The COVID-19 pandemic actually provided a respite for Jahkil Jackson, a South Side teenager dealing with bullying.
“I remember the exact day when I found out that I was going to be out for two weeks” — that’s how long his school initially said it would be — “because of COVID,” says Jahkil, 13. “And I remember being depressed and feeling sad because of what was happening at school.
“Then, we went into quarantine. [The bullying] stopped because COVID was happening and me not being able to be at school. It wasn’t like they made a change to who they are.”
A lot of kids being bullied try to just ride it out. Some tell their parents or someone at school. Some try to fight their tormentors.
Jahkil decided to write about what he was going through and how it makes him feel and now has a book, “I AM” ($12.99) that he hopes helps others going through the same things.
“I wanted to write it because I want to help other young people who are going through something similar that I went through in sixth and seventh grade, from bullying to teasing,” he says. “It was tough for a couple of years for me, so I wanted to help other young people not get to that stage of depression or wanting to hurt themselves.”
He coped by imagining a “trophy” he earned for his charity work, and focusing on it to block out distractions. “It didn’t actually come alive in real life, but it’s kind of like the trophies came on. It helped me throughout my journey.”
Studies have found that bullied students are nearly twice as likely to attempt suicide and often become depressed and anxious and see their grades in school fall.
“Sixth grade is when it got heavy,” Jahkil says. “When I started having depression, quarantine happened right on time. Not saying that I wanted it to happen — I don’t wish quarantine or COVID on anyone at all. But I think that it helped me because it made me rethink some things.
“My parents knew about everything while it was happening. I always told them. There were situations where I didn’t tell them because I felt embarrassed, or they would say something. They knew about the serious things that were happening — like the death threats.”
Even before writing the book, Jahkil was becoming known for having started the not-for-profit Project I AM, through which he puts together and passes out “Blessing Bags” to people who are homeless — packed with socks, toiletries, hand sanitizer, deodorant, granola bars, toothbrushes, toothpaste and bottled water. Before the pandemic, he was giving them out at shelters and viaducts across the city. He says he’s given away more than 50,000 bags since he started in 2016.
“It was an experience I had when I was about 5 years old, when I went to feed the homeless with my aunt and my cousin,” Jahkil says of how he got the idea. “This was my first real experience with the homeless. I saw how they lived, how they ate, how they slept. And I really didn’t understand. I thought that everybody had homes.”
In 2017, President Barack Obama tweeted about Jahkil. In 2018, Jahkil was honored at Gov. Bruce Rauner’s Difference Makers Awards. In 2019, Marvel made a comic book about him and profiled him on its Disney+ series “Marvel Hero Project,” and CNN cited him as one of the year’s heroes.
He’s a big NBA fan. What he likes best about his favorite players — LeBron James and Stephen Curry — is their commitment to social justice.
Every year, Jahkil says he makes a “goal list.” On his list now:
- Writing a book.
- Hosting a TED talk.
- Making more “Blessing Bags.”
- Getting into a good high school.
- Giving advice to kids and teenagers dealing with bullying.
“I want kids to realize their self-worth and realize that they don’t have to listen to anything negative that other people have to say about them,” he says. “When it comes to something positive, maybe you can listen to that. But anything that doesn’t have their best interest or is negative, they don’t have to listen to it and let it get to them.”