The thing I remember the most about starting school wasn't the excitement of stationery shopping or the jittery nerves of that last bedtime before school.
It was the worried look on my mum's face when she sat with me to tell me about bullies.
I had just turned 6 years old and, growing up surrounded by a loving family, had never had an experience with anyone making negative comments about my appearance. I'd always been made to feel just like everybody else - but mum knew other kids wouldn't see me the same way.
A stupid accident as a 3-year-old meant I had to wear glass eye in the huge gaping hole in my face where my real eye used to live. In the grand scheme of things, it's far from the worst disability you can have (in fact, it can be a great conversation starter). But to my young mum, in her 20s, it was the sudden realisation that other people - other children, in particular - would not be too kind to me about my difference.
Even today, 30 years later, I remember how nervous she was. She was a young mum who wanted to protect her child from the evils of the world but who realised she wasn't always going to be able to do that.
She had no clue what the right thing to do was but she took a shot at it. I had no clue what the right thing to do was so just went with what she'd said.
Her advice was one of the best, most empowering tools I've ever been given.
"If someone makes fun of you, don't show them it hurts you, join in on it. Don't attack them back, just join in, show you're not bothered by it, joke about it too, laugh along with them."
She was right. By never looking remotely offended, I took away their power. Whenever they pointed out my difference, I agreed, made some remark about it myself and laughed along with them. Suddenly, they had no clue what to do. My reaction was not what they'd expected and there they were, looking foolish and disarmed.
Suddenly, self-deprecation became my superpower. Each instance of bullying just made me more respected. It was another opportunity to show I was well above it all.
Of course I wasn't. I hated feeling different. I hadn't felt different before starting school because at home everyone made me feel normal. I wanted nothing more than to be boringly normal and not the subject of anyone's attention, much less negative attention from bullies.
It was the early 90s and we didn't even have the word "bully" but I knew the feeling of someone spending those extra few seconds staring at my face, as if to figure out what was wrong with it, and I grew up with the dread of PE classes, the sinking feeling in my stomach whenever a ball was being thrown in my direction and I knew only a stroke of luck would mean I'd catch it.
But to hell if I was going to let anyone see that.
One time, on the school bus during a trip to some museum, one of the kids who made fun of me got my usual "laugh along with them" reaction. They liked throwing things for me to catch because they knew I hardly ever caught them as I had no real depth perception with just one eye. He'd done that and I made some joke about it and we all laughed.
They can't laugh at you if you're laughing with them.
A couple of minutes later, he was sitting next to me, apologising me for having been a bit of an idiot and telling me I was "cool" (probably the first and only instance of me ever being seen as cool but there you have it, documented for posterity).
The reason I remember that particular instance is that, from that day onwards, that kid, who was a bully to pretty much everyone (and that's the thing about bullies, it's never personal, just against you, they're the common denominator, not you), started trying to defend me whenever someone tried a snarky comment. I never needed him to defend me but he decided to anyway, bless his bullying cotton socks.
I didn't have the perfect answer to the FAQ "where are you looking at?" but I had a handful of funny ones that meant they didn't know what to say next. None of my responses were an attack to them, I joined in on the "fun" of pointing out that my eye looked different and my face wasn't symmetric (because kids grow fast and artificial eyes aren't cheap). With each comeback, I silenced them. I could see them (out of my good eye, of course) looking defeated and regretting saying something in the first place.
And that's the thing: deep down, they didn't really know why they were being jerks in the first place.
Bullying is an expression of ignorance. These kids didn't know a goddamn thing. They didn't know that while they were playing with their toys, barbies or toy trucks or whatever the hell else they had, I was spending my time picking sewing needles off the carpet at home - one of the many exercises my family had me do to strengthen my eyesight. While they were just learning to draw inside the lines, I was having to train my one eye to know how far the damn piece of paper even was, trying to re-learn the depth perception I'd lost the day they took my eye out. They didn't know what it was like to see things in just two dimensions, to have to look at the stairs with extra care because all the steps looked as far away as each other. But most of all, they didn't know that they, too, were always just one slight misstep away from a stupid accident, from being the butt of the joke.
I don't get bullied now because I'm 35 years old and surround myself with some of the finest specimens of the human race, people who don't give two tenths of bugger all about what anyone looks like. But I remembered my mum's worried face this week, while mindlessly scrolling through Instagram, when someone I follow shared the cartoon below.
This, right here, is the formula that worked for me. It's not a perfect solution because perfect solutions only exist in a perfect world and perfect worlds don't have bullies. I know it won't work in every situation for every person but it might work for some and, for that, it's worth sharing.
Now, listen, I'm not looking for sympathy. Chocolate? Yes. Beer? Definitely. Sympathy? never.
In fact, I sometimes count myself lucky for having my prosthetic eye. It's a pain to keep clean and it means I look really awful in some pictures with half my face looking in a different direction than the other, but it also taught me resilience and it taught me that, despite what every magazine says, you're so much more than your looks.
I could have learned those things anyway but this definitely worked as a shortcut. On bad days, I still go full "woe is me" (and write stuff like this column) but, for the most part, my prosthetic is my superpower and, looking back (again, with my good eye), I can see it's always been a great tool to help filter out the idiots.
If you've got something someone mocks you for, join in. It'll disarm them and then at least you know exactly which people to stop wasting your energy on.