The Real Bullies
Hope Witsell. Phoebe Prince. Tyler Clementi. It seems like every day another name is added to the list, another bullied kid who took his or her own life. A lot of blame, falls naturally to the bullies. They harass, they harass and they harass, and eventually, some of their victims break.
But the truth is, kids are kids. They're stupid. They're callous. They're short-sighted and off-the-wall. We've all been there. We all remember when we laughed at hugely inappropriate things, thought adults were making a big deal out of nothing, and did idiotic things to impress our peers. We still do these things now that we're older, even if it’s less often, even if we now know better.
Of course, nearly all of us also know what it's like to be bullied. Throughout elementary school and intermediate school, I was a frequent target of bullying.
I was chubby and imaginative, with little impulse control, which made me stand out like a giraffe in a herd of meerkats. I used to pretend the backs of the seats on the school bus were football fields, and my fingers were football players, running down and tackling each other. Football's cool, I thought. But some kid mashing his hands together the whole bus ride making crunching sounds decidedly is not.
I couldn't understand why kids made fun of me. It was frustrating, because my parents always taught me that if you're nice to others, they'll be nice to you. But this wasn't the case. I never got beat up, but the verbal abuse and shunning I got was painful for a kid who just longed to be accepted.
But I learned something very important during those years. Teachers and administrators don't give a damn.
I reported my harassment dozens of times (you can imagine how popular this made me) but the most that ever happened was the two of us, bully and me, getting called into an office and being forced to agree to be friends. Of course, the bully would say he was sorry. But seconds out of the office, he'd whisper that I was dead. Talking got nowhere.
No one took me seriously, I began to think. No one knew how bad it really was. How could I let them know how serious it was? What was the most serious thing I could do?
I threatened suicide. Was I serious about it? At times, I thought I was. I just saw the small space around me, filled with misery. Suicide seemed like the only escape.
But the primary goal of the threat was to alert the adults to how serious I thought the teasing was. That it needed to be dealt with harshly... or else.
I didn't get the response I expected. Instead, teachers and administrators made it clear that there was something very wrong... with me. Thinking about suicide made me a supremely messed up young person. Like Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted. I needed help, counseling. I was the one who needed to be changed. I was broken, maybe irrevocably.
Hope Witsell, for instance, was forced to sign an "Anti-Suicide Pledge."
This did nothing to dissuade me from suicide. In fact, it reinforced the fact that suicide was the only thing that could be done. We didn't have Google back then, but I'm pretty sure it was the moment when I would have looked up "How To Commit Suicide." The biggest threat I could think of hadn't convinced adults to take the bullying seriously. Instead, it had convinced them that I was the one that needed correcting. I started to think... maybe they were right.
The thing is... they were. In a way. There was nothing wrong with me being chubby, or imaginative, or a dreamer, or an oddball. But I was ill-equipped to deal with the repercussions of being those things.
I didn't know how to brush off an insult, or respond with something witty. I didn't know what I know now: that bullying is actually a natural human response to strange, odd, different, social behavior. I thought that people just decided one day to attack me. And if someone told me it was my own damn fault... well, that would have made me even more depressed.
The reactions of my teachers and counselors may have been right from an adult perspective, but as a kid, those reactions crushed me. Nobody cared.
I suspect that's how Tyler, and Phoebe and Hope felt. Nobody cared. What I needed was someone who truly cared, truly understood. Someone who would unmask the bullies and leave them as humiliated and defeated as I was. I needed a white knight. I needed an avenger. Today, I see the inherent problems with this approach, but at the time, it made sense. I needed someone to teach the bullies a lesson.
Of course, no one did. I transferred schools in 8th grade, a solution which Phoebe Prince tried in a similar fashion. Fortunately for me, there was a kid there far worse off than I was.
I came into my new school very careful, trying not to make waves. And in my reserved state, I observed. There was this one kid, I'll call him Stuart, who always seemed to get laughed at, and not in a good way. And I recognized a lot of the things that I did myself-- the daydreaming, the singing to himself, the constant calls for the teacher's attention.
One time, we were in gym class, playing kickball. Some kids were goofing off, laughing. A ball bounced away, and landed near Stuart. I saw him get upset. I knew what he was thinking. He'd been daydreaming, and not paying attention. But then he heard the laughter, he saw the ball almost hit him. Someone, clearly, was aiming to hit him, humiliate him.
He flipped out at ME.
He chucked the ball in my direction, he missed. He picked up the kickball base and flung it at me, it fluttered harmlessly to the floor. He yelled at me and stormed off, tears in his eyes.
Then the laughter really started. I found myself bewildered, but joining in. The kid was crazy.
But I stopped myself. That was me, I thought. I remembered a gym class not so long before, where a ball had hit me in the head. Maybe it was on purpose. But my reaction… storming up to the kid I THOUGHT had done it, and giving him a meek punch in the stomach, hadn't done anything but invite more laughter, more humiliation. I finally got what my parents had said about "just ignoring it." My reaction poured fuel on the fire. In this case, Stuart's reaction had started the fire.
This was a lesson I couldn't learn from anybody. I had to learn it myself. From watching even dorkier kids like Stuart. No adult could make that lesson stick in.
They shouldn't have tried. Because the only way to beat bullies is to outlast them. To grow and mature to the point where you can see what bullying really is... a defense against the threat of someone different. No words can force someone to arrive at that realization (my parents tried the tactic of telling me that they themselves were bullied, but that just convinced my young self that being a loser was genetic). In my case, I gained perspective by switching schools. Others get it by moving onto college, going to a new town, going to camp, traveling abroad, joining a youth group, playing on a sports team, joining model UN, acting in a theater group.
And sometimes, it takes more than one of these things to expand someone's view of the world. Phoebe may have switched continents, but she was still stuck in high school, still stuck in the same patterns that had defined her life back in Ireland. She never got to a place where she could get perspective.
Growing up means moving out of your tiny sphere of a world into the much larger one, and only then do you begin to realize that every single person in the whole damn world's been called a slut at one time or another, and the word "slut" itself is just an uncreative way to announce a bully's own jealousy or prudishness. Don't at least some of us want to scream at Phoebe: "Come on! They're just mad because you slept with their boyfriend! They're nothing! They're specks!" But to Phoebe, they were the only thing she could see.
Bullying loses its effect once you can see it as a tiny grain in the hourglass of life, something that will slip through to the bottom of our minds at sometime in the future, kept as a painful memory but also an important reminder to treat others with humility and respect.
Once your world is larger, you begin to realize the biggest bully was yourself, because only you made you believe there wasn't anything worth living for outside acceptance from a stupid, immature clique of people who had horrible insecurities and problems of their own.
Tyler didn't kill himself because he was filmed with a guy in his bedroom. He killed himself because he couldn't see that being filmed with a guy in his bedroom wasn't the end of the world. Homophobes would judge him, some immature people would laugh. If he could see beyond them, he'd see that nobody else would care about some stupid video some stupid kids made.
So what can parents do? Or teachers? Or counselors? They can't tell a kid the truth, but they can help open up a kid's world so that child can experience it for his or herself. They can do their best to show kids how beautiful and wonderfully wide the world is. That there's more to the world than the mean kids within a 5 mile radius. They can help a bullied girl discover that most people in her city, state, country don't think that she's a slut... and neither do the billions of other people in the world.
They need to show a kid another escape route. Often, it can be inside the school, among a group that embraces the differences others ridicule. In some cases, it may take going a little further. It's not running away from problems... it's giving kids the space to realize that they're actually not huge problems. "Slut!" "Homo!" "Look at her titties!" are not huge problems. Feeling like there's nothing else out there... that is.
Shut a kid in a building with tormentors, they will think that's all there is. Raise them up above the fray, and they can see for miles.