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Surviving the pain of childhood bullying

By Shane Koyczan, Special to CNN
May 8, 2013 -- Updated 1141 GMT (1941 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Spoken word poet Shane Koyczan rediscovered his childhood journal
  • In the darkness of his childhood, he retained a sense of humor
  • His poem has been viewed more than 8 million times on YouTube
  • Koyczan: "If you can't see anything beautiful about yourself, get a better mirror"

Editor's note: Shane Koyczan is an award-winning Canadian poet, author and performer whose video "To This Day" has been viewed more than 8 million times on YouTube. He performed at the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics and has published three works of fiction: "Visiting Hours," "Stickboy" and "Our Deathbeds Will be Thirsty." He spoke at TED2013 in February. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- "To This Day" had a very small beginning. The poem itself was written in 2009 after rereading a series of notebooks I had written in as a child.

I'm fortunate enough to have a grandmother who never throws anything away, and one day, she returned a series of journals I had kept. I didn't pay any attention to them at first. I wondered what possible value could come from revisiting what I had already managed to survive.

One day, out of boredom, I picked up a journal and began reading it.

I was amazed to discover that in midst of all the darkness surrounding my childhood, there was a still a young boy with a sense of humor. After quickly consuming all of the other texts, I realized that I had been completely neglecting a large chapter of my life simply because I wanted to be done with the pain that I had associated with it.

Watch Shane Koyczan's TED Talk

Powerful bullying story goes viral

I wrote a series of pieces, all exploring my early life, and was not surprised to find that so many people were relating to the material.

There was a tremendous sense of agony as I prepared to perform the poems for the first time. I remember wondering why I was willfully about to put myself through these experiences again. It has been such a rewarding journey to rediscover a part of myself that I thought I had long discarded.

My band, Shane Koyczan and the Short Story Long, ended up rerecording "To This Day" for our 2011 album Remembrance Year. The poem quickly became a requested piece from our catalog at live performances, and each time there seemed to be a special silence from the audience.

Fans have often remarked that we were telling their story back to them with that piece. I get a lot of mail regarding poems that I've written, but the letters I get in response to this piece are easily the most heartrending.

There are people in the world whose endurance staggers me. There are stories that test our hearts. They stretch us out into empathy, and all we can do is feel for these strangers who in an instant feel like family.

In 2012, I lent my voice to a project developed by Giant Ant studio for the Dalai Lama Center and their Educate the Heart campaign. The team at Giant Ant were great work partners, and they offered to lend me their services for a project down the road. It didn't take long to pick a project: "To This Day" was a piece I was wanting to do something special with for a long time.

Giant Ant put together an animated video call out to other animators and the response we got was overwhelming.

The team did an incredible job of threading the animations together to create the finished video. Language fails me in my gratitude for everyone who helped bring this project to life.

From "To This Day":

... if you can't see anything beautiful about yourself

get a better mirror

look a little closer

stare a little longer

because 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

and signed it yourself

you signed it

"they were wrong"

because maybe you didn't belong to a group or a 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 a highway

and if in some way we are

don't worry

we only got out to walk and get gas

we are graduating members from the class of

f--- off 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 ...

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Shane Koyczan.

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