Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Bullying Is Not Cool

There has been a lot of talk in the media here (and I'm sure everywhere) about bullying.  There are numerous campaigns, like Pink Shirt Day here in Canada or I Choose, that have programs to help kids get help, as well as to provide education for schools on how to better deal with the problem.

But the problem somehow seems to keep increasing.  And now there are more avenues than ever for bullies to hit their target.  It's no longer confined to schoolyards, cafeterias or buses.  It's on facebook, in email, on twitter, youtube, tumblr, everywhere.  It almost seems impossible to keep up with.  And maybe that's why we don't seem to be able to.  Bullying, now more than ever I think, leads to some really tragic ends.

Where I live, the bullying issue has been receiving extra airtime recently due to a tragic incident a few weeks ago.  A 15 year old girl committed suicide after being continually bullied.  FIFTEEN.  I'm terrible at math, but by my calculations, this means that less than 1/5 of her life had been led by that point.  She was still a child.  Children should never feel this hopeless.  This just should not happen.  I'll say that again.  

This should not happen.

When I was 15, things were bad.  I was sad.  I, too, was bullied quite a bit (an incident where some guy held out a dog biscuit to me and said "here doggy doggy" comes to mind), but never did I feel that there was no way out for me except to just end everything.  How can another human make someone feel so hopeless?  And without realizing what they've done?  Or, even worse, do they realize?  Do people think it makes them cool to put others down and make them miserable?  Based on my personal experience being bullied, and even bullying (see below), I think bullies' motives vary.  Maybe some of them are really sadistic.  Maybe some of them are too afraid not to bully.  Maybe some get caught up int he crowd.  Some might just want to be cool.

I was trying to think of a neat and catchy title for this post, but nothing really said what I wanted like the title I chose.  The simple truth about bullying is that it is just not cool.

Since I'm about to bring a child into this world myself, I've been thinking back on my experiences with bullying when I was younger...and what helped me get through it.  Also, what did the opposite.  I'd like to share one of my stories below.  Admittedly, it's my least...flattering, but I think it brings up some really interesting points on the subject.  Often people aren't just a bully or just a victim.  And, it's a little to easy for a bullying victim to not notice when they end up on the other side.

I'd like you all to do the same in the comments below: write down any of your own bullying experiences, whatever side of the issue you were on.  Or share some things that helped you or you think would help the ever-more worrying situation in our schools.

I don't have any answers for how to fix this problem, beyond saying that we just can't stand for it.  If you see bullying, don't just watch.  And, for the love of god, don't join in!  Stop it.  Help someone in need.

And if you are bullying, take a step back and remind yourself that it's not okay.  Sometimes it takes getting called out by the victim, or other students, or your own parents to realize how far you crossed the line.  Don't waste that opportunity.  Make yourself a better person and stop bullying.

Bullying story: Wrong Choices

As I said above, I was bullied for quite a bit of my middle school years (and high school, but at this point in my life I hadn't yet made it to high school).  In grade 7 and 8, I had a 1.5 hour bus-ride to school (I was the second stop).  To me, the bus was one of the most terrifying zones of all school-related places.  It was a moving vehicle with only one adult on it, and his job was to drive the bus safely, not to monitor the 40+ kids and pre-teens all raging behind him.  I'd spent many a busride trying to ignore older kids when they called me "spider" for my unshaven legs or "Elvis" because of my thicker-than-normal sideburns.  (My family's Italian)  I kept my eyes on my feet when I had to move seats because some large upper-classman told me "You in my spot, bitch." I was no stranger to the terror of the schoolbus.

But it was around grade 7/8 when I actually had some friends on the bus with me.  I was suddenly one of the older kids on the bus.  Many of my old bullies had either dropped out or graduated up to high school.  The newbies who came on board now had the shy faces and hesitant gaze that I remembered in myself.  Others didn't take long to take advantage and dig their claws into the fresh meat.

And, one day, I did too.  There was one girl -- I don't even remember her name, a fact that increases my feelings of guilt -- who I latched onto like a shark.  She was cute, but chubby, with short red hair and freckles.  For a few days she asked to sit next to me and I let her, chatting nicely in between gazing out the window.  But, then the other sharks on the bus noticed her -- and me -- and the taunting began.  A little voice inside my head must have asked, "Are you chum or are you shark?"  Obviously I know different now, but at the time I felt I had 2 choices: I could be lumped in with this girl, who was quickly descending to a bottom rung on the food chain, or I could assert my distance from her -- and my same-ness to everyone else -- by joining in on the bullying.

I had spent too long being chum.

So, one day I poked a finger in her back and announced, "Hey orca, are you even wearing a bra?  I'm just trying to be nice; just saying, if you aren't wearing one, you should."  Her face flushed as red as blood, but it only pushed me on further, like it would any hungry predator.  "While you're at it, buy one for your back boobs too."

She endured it.  As you must, if you know.  I never saw her cry, just stare blankly ahead, dying a little every bus ride.

Every time I did this, I felt a kind of cold sickness inside me, but it was like I couldn't stop.  While each time I felt myself rotting from the inside out, it also did a strange thing; I felt powerful.  Sick, but powerful.

It didn't go on long, maybe a few weeks.  Until I was called to the principal's office one day.  I had never been called to the principal's office like this before.  If I got called in, it was to receive some kind of award or to meet someone.  I was an A student.  Honor roll, teacher's pet, absolute nerd.

Walking into his office, I knew exactly what I was there for.  I waited on the bench outside, ignoring the secretary's disappointed head-shaking, until the door swung open and one of my "partner's in crime" walked out.  I tried to meet her eye, to see if she'd possibly lied for me, see what I should say.  She didn't look my way at all.  At that point, I still thought maybe I could get out of getting in trouble.  I promised whatever silent spirits I believed in at the time that I would never bully again if I could just get out of this without a punishment.  I wiped my sweaty hands on my jeans and walked into the office.

Mr. Apple was his name.  He nailed me with a piercing stare as soon as I shut the door behind me.  I have no idea what happened in the conversation there, but I do remember leaving in tears.  And I was banned from the bus for the week.  That in itself wasn't really so bad.  Looking back, it's kind of a lame punishment for how I made that girl feel.

What I really dreaded, though, was going home later that day to face my mum.  My mum who had been with me through all my tear-filled talks of myself being bullied.  She reacted just as I'd expected, eyes cast down, not even wanting to look at me.  "How could you do that to that little girl," I remember her saying.  And, immediately I felt everything that girl must have felt.  I was more ashamed than I had ever, ever been up to that point.

My mum always had a mantra when I was in trouble -- "The punishment should fit the crime."  I wouldn't be grounded, for example, for bullying a girl on the bus.  The penance I had to serve for this sin?  I had to write a letter to the girl, apologizing for what I had done.  Not to bad sounding, right?  Wrong.  It was agonizing.  I also had to write a letter to the girl's Dad, apologizing to him too.  My mum, eyes filled with tears, explained that one: "You know how I used to feel when you came home crying from school, saying no one liked you and telling me about the horrible things people said to you?  Devastated.  No parent wants their child to be in pain like that.  When child is in pain, parent is in pain.  So you need to write to this girl's Dad and tell him if there is ever anything he or his daughter needs, they can call on you."

All of this finished, I tried to kind of befriend the girl.  It wasn't a nice gesture -- it was a way to assuage the guilt I felt.  She turned away all of my pleasantries, opting not to sit with me or share my snacks.  When I complained to my mum about it, she gave me a face (you know, that parental "Are you an idiot!?" face and said, "What did you expect??")  I knew immediately what she meant.  Why on earth would the girl I treated like dirt want to be my friend suddenly just because I'd written her a letter.

It was quite the lesson.

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