I am a cluster of emotions right now. I’m confused. I’m shocked. I’m disgusted. I’m scared. I’m appalled. I’m angry. No, “angry” seems far too civilized for what I am feeling in this moment, but the language I really want to use is not appropriate for this forum. Most of all, I am profoundly sad.
At the end of a long day, and knowing that I am likely to be asleep before 10, I read the headline news stories online. Though I try to stay current, I am also selective in the stories I “click on”–especially right before I head up to bed. I don’t need to read all the “ugly details” of a story to know what is going on. The Penn State scandal is a perfect example; I have read enough to know the circumstances, but feel no need (nor desire) to read every salacious detail that comes out.
Nonetheless, as I scanned the headlines last night, I came across 2 stories that pulled at my “mama heartstrings.” Both were bullying stories. The first was about a girl in Illinois–a 10 year old little girl–so distraught and broken by the emotional bullying suffered at the hands of classmates, she hanged herself in her closet. The second detailed the absolutely inexcusable treatment of a 14 year-old special-needs student bullied by her teacher and the teacher’s assistant. Exacerbating the situation, the (contacted) school superintendent refused to believe the claims of the student or her parents. Eventually, a concealed recorder captured the proof. Ridiculous that’s what the family had to do to get the school to take action, but for that young teen, her family and the other students under that teacher’s charge, I’m sure glad they did it.
After I finished reading the 2 stories, I was flooded with many emotions, but only one question: How did we get to this point as a society?
Yes, I know bullying dates back to the dawn of kids, but not like this. It’s different today. It’s more incessant than when I was a kid. When I was in the 3rd or 4th grade, I remember being teased by a group of classmates because I messed up the words to “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies. They taunted me on the playground one day, not even the whole lunch period, but I can still feel the humiliation. In the 5th grade, the girls that I had been friends with since the 1st grade randomly decided that another girl and I could no longer be a part of “the group.” It was the start of my “mean girl” years, those years that girls seem to be particularly nasty to each other. The girls teased, spread rumors, and flashed many a dirty look. They made a couple of rough years even rougher. In the 6th grade, I was “beat up” by another classmate when the teacher caught her trying to cheat off my paper. After school that day, I remember the fear I felt when she cornered me. She only pushed me down, but I truthfully thought she was going to pummel me. In middle school and high school, I heard the teasing comments about my acne or the size of my chest. Thankfully, by that time, I had found “my group”–which made the emotionally rough waters of high school a lot easier to survive. However and obviously, if I can recall details 30-40 years later, it’s clear that bullying leaves scars.
In response to the story of the 10 year-old, one reader commented, “Not that I condone bullying, but kids have always been bullied – why are so many now committing suicide?”
First and foremost, I think we, as a society, need to examine this problem and start calling it by its real name. People DON’T commit suicide because they’ve had a bad day, or two, or 20. Adults don’t. Teens don’t. Children don’t. I know; I lost a brother to suicide. As parents, we teach our kids to be resilient beginning in the sandbox. We dry their tears. We boost them up. We teach them to “shake it off.” Resiliency is one of life’s most essential survival skills. People break when they can no longer bounce back, when they believe there’s no other way out. I believe there is something “bigger” than bullying going on in these cases and in even more that go unreported. In my day, it was usually called teasing if it was verbal, bullying if it was physical. Kids were teased, rumors and names slung, lunch money stolen and occasional fights were broken up, or not. What is going on in schools, on playgrounds, and on buses is beyond what I saw or experienced growing up. And, in today’s world, it seems inescapable for the victims, which is why what these kids experience is not “just” bullying; it is harassment.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines harassment as:
12: to worry and impede by repeated raids <harassed the enemy>
In the “adult world” of business, there are laws to protect and avenues of recourse for the harassed. Schools set forth policies with the same intention. However, the continual accessibility to our kids via texting, Facebook, cell phones, Twitter, Formspring, etc. leaves them vulnerable both outside and inside the school gates. It goes beyond leaving the front door unlocked; it leaves it wide open for any and all to enter. No longer can a child (or adult) escape to the privacy of their own home, or even their bedroom for a respite. Modern technology spreads rumors wider and faster than ever before. Long ago, bullies had to wait until they could reach a phone to spread a rumor outside of school. Today, they need only reach for their back pocket, anytime, anywhere. Click and send– a picture secretly taken in the locker room, a text laced with cruel names, a Facebook post filled with lies. Yes, kids have always bullied and been bullied, but never before with 24/7 access. There is no “off button” in today’s world. No escape. No relief for some. Could, and should, a parent “unplug” their child? Sure, but unplugging the victim doesn’t stop the perpetrators. Often acting as a pack, the bullies have already cornered their prey and have left them weakened.
Additionally, and perhaps most insidious, are the parents and other adults that participate in bullying. The teacher and her assistant’s verbally abusive comments nauseate me, but I’m sure they would anyone who watches Teachers caught on tape bullying special-needs girl – parenting – TODAY.com. Any adult– parent, teacher, coach, passing bystander, etc., that looks the other way, make excuses, condones or demonstrates bullying behavior is the very root of the problem. Sadly, it often starts at home with the parents as communicated in yesterday’s excellent post by DEBCB, I bet you use that same mouth to kiss your kid too…. Adults lead by example, and children are always watching, absorbing and emulating. Gossip, and children learn to gossip. Lie to a boss, a neighbor, a child and children learn to deceive. Tease maliciously and children learn to bully. We are training our next generation with every curse, flip of the finger, and nasty comment we utter. Children who have learned to bully as children grow up to be the jerk in the car or cubicle next to you. And, when we stand silent because it is “not our problem,” children learn to ignore the pleas of victims.
Author Rick Riordan wrote, “Sometimes mortals can be more horrible than monsters.” Last night, I read about the mortal monsters that prey on the weak. Do children tease? Yes, children tease. Will they likely always tease? Certainly. Kids, as they say, will be kids. And yes, we must raise children capable of walking away, shaking it off, and moving forward. But, more importantly, we must first raise decent human beings that respect each other. I am a naturally optimistic person, always have been, and it has served me well when the road was bumpy. But, I know what it is to feel knocked down by life and the cruelty of others. I know the sadness of feeling isolated and discarded. I know what “cornered” feels like. And, I also know what it feels like to have someone in that corner with me, helping me get back up.
I still believe there are far more “good mortals” than monsters in this world, starting with the person I see in the mirror. I’ve tried to raise children that are willing to defend the underdog, but like me, they can become weary and apathetic, almost immune to the stories of cruelty seen in the world. Last night, I was moved by the stories I read, and I remembered the advice I often give my children in times of conflict, “You have a voice. Use it.” No longer can I look away and think, “not mine.” I have a voice, and I will use it.
Won’t you join me? Please, add your voice to the discussion.