I was born in September. My parents divorced when I was in the third grade. I had hay fever as a child. I started wearing glasses in junior high.
Oh, and I was bullied, too.
When I started kindergarten, I was only four years old. Since I was judged intellectually competent to start school early, I didn’t have to wait until I turned five a year later. Had I waited, I would have been physically ahead of my classmates in the same grade, but it didn’t work out that way. This, too, wouldn’t have been an issue by itself since I started school with everyone at the same time, but there’s more.
My parents got a divorce when I was in the third grade. My mother won custody and moved us to a new town without a dad. At some point, the local county school system decided that I needed “special disciplinary instruction” because I might have somehow been traumatized by the divorce. My new third grade teacher was “certified” (I found out later she was “certifiable”) to help in these areas, and so I was placed in her class. As an outgoing and encouraged child, I performed as I always had done and did things the way we did them in my old school. Yet now the teacher publicly called me out on every mistake (which I can only assume was to alter my behavior through peer pressure) and on things I didn’t even know were wrong, even yelling at me sometimes in front of all the students who had just met me. It didn’t take the bullies long to figure out the teacher had decided I was a problemed youth (even though she had created the situation), and as a result, I socially withdrew to stay out of trouble. Like sharks that turn on one of their own when they noticed it’s wounded, the mob mentality is you’re either with us or with them (and no one wants to be “them”), so the feeding frenzy began.
Next slide, please.
A file that isn’t supposed to exist (whether written or passed on by word-of-mouth) began to follow me from grade to grade. The school even decided to test my IQ at one point and tried to convince my mother that I should be with the “slow” class. It also didn’t help that I developed a horrible case of hay fever and was even accused of taking drugs because I had allergy medication to keep me from rubbing my eyes out. Like an Americanized version of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” future teachers automatically assumed the worst and treated me accordingly (thanks to the non-existent secret school profile). There was no one who would believe me if I said I was afraid to go to the bathroom between classes because I kept getting my ass kicked. I got smart and asked to go during class when the john was empty, but it didn’t make me any more popular with the teachers. My own mother’s advice? “Just ignore them and they’ll go away.” Uh huh… not a chance when one is watching the door so the others can take turns punching.
At the same time, teachers who hadn’t seen this file and weren’t my primary instructors (like the librarian and the music teacher) all liked me, giving me someone I could go to if things really got bad. For the rest of grade school, however, I kept my head down and tried to stay out of trouble (meeting my best friend Ed helped, too, but he couldn’t always be around). Then came sixth-grade graduation (I was in a junior high system), and the results of our “achievement tests” determined placement in our upcoming junior high classes for the next three years. The top name in almost every battery? Mine, the troublemaker from a divorced home who was recommended for the slow class. Every time my name was read for me to walk up and accept another certificate, I saw the look of astonishment on most of the students and teachers faces.
On to the new school I went.
The file thankfully didn’t go to junior high with me, but fully one-fifth or so of my classmates from grade school did. I also started wearing glasses (which did nothing to help foster any new friendships). The worst part was the expectation; set in my ways, I’d learned to keep my head down, avoid eye contact, and get through to the next class as best I could (plus I was still pretty small). Gym class wasn’t too bad in elementary school, but now we had to “dress” for physical education, and a weaker, socially-repressed kid doesn’t want to get undressed and judged in front of all the older guys (I guess it probably happens like that in the girl’s locker room, too).
In the eighth grade, I became the particular target of a long-haired kid from the wrong side of the tracks (and his buddies; there are ALWAYS “buddies”). Physically, however, I wasn’t exactly behind anymore, and I was starting to care very little as to whether or not I got into trouble anymore for retaliation. The next time Long-hair picked on me, I put him through a row of desks in the library. The vice principal was nice enough to tell me I’d get in trouble for being involved in any fight no matter who started it, so I let him know then and there that, since I had no other option, I would likely be seeing him again very soon until he actually did his job himself (no, really). Long-hair actually caught me outside a few days later and hit me a few times, but it didn’t matter; word got out at both the kid and adult level that if you came at me, it wasn’t going to be for free.
There’s nothing so empowering as taking actual power for yourself.
It wasn’t until after I graduated high school that I actually came back into my own; between college and a stint in the US Navy, I needed no authority figures to run to know that I could take care of things myself both mentally and physically. What I took away from the experience is that, in an effort to wash their hands of the issue, teachers had created the very situation they tried to avoid. With no recourse (because of school rules) to defend myself, even though I had good grades and was there to learn, it wasn’t until I handled it myself that I actually got through it. I think at one point I found a plastic gun that looked very real and decided to take it to school (I think my mother found it first and disposed of it). If even the mere perception of personal power over my tormentors would deter them, it was worth the risk; that’s how scared I was and how bad it felt. Can I understand a kid wanting to take weapons to school or facilitate its premature demolition? You betcha, but I also know it won’t help, and that’s the real problem.
Over thirty years later, school systems have finally gotten enough pressure put onto them that they can no longer ignore the problems. With the internet and texting, now even “the pretty kids” and the “sports stars” can be picked on, often by computer-savvy geeks who can control or delete them. Now that it isn’t just the small or physically weak kids killing themselves over what was said at school, NOW they want kids to tell an adult when bullying is happening. Guess what? Teachers have neither the manpower nor the willpower to prevent the problem; the kids have to walk home sometime and will have to deal with it themselves sooner or later.
Fighting back is the ANSWER, not the problem, and it should be encouraged.
Punishing kids for fighting back (or not encouraging them to do so) while ignoring the real problem can have consequences: social repression, possible suicide, or an escalation ending in gunfire. Conflicts between students need to be exposed, brought into the open, shown for what they are, and dealt with publicly. This should be encouraged, not banished to the shadows of secrecy where the power of bullying truly lies (“If you tell, it’s just going to be worse for you NEXT time.”) For pity’s sake, let them play dodge ball, set up an Xbox grudge match, or have it out with a battle of insults. There’s enough pressure on kids just to perform and to become adults without having to put up with all this secret vendetta crap. With the rarest exception, no one in adult life is going to be waiting in the executive washroom to kick your ass when you have to take a leak.
End the “stop bullying” campaign. Kids need some real alternatives and adults need to get involved. Sometimes bullying just happens, but most of the time it’s been brewing for a while, and exposing it before it escalates can give kids the alternative they’re looking for. If you can’t believe (or don’t remember) that your kids or students take this kind of torture very seriously, listen to the sound of ultimate suffering when you take away an infant’s bottle; to them, this is their whole world, and leaving these conflicts unresolved is not only contributing to the problem, it’s actually fueling it.
Kids, end bullying yourselves; kick their asses. After all, they DID ask for it, didn’t they?