I was walking home from school one day in fourth grade– because, back in my day, kids did things like that. It was just under a mile, and it was spring. I know this because I had holes in my tennis shoes, where my toes were peeking out. As I walked, my too-big socks started working their merry way out of the holes, slogging into puddles and weighing me down. The biggest problem here was by the time I noticed what was happening, there was nothing I could do to fix it– I couldn’t very well pull my socks back up, because then my feet would be soaked. And I also couldn’t stop and take my shoes off, because then my big toes would be exposed to the puddles without ANYTHING acting as a barrier. So I just kept walking.
Plus, there was a gang of boys behind me calling me names. Couldn’t very well stop and let them catch up. So I just kept walking.
They were big boys– sixth graders– and I have no idea why they decided to pick on me. I guess, because we walked the same route home, I was littler than them, and there was no one around to stop it.
This went on for weeks. Me walking home, trying to ignore my falling apart shoes or too-thin jacket, and the boys calling me names– offering up judgments on my house, my clothing, my hair (really?), my parents, my dog– probably whatever they could think of– and all things were completely out of my control. My very presence on their walk home offended them.
One day, after months of this, one of them picked up a chunk of snow from the curb and threw it at me. It didn’t hit me, but this act of violence sent me into a whole new realm of disbelief and just plain pissed off.
I turned around and took off my backpack.
“Okay.” I said, and put up my fists. “Let’s do this then.”
I had never been in a fight before, unless you count small tussles with my older brother, which I don’t, and had no idea how to throw a punch or defend myself. But it’s not like me to run away, and I knew that if I had kept walking then, the next day the snowball would have been a rock. The next day would have been me getting tripped. The next day would have been a shove towards the busy street.
These days, I would probably never advocate violence. But my understanding of bullying is that there is an exchange of social power from victim to attacker– and for what? Because they were bigger than me? Because there were four of them? Because they were boys?
No. I was taking my power back.
This weekend, I read this article. And it broke my heart.
It’s five pages long, so I will gloss over some of the highlights for you: in Anoka, Minnesota (Michelle Bachmann’s district), there has been a rash of suicides due to bullying. Most of the suicides are attributed to students who have been bullied for being– or for being assumed to be– gay. Many students have sought help from teachers or administrators, but there is a district policy that keeps school faculty from being able to discuss sexual orientation in any context or situation. They aren’t allowed to indicate their personal opinions on sexual orientation– so, for example, if a student is called a Fag, a teacher can’t necessarily say that it’s wrong. Because that would be offering an opinion.
Oh, oh internet. The anger leaping out of me right now.
A few things:
1) The article doesn’t discuss many teacher complaints to this policy. I’m sure that the faculty is scared of losing their jobs, and as an out of work teacher myself I can certainly feel their pain. However– I cannot believe that no one went to a principal or superintendent, or their union director, or someone– and mentioned how this policy was tying their hands when it came to bullying and defending students who were being victimized.
2) Where the hell are these people’s parents?
I love my daughter more than life, but if she ever started a facebook group about how much she ‘hated’ someone, I would be so, so ashamed of her. In fact, even if she COMMENTED on that facebook page about hating someone for being gay, or black, or because they weren’t dressed the right way, or whatever– I would be making it rain in this house.
I asked this question on facebook, and a lot of my friends commented that the bully’s parents probably tend to be bullies themselves. I wondered if that was true– and then realized that of course it was. I’ve been bullied MUCH more often as an adult than as a child, but it’s a different kind of bullying. It’s more covert, it’s *generally* not violent– but it’s still there. The exchange of power from victim to attacker– the difference is, of course, at least for me, is that I don’t really put up with that kind of thing. I tried to pinpoint why– why as adults when we are bullied or confronted we’re so much more likely to stand up for ourselves, and I realized that it’s not necessarily a question of physical strength or size, but more the feeling that we have our own power, and we don’t need to let other people take it in order to keep ourselves safe.
Look, this isn’t really an argument about gay rights– even though I think we all know how I feel about that particular issue. I don’t care if you agree with a homosexual lifestyle or not– these are little kids. They are literally ending their lives because OTHER kids are allowed to humiliate and degrade them until they don’t feel like people anymore. And what’s going to happen to those other kids– the bullies? What happens when they grow up and look around and realize that they contributed to someone shooting themselves in the head?
That day on my walk home, when I turned around to put up a fight, the boys backed down. Three of them looked at their ring leader, and he stood there, dumbfounded. There was a long awkward pause until he finally said, “Forget it.” And walked away. They never picked on me again. And, in fact, in high school I worked at the same telemarketing company as two of those same boys. When one of the other workers said something mean about me– I believe it was a comment about my army jacket– the ringleader looked at him and shook his head.
“You don’t want to mess with her.” He said simply, and we all went on with our lives.
Like I said– I don’t necessarily advocate violence. Sometimes I think it only worked for me that day because of a total fluke. But it’s not really about the threat of violence– obviously they could have mopped the floor with me– it was the realization that they weren’t getting anywhere. I was shocked by their violence– but not scared.
If these kids– ALL kids– felt powerful, I don’t think there would be bullying. The kids getting bullied at home wouldn’t turn into bullies, and the kids being bullied at school would feel like they could stop it– or, at least, find a way to get through it.
Once when I was going through a hard time in college, I sought help from one of my favorite professors. Because all the students were adults, there wasn’t really much he could do. So he told me, essentially, to fake it.
“Tomorrow is going to be pretty bad.” He said, “And the next day won’t be much better. Keep your head high, and ignore them– even if you can’t think of a single thing to be happy about. The days will pass, they turn to weeks, to months, to years– you won’t know any of these people in five years. Don’t let these few days dictate what you become.”
I don’t know if I’ve said anything helpful. I think I hate waste more than anything– and suicide is waste, pure and simple. We can’t let the bullies win, guys. Make it through, find a way.
And parents. Wake up. Open your eyes, and get involved. If a kid says your kid is a bully, they probably are, and even if they aren’t it won’t hurt you to find out for sure. PUNISH YOUR CHILD. MANAGE THEIR BEHAVIOR. If your kid says they’re being bullied, for God sake, do something about it. Do something drastic. Take the power back for your child, who will call you their hero for the rest of their life.
And don’t anyone come near my daughter. You don’t want to mess with me.