With the tragedy at Rutgers so fresh in all of our minds, the issue of bullying has been again pushed to the forefront of public discussion. Topics like cyber-bullying, internet privacy, negative influences of the media and lack of parental involvement become common buzzwords, while serious and honest conversation is overlooked in favor of hopping on any of the various bandwagons of blame. We as a society need to be having the hard talks, the ones that go beyond often empty and overly simplistic concepts of good and bad, right and wrong, tactics of blame and punishment. We need to cut to the core of the serious emotional issues at stake, and above all, teach our children and fellow human beings to treat others with respect, empathy, and compassion.
For those that say bullying is not a problem, or that it is just a matter of "kids being kids," I must wholeheartedly disagree. Sure, kids are always going to engage in some form of pack mentality. There are always going to be schoolyard disagreements, occasional taunting, or pranks and practical jokes. This is normal, and not likely to change. This is also not bullying. Bullying is all of these instances taken to an extreme degree. A bullied child is not the one-time wearer of a "kick me" sign, they are tormented mercilessly from the time the get to school until the time they get home. If technology comes into play, this can even be 24 hours a day. Bullied children can be ridiculed, insulted, hit, pushed, and shoved, the torments are many but the feelings that result are almost always the same: shame, anger, sadness, hopelessness, despair.
Bullying is abuse, usually verbal, and oftentimes physical as well. If a married woman was constantly insulted by her husband day in and day out, called fat, ugly, stupid, good-for-nothing, a whore, most adults in their right mind would counsel her to leave him. Especially if he began stealing or destroying her possessions, throwing objects at her, mushing food into her clothing and hair. Even more so if he started to shove her into walls, slap at her and hit her. Even a court of law would find these appropriate and acceptable grounds for divorce. So why do we tell the abused woman that she doesn't have to take it, yet calmly push our children out the door and into the exact same treatment? The only difference in the situation is that an adult abuser should be held to a higher standard than a child bully in terms of consequences for their behavior. For the abused, whether adult or child, there is no difference. It hurts the same. We should afford our children the same standard of basic human decency that we claim for ourselves. Fair treatment, and freedom from physical and emotional harm is not a right to be earned, but something that all people should be able to expect
Just as any other form of abuse, bullying has severe and often long-lasting emotional consequences. Anxiety, depression, self-abuse and mutilation, substance abuse, promiscuity, or just generally "acting out" are all common effects of bullying. Often these symptoms will not manifest until years down the road, when a lifetime of negative self-image is combined with outside pressure to succeed and find one's way in the world. The problem is usually addressed only on an individual, often internal level. Healing from the wounds of early childhood has become private battle to to be won, that is until the Tyler Clementi's and Dylan Kliebold's force us as a society to take a collective look at what is happening in schools across the nation.
So what do we do about bullying? For starters, we need to stop hiding the uncomfortable truth and be honest. The more people that come forward to share their experiences, the more we can see the human face behind the buzzwords. The power of story can do amazing things for a culture. Stories teach us to be empathetic beings, and how to look at the world through the eyes of another. We also need to move the dialogue away from finger-pointing and the blame-game. We need to talk about emotions, for that is what is at stake. We also need to foster respect, tolerance, and compassion for one another, and that includes the bullies as well as the bullied. We need to stop sitting idly by and contenting ourselves that sooner or later the kids will outgrow it. The behavior they will outgrow, but the emotional scars will be carried for a lifetime.
Following the brave example of Single Dad Laughing, I have decided to share my own story, which is strikingly similar. I'll try to keep it brief, since I think I've worn holes in my soapbox by now, but no promises.
I was a bullied kid. For all the usual reasons, meaning no good reason at all. I wore glasses. My nose was too big. I was too, short, too skinny. I was a bookworm, which after a while came to be my only comfort, the only way I could disappear from the misery I was living. I was depressed, lonely, angry, and alone. I cried every day, often more than once. I used to pray that I would maybe someday grow up to look...normal. Just normal, not the hideous creature I thought I was. The bullying stopped when I went to high school. I was in a new school, with only a few of the kids from my elementary and middle, and by this time they just didn't care about me anymore. Yet I was hurting so much inside that I became a complete loner. Like Single Dad, if anyone asked me out, I thought they were making fun of me. I had a few friends, but wouldn't talk to them during school because I thought they didn't want to be seen talking to me. I did get over it eventually. I'm a relatively well adjusted adult now (I hope!), but like Single Dad, I never shared my story, not even my fiancee. Sure, I've told him that I was a bit shy in high school, that I was kind of artsy and didn't date or go to parties much. I've told him I didn't really like school, without saying why. But I never told him how I hid in the bathroom, the library, or the nurses office during lunch period for three years of high school, because I was afraid the lunchroom torture would start up again. I didn't tell him that I would cry myself to sleep because I thought I'd never be able to get married and have children someday because I thought no one could ever love me. I didn't tell him that if I had to sum up my childhood in one word, it would be "lonely."
The following is a quick excerpt from my memoir, which was the hardest thing I've ever written. It's not about anything really, except for how I felt through almost all my school years. I could only get it out in third person, and I've never had the guts to share any of it. The photo is a self portrait I did in high school for art class. I remember that when I drew it, I was hoping someone would be able to see the torrent of emotions raging inside me, because I didn't know any other way to let it out.
She wants to impose a little order on an inorderable jumble of real and forgotten memory. Shades of the past colored in pink tears, threadbare but cozy reading chairs. The feel of the floor vent whooshing blessed heat onto her chilled toes and up her legs, fluffing out her cotton nightgown, her silhouette like an undulating over-puffed marshmallow. She would later come to characterize that part of her childhood as abject loneliness dotted with flashes of color. Bright, happy moments, gleaming through the rest of the drab with a vivid transculence ready to betray the flat gray background lurking beneath. It was a backdrop of muted tones and worn threads. A thrift-store armchair, a car seat smelling of wet dog if you fell asleep with your face mushed against it. Cold morning air, rising before dawn. Alone, while the rest of the house sleeps. Brushing her tangled hair, crying into her peanut butter and banana toast. Stealing ten minutes to read before the bus. Losing her shoes, furiously thundering through the house in frantic search, her parents yelling, some people don’t need to be up so early and should be allowed to lie in. On the way to the bus, crying again, in anticipation of the insults that may or may not fling themselves her way that day. On the bus, reading again. Pause for tear. Pause for hope that today will hurry up and end itself, so she can go ahead and get back to her favorite book, armchair, heat vent, pink attic bedroom. Staring out the window, houses, driveways, bushes, sidewalks all colored the same dull grayish green whiz past or trickle like slow bitter honey around the cold metal window frame. The ride is interminably long, an hour crammed into the clammy vinyl seat. Mouth filling with saliva, she finds herself unable to swallow, motion-sickness due no doubt to the books she can’t seem to stop reading even though she knows it makes her stomach churn. It goes by too slow, but at the same time much too fast, blink and it’s over and she will be there, forced to face the day and its assorted cruelties. Blink and its over, blink and its just begun.
One day she wakes up on the bus. She has dozed off, face numb from the cold window imprinting itself into her cheek. She can’t remember what is for homework. Can’t remember, can’t jar it into focus. She tries to picture the chalkboard, the assignment written on it, the teacher’s nasal voice saying “Nowwww classs, your assignment is…” Nothing. Empty. Why is it all gone, where is the day? Look out the window again, trees, houses, cars, a fence, a dog stream between the frames. Blink. It’s morning. Only morning. It hasn’t happened yet. That’s why there’s nothing, no memory. Still an entire day to face…she sighs. She feels somewhat cheated, but she doesn’t know why.