By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN
BG Independent News
At age 5, Jessie Chris loved being on stage – even if that stage was a restaurant with just two patrons at the time.
“I would literally perform anywhere that would have me,” Chris said.
Then at age 10, Chris was given a guitar for her birthday, and started listening to country music stars Keith Urban, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.
“I realized that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up,” she said.
But country music didn’t exactly fit in with her Massachusetts school.
“I struggled a lot in school with bullying because of it,” Chris said as she shared her anti-bullying message with Bowling Green Middle School students on Tuesday morning.
Her message: Bullying is surmountable by the victims, and stoppable by the aggressors.
The messenger in this case is not that far removed from her audience – being just 20 years old, still dotting the “I”s in her name with hearts, and asking all the students to join her in a giant selfie.
Shortly after getting her guitar, Chris said her bullying began. Her classmates would tell her that only boys can play guitars, that she would never be good enough, and never be pretty enough to succeed.
“It kind of crushed my spirit,” she told the 750 students from BGMS. “I heard this every single day from my classmates.”
The bullying was more than verbal.
“I would get body-checked against the lockers at school,” Chris said. And after school, the bullying on social media took over.
“I felt like I was always being targeted just for being a little different,” she said. “I was afraid of my classmates.”
Chris also became afraid of performing. So she buried herself in her music, which became her coping mechanism. Writing songs became her diary of the bullying she encountered.
“I channeled that anger to my music,” she said. “It was my way of having a voice.”
Chris was hoping for a fresh start in high school, but found that the rumors about her followed her to the new school. She joined the field hockey team, in hopes of making friends. But she soon found out the team captain told the players to not pass to the new girl, and the team’s Facebook page targeted her.
“None of them took the time to get to know me,” she said. “It crushed me inside.”
So Chris started singing her country music more, which then resulted in two girls telling her they could no longer be friends since they were embarrassed to be seen with Chris.
But Chris prevailed, graduated early with straight As, and started performing her music. She was the first country artist to be the Today show’s “Artist of the Month,” was named a 2018 Billboard Artist to Watch, and was one of Disney’s “Choose Kindness” faces for its anti-bullying campaign.
“As messed up as it might sound, I really am thankful” that she was bullied, Chris said. Being the victim of bullying taught her to be more sensitive toward others, she explained to the students. “It’s a huge part of who I am today.”
One regret Chris has is that she did not talk with her parents much about the bullying. “If you are going through something, find a parent or teacher you can trust.”
This week, Chris is visiting country radio stations in Ohio, so as customary with her tours, she makes side stops at middle schools to share her anti-bullying message.
She challenged the students to only post positive comments on social media about fellow students, and to make the simple effort of smiling at classmates.
Though Chris is a rising star in the country music world, the bullying of her youth still stings. A few of her former classmates have apologized to her for their treatment. Now that she is gaining fame, one classmate suggested they get together for lunch.
“She literally body slammed me against the lockers, so we’re not getting lunch,” she said.
Another former bully reached out to Chris recently. “She is not getting concert tickets,” she said.
Bowling Green Middle School Principal Eric Radabaugh said Chris delivered a message that students need to hear.
“Middle School is a tough age,” Radabaugh said. “I hope students think before they say something unkind, that they put themselves in the other person’s shoes.”