Since the suicide of the student from Ireland in Massachusetts and the arrest of some of her alleged tormentors, much air time has been devoted to the topic of bullying in schools. Talking heads on the various news shows have debated the subject. Most have loudly denounced the alleged perpetrators and the school officials who reportedly stood by and failed to take sufficient action to intercede when it happened. At least one parent of a student accused of bullying in that case has gone on record as stating that what happened was not bullying but teenaged name-calling. I wasn't there when any of the alleged bullying or name-calling took place, so I have no real insight as to if the truth is in what law enforecement personnel is saying, in what the student's mother is saying on behalf of the student, or somewhere in the middle.
One thing about the mother's side of the story does cause me to wonder about what she said, especially in relation to concerns my mother has expressed. My mom is a school official. She's been an elementary, middle school, and high school teacher, a school psychologist, and a district director of special services. She opted out of the school psychologist and district director of special services positions because they related primarily to special education; it's difficult right now to be in special education above the classroom teacher level (and sometimes even at that level) and not be under constant threat of litigation. She's now a district director of counseling services. She's also based at a school site and functions as a guidance counselor when the load is too heavy for the other counseling personnel there. One of her pet peeves at work has always been when a parent will tell a school official exactly how a situation went down even though the parent wasn't anywhere near when the incident actually occurred. The parent will recount the student's version of the incident as though it's undisputed gospel, and refuses to believe anything other than what his or her child says happened.
My mom has trouble with this scenario for two reasons. Her first problem is with a parent's assumption that his or her child would never lie. Judge Judy Scheindlin (not my favorite TV judge by any stretch -- I'll always be loyal to Judge Alex) has a favorite saying that one can always tell when a teenager is lying; it's whenever his or her mouth moves. My mother's feelings are not as extreme as those of Judge Scheindlin, but she does believe that kids are capable of lying when the stakes are high enough, especially if the parent has a history of offering a blanket acceptance of whatever his or her kid says. My mom also says that most adolescents and many adults see things solely from their own perspectives, which color their respective versions of "the truth" as they see it.
Even if there had been some reciprocity in the name calling, if it was a large group of students waging verbal battle (or worse) against a single student, it was hardly a fair competition; however, I'm still not thoroughly convinced that formal charges against the alleged perpetrators are warranted. It's a tough question. I would like to think that any student involved in the harrassment of this girl would never have said or done anything hurtful if they had known the end result could have been her suicide. Nevertheless, a lack of thought toward the effect of their actions in no way exonerates the perpetrators of verbal abuse or worse.
I can't read anyone's mind other than my own, so I can't actually know this for certain, but my suspicion is that all but the most narcissistic of adolescents view themselves as potential targets for bullies. Many of our actions are probably governed by a desire to actively avoid the attention of the cruel and powerful among us. I know what my brother's Achilles Heel is, but I won't write about it in the event that anyone who knows my identity, and thus his, might be reading here. Because I'm posting this with relative anonymity, I'll take the chance where my personal weaknesses are concerned. I can say that I have worried about being picked on for my small size and for my tendency to succeed academically with minimal effort.
The small size thing is a no-brainer. If someone looks different from most of the group in any way, that is a potential source of fodder to bullies. When I was in middle school, a more-clever-than-usual student gave me the nickname "Anorexis." (There goes my anonymity for any of my peers or teachers reading this, though I'm probably safe, as most of my peers use the Internet just for the social networks and school-assigned research.) I'll give credit where it is due: the nickname was the most creative if mean-spirited insult of which I've been on the receiving end. The problem was that nearly all of my middle school peers traveled with me me to the same high school, and the name stuck. Every person who now calls me "Anorexis" thinks he or she is being at least as creative as the person who coined the name. Some have even tried to take credit for being the one who came up with it in the first place. (That person is now ironically in my circle of friends. We both laugh whenever someone else tries to claim inventor's rights to my nickname, and then he shuts them up by acknowledging himself as the originator.) The first time my now-friend called me by my nickname, I maintained my composure until I got home from school, at which time I went crying to my mommy. She told me that if I overreacted to any insult aimed in my direction, I would be targeted for even more abuse in the future. She was right. I still hear the name probably once a week (thanks so much, pal!), but nobody bothered to come up with an even more demeaning term.
The brainy nerd thing is a bit more subtle. I find it hard to believe that anyone wants to have substandard cognitive ability. Most of those who would tease me for doing well in school would, I suspect, trade GPAs with me in a hearbeat. Still, it isn't cool to be too smart. I've largely been able to avoid persecution on this account by keeping a relatively low profile. I don't wave my hand around wildly whenever a teacher asks a question. One teacher even complained to my parents that I was "passive-agressive" because he thought I was holding back too much in class discussions. My mom told me I needed to go talk with him after school. I tried to very politely explain the risks of appearing to be a know-it-all in the presence of my peers, but my teacher wasn't hearing what I told him. (I suspect he was one of the bullies when he was in middle school and high school, but my suspicion was not going to get me the "A" that I needed.) I finally told him that he was free to single me out for any question he wanted to ask and that I would answer as completely as I could, but I would not volunteer to answer many questions. After three class periods of this teacher exclusively quizzing me orally in the presence of my classmates, he finally backed off. Even better, my peers, some of whom didn't particularly like me before, were sympathetic and took my side over the teacher's. I knew better than to let the sudden popularity go to my head. Adolescents love to be united in a common cause against an authority figure, but soon enough I would be yesterday's news. It was just nice when the situation passed and we could all move on.
For the record, my mother has spies watching my brother and me at school. She says that if she ever gets the slightest indication that my brother or I are harrassing or intimidating anyone, we can say adios to freedom as we know it. On the
other hand, she knows and we know that one of the biggest parts of the problem is not the actual abuser but the students who are silent when they see others mistreated. It's a risky proposition, as speaking up may cause one to be the next target. My parents have always taught us to stick up for others in situations where they have difficulty protecting themselves. I've spoken up on three of such occasions. On another occasion I failed to say anything on behalf of the victim. Falling asleep at night was much easier after the times when I did what I knew I should do.
My experience with bullying is no worse than what the average middle or high school student faces. I wouldn't even pretend that my situation is in any way comparable to that of the girl in Massachusetts. For one thing, I have parents who are supportive and relatively influential. If I were ever the target of any serious bullying, my parents would camp out in the administrative offices and board room until the problem was handled appropriately. In addition to my parents, I have a much bigger and stronger twin brother at school with me. He may reserve the right to pick on me mercilessly, but he wouldn't stand by idly while others did the same. Furthermore, where other students would be capable of beating me up if they had the opportunity, for the most part, they don't have that opportunity. If anyone hurt me physically, charges would be pressed. For that matter, most of the bullies who would harm me couldn't catch up with me if I ran. (I'm a 300-meter hurdler!) Verbally, I can hold my own. If anyone insults me, I at least think about insulting that person back. My response to an insult is likely to be far more humiliating than whatever lame insult was hurled in my direction. ("Anorexis" has lost most of its impact by now.) I don't take the power of words lightly, but I will use it when its use is merited.
What happened in Massachusetts was an incredible tragedy. A girl will never go through many milestones to which we all look forward. Her parents will never get to see her graduate, get married, or have children of her own. Precisely who is to blame seems to be a subject open for debate. I certainly don't have the answer in this instance or in any other. All I know is that any parent who is too quick to believe everything his or her child says is practically encouraging the child to lie.