“To this day, I cannot eat in a cafeteria by myself,” she said.
But she managed to turn her painful adolescent memories into a successful career leading the federal government’s campaign against bullying. At 26, she coordinates a federal effort that spans nine departments and 32 offices.
Her rapid success has put her in the running for a Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal for outstanding public service.
She is one of 33 finalists, nine of whom will be awarded medals by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service in the fall.
In the years since she was teased and taunted, she has dedicated herself to trying to understand the roots of bullying and to help schools find effective strategies to stop it.
Looking back, she said, “I don’t blame the other kids. I blame the school a lot more. . . . The school let it happen, and it just grew in magnitude.”
Despite repeated complaints from Temkin and her parents, the administrators’ interventions led only to more retaliation and isolation, she recalled.
In ninth grade, her parents enrolled her in a private school, where she got a fresh start. She went on to Vassar College and then graduate school at Pennsylvania State University, where she studied education policy and human development and focused her research on bullying.
Her career break came at an international bullying-prevention conference in Pittsburgh, where she heard Kevin Jennings, then assistant deputy secretary for the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools in the Education Department, speak about elevating the role of social and emotional health and school climate in education reform.
Jennings, a civil rights and gay rights activist, had been hired to step up the government’s efforts in combating bullying. But he had little time to devote to the issue in a job that included responding to school shootings, drug and alcohol abuse, and an H1N1 flu outbreak.
So he was intrigued when Temkin introduced herself after his speech that day, told him about her research and said, “Let me help you achieve your goals.”
A few months later, Temkin started working for the Education Department as an unpaid intern. She moved to Washington in May 2010 and was put in charge of organizing the first federal bullying-prevention summit that August, which brought together 150 people, mostly government and nonprofit-group leaders, to organize a response. The third annual summit was held this week in Washington.
By September 2010, instead of returning to graduate school, she moved into a staff position as the first-ever federal employee devoted to bullying prevention.