Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Real bullying

So many tv shows and movies portray bullying as an overt, intentional, and violent act that's easy to spot. And it's easy to distinguish the bullies from the bullied. My own experience with it, as a kid and as a parent, is very different. Sometimes it's more about what doesn't happen, and what you don't see. And more importantly, on some level, at some point, everyone participates on the bullying side, whether or not they meant to. I'll explain with a few examples from my life:

Conflicting agendas

When my son was in grade 3 or 4, at a school I'll call ABC School, he witnessed his best friend being bullied. Kevin (not his real name) had hurt his leg on the playground, and as he was crying from the pain, some kids made fun of him and even kicked his leg, which, as it later turned out, was broken. My son came home extremely upset, told me about it, and I wrote a note to his teacher informing her of what had happened. I figured someone should know about it, and I wanted my son to know that he had done the right thing in telling me. I remember ending the note with something like "I know ABC school does not tolerate bullying," because that was the message that had come home in writing prior to this incident.

In he went the next day with the note. I went to work. Mid-morning, I received a phone call from an irate principal of ABC School. I will never forget this conversation as long as I live. I was scolded for using the word bullying, because that word is so strong and so negative, and could give the wrong impression of a school, so please do not use this word to describe what happened. I responded by saying that my son had certainly seen SOMETHING, and that I thought the school would want to at least find out more. He said, "I already asked Kevin. He said nothing happened, there was no bullying." Gee, I can think of a good reason why a bullied kid would lie about that, but anyway, that was the principal's story and he was sticking to it. He clearly didn't want bad publicity for ABC School.

Meanwhile, a very different reaction was taking place in the realm of the teachers. When my son came home that day, he told me that at morning recess, the teachers had gathered all the kids from the whole grade into one class, and no one was allowed to leave until the bullies confessed.

And they had! Interesting note - based on the timing, I was pretty sure these confessions happened at the same moment the principal was on the phone telling me no bullying had happened.

Quite a difference between the principal's reaction and the teachers' eh? Clearly, the principal's agenda conflicted with the teachers'. And Kevin's, and my son's, if kids that age can even have them. Being able to see what had happened was just not possible for someone who needed to not see it.

Bullying by compliance

Soon after my daughter started attending XYZ high school, she told me about a girl in her grade that everyone called, I'll say, Frog. The consensus was that she was obnoxious and unattractive. But she didn't seem to mind, in fact, she laughed whenever someone called her that. So no harm done right? Except that this girl was being dehumanized, and I was pretty sure it hurt, and that she was doing a good job of hiding it.

I was so upset to hear this, as a mother and a teacher, that I called the school, and told the vice principal about it. He was very kind, very professional, also very upset, and thanked me for telling him. He assured me he would do something about it. I'll never forget that conversation either, mainly because I had steeled myself for something entirely different.

Soon after that, I asked my daughter if anything had been done about it. She thought for a second and said, "Oh that must be what that talk was about in homeroom. The vice principal came in and told us that bullying is wrong and we should tell someone if we see it happening."

That was it. Now, I know he meant well, but let's face it, those words likely fell on deaf ears. How many times had they heard this? And why would they listen this time, especially when no one knew what specific incident had brought it on? But even more importantly, his voice didn't have the power to change anyone's perception. As sincere as he might have been, he just said what a vice principal is supposed to say. Even my daughter, a nice kid, who never called anyone names, still had the idea that no bullying had happened. So people were complying with not only the status quo, but with the perceived attitude of the victim.

Enter the age of the authentic voice

Last week @intrepidteacher tweeted this about one of his students:

It's an eloquent and painfully honest post by a brave student about being shunned, which is a form of bullying with which I am all too familiar. Here it is. Go have a read, I'll wait.

Now THIS is an authentic voice! It got my attention, it got the attention of a LOT of people on twitter, and you can see by the comments that it got the attention of OTHER KIDS! Imagine the relief, the shock, the introspection, the awareness, sensitization, well you get the idea, that arose from the writing, posting, reading, and reacting to this post!
  • This writer found out he was not alone in feeling this way
  • other kids found out what it felt like to be shunned
  • other kids found out that they were not alone
  • other kids had to face the undeniable fact that they were participants in hurting someone
  • teachers, administrators, and parents got a big eye-opening because this came straight from the victim

...and you cannot help but believe him, not only because of how it's written, but because there is nothing interfering with his message, no one spinning it or burying it or viewing it through a distorted lens for their own agenda. Ok, Jabiz tweeted it, but that's just more bravery.

Imagine if the girl in my daughter's high school had been given the opportunity to express her feelings like this? Imagine students in her school reading it, thinking, wow that's so mean of people to do that, and then finding out at the end of the post that she was a girl in their own class, and that they had unwittingly participated in her suffering? I can only hope that's happening right now in the school of this young man. And I can only hope that that poor girl at XYZ High has found out somehow that she doesn't have to play along with the bullies and laughingly shrug off hurtful comments.

More than ever, I am convinced that getting kids to write and giving them an audience might just be the best line of defense against all kinds of bullying, overt or otherwise. At least it's the best way to convince everyone, the bullies, the victims, and everyone in between, that it happens, it's real, and it hurts.

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