Last night a speaker came to campus to talk about bullying. She said a few words–I probably could’ve counted how many–and then she started asking questions. And when we didn’t willingly answer, she stood in silence waiting. And if we still didn’t answer (this only happened once), she walked up to someone and asked him directly.
This wasn’t a typical lecture. It went both ways.
And that got me thinking: bullying goes both ways, too.
The first question was who’s been bullied. We all raised our hands. I was bullied in Cub Scouts for being Jewish. In Boy Scouts kids taunted each other by calling them “sissy” or “fag” or sometimes just “gay”–and I wasn’t out to myself then, it was likely the first time I’d ever heard the word “gay” at all, but when I began coming out, all those jeering voices came back to me and I felt it just as badly as if all those words had been directed at me. I’ve been teased for being too quiet, too loud, too studious–throughout my life, even now, in college. And it doesn’t end there. Maybe the verbal assaults have only gone so far, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t felt pressured from my peers to act a certain way, and worse, to look a certain way. I’m not thin enough, muscular enough, smooth enough.
After a while all these attackers aren’t necessary: I attack myself as efficiently.
Then she asked who’s ever bullied someone else.
And we all raised our hands.
I like to think I’ve never been a bully. I’ve never excluded someone because of their race, their religion, their gender, their sexuality, their class, their ability–at least not that I remember, at least not recently. But I definitely bullied my younger brother. Maybe I never called it that, maybe it never seemed like bullying–we were kids, we were boys, isn’t this what we were supposed to do? But whatever society deemed acceptable, it doesn’t change the fact I bullied him.
I’ve got a stronger relationship with all my siblings now, and despite the occasional playful teasing with friends and family, I like to believe I’m sincerely not a bully to anyone.
But this isn’t about me. Not really.
With our speaker’s guidance, we pointed to different things people are bullied for. We spoke about the prevalence of bullying at all levels of life–in the workforce, in college, and most visibly in middle school and high school.
I was homeschooled, so I never went through that–at least not directly. When I was in Hebrew school, there were clear marks around the popular kids–the mean girls, the rich snobs–whatever we called them, we knew who they were (and I can still name half of them). They weren’t just the girls, though–there were plenty of troublemakers who were boys, too. I received my share of teasing for whatever reasons, but not from my friends, and in time I became resilient to it.
When I returned as a teacher’s aid, I witnessed bullying but at first didn’t know how to step in and stop it. I was specifically assigned to work closely with two particular, energetic (and therefore easily distracted and especially offensive) students: By giving them a little extra attention, I helped them stay focused on their work, not only learning more successfully but also not having as much time to act out.
But it still happened. I remember one day I sat with a little girl who just sat with tears streaming down her face because another boy had made comments about her grandmother, who’d recently passed away.
Some of the bullying seemed innocent enough–childish banter, insensitivity spawned from a lack of awareness and maturity. Other times the bullying was premeditated and cruel.
One girl in the fifth or sixth grade at the time made an alliance with another student, a girl already struggling with behavioral and self-esteem challenges. The first had found where candy was hidden in a teacher’s desk in the classroom, so during recess they sneaked back inside to find some–but teachers being wise and observant, they got caught. Almost immediately, the first girl shoved all the blame upon the other. Parents were called. Students were taken to the religious school director. The second girl was embarrassed, shamed, and worst of all, betrayed.
I routinely called out students for calling each other names, kept my eyes on them as they played, on the lookout for trouble and willing to step in if something should arise.
Stepping in isn’t as easy in a circle of my peers.
I was in the dining hall last week and as I stood up to leave, the conversation on the other side of the room picked up in loudness and I heard one man say to another, “and he thought he was going to get with me? No way!” before they burst into laughter.
I stood there, staring at them, staring past them.
Did they really say what I thought they just said? Part of me felt shaken, and part of me kept telling myself maybe it wasn’t what I thought, maybe it was something else. So I left. It’s been more than a week, and it still stands out in my mind like it happened today.
Maybe bullying has its benefits–the resilience we build, the ability to stand in the face of adversary. Maybe halting behaviors with zero-tolerance policies ignores the underlying causes and just forces children to act out in other ways, unhealthier ways. I don’t know.
What I do know is this: Bullying still happens, and I can still have a hand in stopping it. I can summon all my courage and step up to people and tell them to stop, to change the words they use or the things they say. But more importantly, more immediately, I can take this awareness directly to school.
In less than ten days, I’m going to Alaska to work with teachers in a small, Native Alaskan community. I imagine I’ll spend most of my time working individually with students, helping them read or do math, but I won’t be blind to bullying, and when it happens, I’ll stop it.
I might not be there long, but speaking up while I am will still make a difference.
I’m still fundraising to pay for my trip, and each donor will receive a personalized memento, including pictures, reflections, and poetry. Can you make a donation today?