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Persevering through bullying

Emily Kjonaas and her Shih Tzu dog, Weasley, at the World's Largest Buffalo in Jamestown. (John M. Steiner/The Sun)

FARGO — The ugliness of bullying hasn’t stopped Emily Kjonaas from seeing beauty in people.

The 23-year-old who shared her bullying story in 2012 in The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead now works at the North Dakota State Hospital in Jamestown, where she hopes to make a difference in peoples’ lives.

“Individuals who go to the hospital need a lot of compassion and help. I know that this population can be looked down upon, but they don’t deserve to be looked down upon,” Kjonaas said. “I knew that these people needed someone to advocate for them, to care for them, to respect them as individuals and not as something else.”

She knows what it’s like to be mistreated. Growing up in Moorhead, Minn., she was constantly bullied in middle school for her appearance. Classmates called her “Godzilla” and spit on her locker. Some threw garbage, rocks, ice and snow at her. The bullying was so severe that as a teenager, Kjonaas spent time in psychiatric units and contemplated suicide.

But still, she forgave the people who’d harassed her. She took the microphone at a ninth-grade school retreat and thanked her classmates for making her a better person as a result of the bullying. After her story ran in The Forum, several former classmates apologized to Kjonaas for their actions in middle school.

“It made me feel, in a way, very loved to know they didn’t hate me. But, a long time ago, I forgave them without them telling me that,” she said. “It was a form of closure, but I hope it was better for them to apologize than for me to accept their apologies. I learned that some of the kids who bullied me grew up in not-so-great families, and in a way, I can see why they bullied me. Does it make it OK? No, it doesn’t, but looking back, I understand more of why.”

Strangers, too, have stopped Kjonaas in public. They thank her for being brave and sharing her story.

“People who’ve been bullied have come to me and said, ‘When I read your story, I read mine,’ “ she said. “It feels more weird than anything that people could see my story and have hope. I’m glad I’ve given people hope.”

One of Kjonaas’ middle school teachers gave her hope. Wayne Ingersoll, an English teacher who retired from Moorhead Area Public Schools in 2004, provided a safe place for Kjonaas when the hallways were too dangerous and the principal’s office seemed pointless.

“He was able to let me know that someone cared, and especially someone in authority cared,” she said. “I could go to his room and know that it was a safe place. I’d go home and cry myself to sleep, and I’d hate waking up in the morning because I knew what school was and that I felt more in danger there than I should’ve. In that little dangerous area, if I could have one room, Wayne’s room, to be secure, then that’s what got me going to school most days.”

In his 28-year career as a teacher, Ingersoll said he saw “a lot more bullying than people think there is.”

“Just walking by somebody and saying something unkind, that’s an example of bullying. That’s always happened, and I’m afraid it always will,” he said.

Kjonaas agrees that bullying will continue, but she hopes to be an advocate for anyone experiencing it. She spoke to a group of seventh-graders at Moorhead’s Horizon Middle School last fall and remembers how emotional the teens were during her talk.

“Knowing that I could go there and maybe even change one person there… it gives them something to think about,” she says. “I enjoyed being the voice for a population that’s usually voiceless.”

Today, Kjonaas said her life’s better than ever. She’s excited about her career at the State Hospital and recently adopted a Shih Tzu puppy named Weasley (after the Harry Potter book series character Ron Weasley).

“He’s my little sweetheart. He makes my apartment feel more alive,” Kjonaas said.

She’s still shy and often waits to be spoken to before starting a conversation, but she’s learning to stand up for herself and others.

“I’m able to take things and be an adult about it,” Kjonaas said. “I see myself standing up for other people more than myself.”

The bullying isn’t totally gone — she occasionally hears unkind remarks about her appearance — but she speaks up and lets people know she doesn’t appreciate their comments.

“Every now and then, I fear that something will pop up, but I know better now how to work through all of that,” she said. “I haven’t been truly clinically depressed since early high school. I haven’t had anything major happen, so I think that period of my life is over.”

Anna G. Larson

Anna G. Larson is a features reporter with The Forum who writes a weekly column featuring stylish people in Fargo-Moorhead. Larson graduated from North Dakota State University with a degree in journalism and joined The Forum in July 2012. She's a Fargo native who enjoys travel, food, baking, fashion, animals, coffee and all things Midwestern. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter: @msannagrace 

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