her point.
I was overwhelmed by the way her every anecdote, her every sentence was colored by her experience of being bullied. Right away when we sat down, she wanted to know all about me. What was my favorite band? I told her and she said hers was Aly and AJ, and that she plays their hit “Sticks and Stones” over and over in her room. It wasn’t until later that the significance of this would hit me.
Then Gillie wanted to know who my “special person” was; she just innocently assumed everyone on earth had a hero or champion in their lives to help them when others were cruel. She told me she was luckier than most in that she had two special people—her therapist (my best friend) and a caring school social worker.
After a couple of hours, Gillian asked me if I wanted to see her “loft” and led me through the never-ending basement (she lives in an enormous house) to the unfinished furnace room. She had a partitioned-off section between two furnaces that was her very own place.
As she showed me around, she pulled out a huge glass bottle—it was shaped like an old Coke bottle, but was so big it probably came up to my knees or higher. It was filled with balled up Monopoly money. When I asked what the money was for, she explained that whenever she’s bullied, (because she’s quite helpless to defend herself against her aggressors) she and her mother devised a way for her to fight back, if only in private. To give herself some semblance of power in a world where she has so little, Gillian goes home after every hurtful incident, crumples up a piece of fake money, yells at it, stomps on it, calls it names, then stuffs her paper adversary into her “Bully Bottle.” When I saw that the almost two-feet tall bottle was very nearly full, it was all I could do not to start weeping for this sweet girl, who wants nothing more than to be accepted, to be loved.
Later, she took me up to her bedroom and showed me her Barbies and her music. Her room was exquisite and as the designer in me took in the architecture and the décor, Gillie turned on Aly and AJ (which sounded like bubble gum pop I normally wouldn’t pay attention to) and fast forwarded to her favorite song. The lyrics stopped me in my tracks. The entire song was about standing up to bullies. The bullying theme even extended into her choice in music and that just about broke my heart.
After meeting Gillie, I did a massive rewrite on Inside Out Girl, which was already complete and sold to HarperCollins, because while I did know bullying was an issue for NLD children, it took spending time with this special girl for it to really sink in what that meant in a particular child’s life. Gillian’s Bully Bottle made it into the book, in a slightly different way, as did her need for a hero and her favorite song.
I wound up dedicating the book to Gillie, partly because she is so open with me, partly because she informed the character of Olivia Bean to such a great extent, but mostly because this is a smart, loving young girl who has so little power in her life outside of her wonderful family, who is victimized so often and listened to so very, very rarely, and I wanted to show her—if just this once—someone was listening. It is my hope that the result of Gillian’s influence*,Olivia Bean’s story in Inside Out Girl will help more people understand this condition and that parents and teachers will educate their children.
*While Gillian did influence the character of Olivia Bean, the character is not based on Gillian. Olivia, as is typical of NLD children, is her own unique mix in terms of non-verbal LD strengths, weaknesses and quirks and the disorder manifests itself more severely in Olivia. I’m quite certain Gillian isn’t remotely interested in the elimination habits of the rattus rattus!