I just now realized that October is National End Bullying Month. Recently I have been trying to form my thoughts on the matter and it looks like I missed my chance to add to the discussion. I feel I have a lot to say on this, and I have for years. This post is really personal for me. Ending bullying in schools isn’t something that can be half-assed.
One of the most life changing things that happened to me was moving from Alabama, where I was born, to Sandy Hook, Connecticut (and later Newtown) at the age of 9. The culture shock was definitely there, but I think the thing that stuck out the most and changed my entire school experience, was that I had a southern accent. This was almost completely unique to all the kids there, and so it was an obvious mark of difference. There were also obvious differences in the education between the two school systems, but the Hoover Elementary School was one of the best in Alabama, and I think it was around the same level as Sandy Hook Elementary. One of the anecdotes I like to cite is that Hoover Elementary taught us to play chess, as to improve our thinking and planning skills.
However, what was most different was the kids. The kids from Newtown were absolutely awful. My accent, which was plenty thick enough that pronouncing the word “comfortable” was funny to some kids, would also be noticeable for several more years. But by the time I had mostly assimilated the “northern” accent, it was too late. The ostracization and constant verbal bullying had already set me apart from my peers. Not just because everyone knew I was different, but because that level of abuse makes you a different person. I think to some, my education was initially seen as a little behind, but that did quickly change. By the time I got to the 7th and 8th grade it was apparent that I was outperforming most of my classmates in various areas. That instead changed the bullying into a different purpose, one that actively discouraged me from believing that I was doing well in school, or that I should at all be proud of who I was or what I wanted to be.
The verbal abuse is never something that can be explained or really even described to someone else. Unless you had experienced it, the most common thought would be “just ignore it and move on”. This is somewhat apt advice for someone receiving the occasional comment or an adult, who is better emotionally equipped to re-center themselves and bounce back. This is incredibly poor advice to a child. One that barely understands how and why they are different, why people would even think that such bullying is something others would want to do, or what it even means.
Bullying only ever once became a physical thing from one other student, and that was in 8th grade. I remember how absolutely helpless I was to sit in several classes while it happened. The most traumatizing, was that I had no idea what to do. It wasn’t that I didn’t want it to stop, I just didn’t understand at all how it could happen or why. Eventually the student stopped after a week or two, but it stayed with me to this day.
I also want to comment on what I believe made this problem far more damaging than it ever should have been. The complacent teachers and staff of my elementary school. Many of them would even go out of their way to even add to the bullying. One of the comments I remember most from a teacher was, when it was apparent my print was poor and he was trying to figure out how he could get me to write legibly, asked, “Did they teach you cursive in that Alabama school of yours”? Of course they had, and my cursive was actually very neat. But his comment was not that different from some other teachers whenever I had trouble or they were trying to “help” me. Later on, the middle school teachers seemed better equipped to handle the abuse, but that usually only added to the embarrassment and never really solved anything, just further separated me from my peers.
When I watch movies or TV shows where they show the bullied beating back the bully, almost always with violence, I feel angry that that is how people think bullying is resolved. There are adults who actually think that is the appropriate response to bullying, that is the appropriate way to handle such a problem. You know what that does to those who are bullied? It makes them feel even more helpless. But for those who aren’t physically bullied, it is an even less reasonable action to take. You mean someone making despiriting comments for weeks should be beaten to the point they are seriously hurt? Is that really what we want to teach kids? Really? And, if you aren’t convinced, there are many stories in the real world of the bullied doing this and then the school punishing both students, because they are punishing the violent acts, not the actual student that pushed the other student to such an extreme act. Because that is what beating someone else is. An extreme lashing out to regain control. That should never happen.
Bullying is a real and, to some completely twisted and backwards extent, a completely normal and expected thing of school. It is expected that students going through elementary school and middle school will be bullied to the point that some of them commit suicide. It is expected that some kids are bullied such that they lash out, or become defunt members of society. All because they didn’t “build up the courage and stand for themselves”. Its a very “American” view of bullying. That an individual can prevail amongst such focused hatred and vile abuse from the majority. It is also the most disgusting thing about the expected cultural and societal norms of school systems.
Bullying does have lasting effects, and they are almost impossible to quantify. They also vary in magnitude for individuals and areas. You don’t graduate from High School and suddenly you are free from the damage of that abuse. I still live with some of that today, and even though it is quite manageable, some of it will always stick with me.
I am glad that, despite all that I had to put up with through my 3rd grade through 12th grade education, I am as successful as I am today. Achieving real academic success and securing a well paying job. I have lots of real friends who appreciate what I can teach them and do for them. I have a great family that supports me and helped me reach where I am today. I just wish that for those who were victims of bullying and did not accomplish what I have, that maybe there was something more we could have done. That we as a society could have said, “This isn’t how school should be”, and treated bullying with the amount of resources and seriousness it deserves, rather than living some “American dream” power fantasy of fighting for our individual right to be a real human being with feelings.
If you got this far, I would like to thank you for trying to understand what bullying is, without some filter or sugaring added. I truly appreciate the time taken to read this. I feel that it is necessary for me to give others a really raw view of what bullying is and what it isn’t so that real lasting change can be made.