One day, when my stepson was ten years old, he arrived home from school in tears. When I asked him what was wrong, he told me that some older kids at school had cornered him, mocked him, beat him up, and called him a “fag”. One of them spit into his mouth. Why? Because he wore glasses. In telling me this story, my stepson seemed angry, not so much at the boys who had tormented him, but at himself. He referred to himself as “stupid” and “ugly”. And this is what bullying does: it shatters the confidence of children before they have even had a chance to fully develop it. Being so malleable and emotionally fragile at that age, they believe what they are told by their peers if they hear it often enough. Childhood is a minefield fraught with insecurity and uncertainty. We don’t yet know who we are destined to become, or even how best to get there. Torment we might laugh off in ten years’ time sticks with us, infects us like a cancer, and changes us. And in the most tragic of cases, it can lead to the terrible, panicked decision to take our own lives because it seems like the only escape from the hurt.
When I offered to have a word with my stepson’s teacher, he begged me not to, for fear that it would only make things worse, that he’d be labeled a “snitch” or a “rat” and have to endure the consequent reprisal from his tormentors. So I said nothing, until it happened again, after which I called his teacher and informed her of the situation, but implored her not to let on that I had said anything at all. So she kept an eye on things, caught the bullies in the act and sent them to the principal’s office, where they were dealt punishment deemed appropriate for the situation.
They made them all apologize and shake hands with my stepson.
This is what we’re doing to curb bullying. Forcing them to act like civilized human beings when clearly this is not in their nature. And when a student does the unimaginable and takes his or her life, we’re shocked and for a few weeks or months we’re all about the changes that need to be made. And nothing happens. But it’s not fair to blame the teachers. They have enough to deal with, are underpaid, underappreciated, and in most cases, not trained to deal with such issues. So who do we blame then? The parents? Perhaps, but that’s too easy. A lot of these bullies are perfect angels at home which makes it inconceivable when the bullying is brought to light. Some of the time these children become bullies as a reaction to how they are treated at home. Perhaps there’s physical or mental abuse. How do you not blame the parents in such circumstances? Well, you have to ask yourself how the parents were raised. What did they endure that made them the way they are? And so it goes, around and around and around with fingers being pointed left, right, and center, and while we argue and debate and the media exploits the tragedy for its own ratings, some poor innocent child occupies an early grave.
But suicide is not the only way for children to deal with being bullied.
Some, natural survivors, endure, or fight back, or ignore it entirely, and dedicate themselves to just coming out the other end of the gauntlet with minimal scarring. These are the fortunate ones.
Others decide to take revenge.
An ex-girlfriend of mine once told me about the bullying she and her best friend endured all throughout high school. Labeled “dykes” because of their close friendship, they were, on a daily basis, for years, thrown into lockers, spat at, pelted with ice cubes, and other sundry abuses. On the few occasions in which the teachers intervened, it was to berate them for the same reason the other students did: they were so close and similarly dressed, they were obviously homosexual. It escalated to the point where the two girls, jokingly, began to fantasize about putting rat poison into the food in the cafeteria and killing all the students. Another option they considered was blowing up the school. The fantasy was something they talked about regularly and it served as a form of catharsis. It helped. They never seriously thought about acting on it.
This was twenty years ago. How many school shootings have we seen since then in which it was later revealed that the students were outcasts, or had been bullied? Two decades ago, for my ex-girlfriend and her best friend, there wasn’t a precedent for school massacres, so the mere idea of it was obviously so far-fetched it could never come to fruition. Nor had they been pushed quite to the point where their frustration had made them homicidal. There is a serious precedent for such things now.
The best, if imperfect, solution is counseling and education. Classes for teachers, parents, and students, on how best to cope with bullying can help prepare us for such things. But again, that requires staffing, training, funding, and in the government’s eyes, in this time of economic strife and war, having our children, our hope of a better future, protected in our schools, is a low priority on a very long list.
But for all the bad, there will always be good. There are organizations that do not just exist as billboards, that strive and work tirelessly for change and heightened awareness of this escalating problem. I would direct you to the documentary Bully, which is heartbreaking and important, and the associated organization The Bully Project, to which I donate and continue to support. According to the statistics posted on their site, “over thirteen million American kids will be bullied this year”. That’s a horrifying number, but you know what? There are more of us, and if you can help, you should.
Talk to your sons and daughters about bullying. Be aware of their behavior. The slightest change could indicate a problem. And most importantly: listen.
Our children are our saviors.
Let’s be theirs.
If you are a victim of bullying, talk to someone. Being a victim does not make you weak; it makes the bully weak. There is no shame in seeking help. Sooner or later, we all need it, and there is always someone willing to listen. Remember…there are more of us than them.