The other day as I was rushing around gathering school supplies, I saw a sign for a barbershop. I quickly yanked my ten year old out of the car and marched him in.
As my son sat in the chair I took advantage of the few minutes of peace and looked around for something to read. I picked up the local paper. There were the usual stories: sports achievements, town money issues, wedding announcements, etc. Then a small story caught my eye. Two local girls had held a cupcake stand to raise money for the family of a teenage boy in this particular town who had died recently “at his home.” The story never said how the boy died, the family did not want to speak to the paper, but the girls who had the fund raiser spoke to the reporter about how they felt badly that the boy had been bullied at school, teased for being overweight, and for the clothes he wore among other things. It didn’t take much to put the pieces of the tragic puzzle together. The barber saw me reading the article. He caught my eye, and over my son’s head, mouthed the words, “Suicide. Sad. So sad.”
“Again?” You say, “Geez, wasn’t this front-page news last year? Didn’t we solve the problem? There are no more bullies, right?” Wrong. Go sit in a middle school or a high school…or even a kindergarten, and you will see it.
I looked up at my child, sitting there happily chatting away with the barber as pieces of his unruly hair fell to the floor. I thought, “What if… What if that happened to him? What if he was bullied? What if he was so desperate? Would I know? Could I help?” My stomach flopped.
Then I thought. “What if…? What if he was the bully? Would I know? Could I help?” My stomach flopped again.
Here is a piece I wrote about bullying a year or so back after I first read an article about Phoebe Prince, the young girl that committed suicide after being tormented for years by classmates out in western Massachusetts. I was so outraged at what had happened, that I had to write to the paper. I kept thinking, “Where were the parents of these bullies? Why didn’t they do anything? Did they know? Did they care? Did she have any friends, anyone she could reach out too?
Sad, so sad.
Jesse Logan, Phoebe Prince. I am sure there are others. Beautiful, young girls with their whole lives in front of them. Diamonds just starting to shine, stolen away by the dark demons of depression to be thrown down the slick, slippery slide of low self-esteem. Pecked to death, slowly over time, by the taunts of their equally insecure classmates. Teenagers, who tormented by their own lack of confidence, repeatedly called them vile names, squashing them beneath the black boots of adolescent disdain as they clambered over their bodies in an attempt to climb up the ladder of social success.
I did not know Phoebe, or Jesse. I do not know their peers, but I do know what it is like to be a teenager, to feel desperate and to be unable to see the future even if it is right down the road. If only they had held on, made it through the mess of adolescent, maybe they would have been okay. Maybe they would have blossomed into a strong, young women, succeeding in college, going on to do research and to write and talk about their experiences of being bullied, hoping to stop the pain for someone else. Maybe Jesse would have discovered life on another planet. Phoebe, become the head of the United Nations. Maybe they would have had children and settled down in a small town doing the most important job, parenting. And as a parent they could have imparted onto their children the knowledge gained by their humiliating experience in high school, and taught them the importance of reaching out to others. But they didn’t survive; they were too afraid and young to hang on. They didn’t know to look down the road, that things would get better.
And now we will never know, who or what they might have been. They were stolen from all of us. So we, the parents, must now act us parents should and stand up for them. We must cradle in our arms the victims of bullying and confront the tormentors, no matter who they may be, even if they are our own.
We were all there once, middle school and high school, each of us struggling to make it through the day. Worried about how big our boobs were, or weren’t, how many zits we had on our faces. Do I smell, will he talk at me, is my fly open, will my face turn red when I talk in front of the class, what if she won’t be my science partner, who will I sit with at lunch? We have all been there. Under attack by our fear and hormones, and instead of pulling together as a group and seeing our strength in numbers, we separated. Divided by unseen walls of status: the victims, the invisibles, the druggies, the jocks, the populars’.
Ask yourself, right now. What group were you in? Did you like it there? Would you want your child to be in that group? What did you give up to be in that group? Your pride? Your individuality? Your voice? With exclusion comes sacrifice. Maybe you sacrificed yourself, your relationship with you family, or your best friend since kindergarten. The one you watched Creature Double Feature with everyday at five, played long stretched out games of Monopoly, and told your inner most secrets to. Suddenly, they had to go. They were not cool enough, pretty enough, strong enough. They were holding you back, so you threw them aside to move up the ladder of popularity or avoid the shame of being shunned. Do you think it is different now? You’re right, it is. The insults come quicker, harder and easier thanks to the anonymity and speed of computers. But the feelings and inevitable sad outcomes remain the same.
Maybe you were the one who was left behind. Unable to protest, feeling small and scared you decide to be silent, become invisible. Pretend it didn’t hurt. Now, you are determined that your child does not suffer the same fate as you. You will do anything to make sure he is captain of the football, or she is head cheerleader. You guide them towards certain friends, the right families to associate with.
Don’t be fooled by the kid who says “There is no bullying in my school. We have a program for that.” As history has unfortunately shown us over and over again, we are all capable of aggression and brutality. I know this is hard to accept but even your own kids, the ones you love with all of your heart. The ones whose eyes you look in every night and think, “Oh, he/she would never do that.” Really? Think back with true honesty to your own experiences. Did you ever step outside of your group to offer an outsider a place at the lunch table? Were you willing to stand up for a friend even if it meant you might be turned on next? Do you ever participate in the jeering, sneering, meanness of middle school? Why would your child be any different?
The anti-bullying programs are wonderful and necessary, but it cannot end there. The conversations must continue at home. Just as you practice math and science with your kids, you must practice kindness as well.
Teach children to accept, to stand up, to challenge. Teach them when they are young not to exclude others on the playground, to give everyone a chance, to invite all the kids to the birthday party, to open up their circle of friends. Bullying is not just physical harm or rude insults; it also comes in the form of exclusion. Being alone, forced out, made to watch from the sides.
It is natural to develop a group of friends over time. We can’t all hold hands and be best buddies. It is not realistic to expect this, but perhaps, maybe, if you teach your child to just reach out a little to the kid that is sitting by him/herself, the one whose pants are a bit too short or who wears the wrong style; someone they don’t know very well, maybe your child can help just that one person to feel included. Maybe if they smile at this person or ask them how their weekend was, tell them they did a great job in Spanish class, maybe, just maybe that child will feel like they matter. It is our job as parents to teach this. Not the school. Not some government agency. Ours. Teach kindness at home, so it can be practiced at school.