Bullying & Triggers

When Morality Rings a Bell.

How Diet Coke Became An Object of Fear...

Diet Coke cans and the bottle represent the teacher's ever-present diet coke. She struggled with weight issues. Her associated mental health issues - whatever they were - became a problem for many of us. They manifested in her targeting some of us for bullying.

Specifically, she seemed to have a special dislike for any of us she perceived as being overweight by her standards. She had her 'stomach stapled.' She could/would ONLY drink diet coke. She kept a cup and either a bottle or can of it at all times on her desk.

...and that led to diet coke to became a visual trigger to that part of the ongoing abuse of several of us. The teacher's weight issues played out in the classroom through bullying of us regarding our body sizes, shapes. I tried diets, exercise, starving myself to try to lose weight to get relief. A friend and I became 'bulimia buddies' - there were several others - and 'exercise buddies' for a time. But the bullying didn't lessen - even when my weight would fluctuate. But I didn't get targeted nearly as much as several of my classmates.

Jeanne Eckmann would call some of us children such words as fat, ugly, disgusting, gross...had told some of us girls that 'no man would want us' and 'you need someone to teach you how to be a girl!'....she would laugh...make fun of our clothes, socially exclude us from participation in the classroom, in co-curricular and extra-curricular activities based upon our body shape. She would encourage & rewards those who participated in the bullying.

I feel like others got treated far worse than I did but that is truly no comfort to a child.

For Tammy

One of the children, Tammy Chamberlain, was subjected to almost daily, ongoing, severe, organized bullying.

In an attempt to gain relief from the cruelty of ongoing abuse (by the teacher, and far too many others....) about her weight, her doctor approved a weight-loss drug for her. I knew what she was going through - and completely understood why she wanted to lose weight. I have always supported her Mom's attempt to help Tammy be less of a target.

She suffered a catastrophic reaction to that weight-loss drug, and died.

When she died, I could not bear to attend the funeral. It's truly a struggle to find words to describe the feelings of being there, watching that going on, and watching a teacher - someone we were supposed to be safe with - being the lead bully.


I honor her - and her family's pain and courageous journey forward. Her Mom was one of the school board members who tried to help her daughter - and all of us - and was tragically also sued.

I asked her Aunt Cathy if she'd like to offer her memories/comments. Her response:

'My wish for You and Tammy is that one day a Movie is made with the truth!!! My little niece did not Survive from the hands and sick mind of Jean Eckmann!!!"

I remember Tammy from our days playing softball….and for our time hiding in the bathroom…and the bullying she endured from others for her weight. I remember Tammy for how bravely she tried to face that school each day. She didn't live through the bullying.

Her death didn't seem to have an impact on the bullying by the teacher....and those who, like her, bullied others.

To survive that, I stopped thinking about it....but diet coke would remind me. Whether I wanted it to or not.

For many decades since those Hawthorn years, I have had an INTENSE physical reaction to the smell, taste, or even just being in the presence of diet coke. Triggers are like that.

This has since gotten much better, now that I recovered these memories and have faced them, painful as they are.

A classmate of mine went the other direction with this trigger and ONLY drank diet coke for decades, having a fear of water. I suspect it to be a direct result of suffering a humiliation regarding wanting water - which I am not able to recount here for several reasons - after which she would never drink water. The hydrophobia may have been a contributing factor to her death after working many long days in the hot midwestern heat.

My Mom responded in another direction to the Diet Coke traumas. She would only drink Pepsi - rarely anything else- during the day and up until her death from cancer when I was in college.

With trauma, one can never predict what becomes a trigger to releasing the traumatic memories into our present day lives...thereby affecting our behaviors and causing us to react.

"What are the consequences of bullying? You may have heard about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when it comes to sexual victimization or assault. PTSD can occur any time people feel they have no control over the way their pain is delivered. They live in fear, not knowing when they're going to be hurt. Kids who are constantly bullied and not protected will develop symptoms of PTSD -- constant anxiety, constant fear, idiosyncratic behaviors to compensate for those feelings. They'll fall behind in their development." Source: http://www.empoweringparents.com/The-Truth-About-Bullies.php?&key=Bullying

Trauma processing via prolonged exposure to the trigger helps remove these. Doing this work, thinking through this, collecting, handling the cans and bottle repeatedly over many months has released this trigger for me.


Inside the diet coke bottle is broken chalk. The chalk game was an ongoing series of abuses. One did not want to be the person who broke the chalk in her classroom. She'd have us line up at the back of the room. She'd ask a question. We'd run to the board. The first to answer it correctly without breaking the chalk 'won'....but if you broke the chalk, you'd bring in treats.

...and the treats were often used as a 'valid' reason to shame and humiliate us for what was brought, how they were divided up, passed out....how we ate, the way we served it.

There was NOTHING I enjoyed about the entire process. She seemed to target kids no matter the content that was brought, especially from some classmates who were from families in the lower socio-economic scale. Perhaps someone out there knows why she seemed to have an exceptional dislike of anyone who reminded her of poverty or class distinctions.

She had new boxes of chalk on her desk or the board nearly every day. I remember being very worried I'd get called on. Breaking the chalk in that classroom meant humiliation in front of the other kids....and I know my Mom struggled with worry about picking an item least likely to set her off on me.

The 'treats' were especially ironic considering that she was very rigid with her diet in the lunchroom and there would be often a big deal made out of her lunch. But the 'treats' were considered an exception for some reason, and were treated as 'high stakes'....

These behaviors have NO place in a classroom.

A person has a right to their own struggles about weight, body image, etc. A teacher in charge of children should NOT have the 'right' to bring this into their 'educational style.'

Keep in mind this is in the context of a classroom that was supposed to be about language arts.

One of the children from that time gave me this to share (used with permission...);

"Hi Heather,

Thank you for sharing this. I did not realize that your dad was on the board. This sparked some memories for me, but that is ok.

I remember the "chalk game" very well and remember being so afraid to break it. With any other teacher it actually would have been a fun game, but not with her. I remember how horrible she was to some of the students personally. I don't remember her saying anything direct to me but I know that I was so happy when I won the spelling bee contest she had. She humiliated people one by one as they got the words wrong, the victory of winning was that I didn't have to be insulted.

I hated going to her class. I was happy when I heard they were getting rid of her as a teacher. I thought, now she can no longer treat the students like that. But then I had anger when I heard it was becoming a case of she was fired for having a child out of wedlock. I knew that was not why.

I am so glad you are healing from this."

The only broken pieces of chalk in the piece are in the Diet Coke bottle; because when a piece broke, it felt like we would get consumed by her.

The other pieces of chalk are carefully placed, unbroken, throughout the piece.

The near-daily anxiety I felt about breaking a piece of chalk in that classroom was very damaging.

Other Bits

There are also more broken pencils, and red beads in various sizes.

Again, the colors of our school were green and white. I made the base for this sculpture green, a little white....with some black. I have a white ribbon running through here representing both the white of our school color, and childhood innocence stolen by the trauma of being a child in that school at that time.

There is a bit of a photo of Jill Eikenberry during filming of the movie.

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