Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Bully Zone

When I walked into the big elementary school for my first Back to School Night eight years ago, when my oldest was entering kindergarten, I was immediately taken with the abundance of anti-bullying posters that decorated the halls.  There were colorful bears and lions in every hall illustrating that bullying is bad, describing behaviors that are considered bullying, offering advice on what to do if you are bullied, if someone else is being bullied, if you suspect someone is being bullied.  There were big signs declaring school a NO BULLY ZONE.  It’s been a constant theme since we started school.  Every year the kids sign a pledge not to bully other people, and vowing to report suspected bully behavior to the school authorities.

I know that all the posters and assemblies are well-intended. I believe many schools do their best to address the issue, but the roots of bullying are deep in our culture.  As the parent of a child who has been bullied and socially ostracized, I have a pretty good idea of the disparity between how we educate our kids about the nature of bullying and what their real experience with it is.

We are teaching them to look for this:

Johnny Lawrence, leave Daniel alone!

when in fact, it can be far more subversive. Bullying can be invisible to everyone except the kid it’s happening to, and it might even be happening within the rules of play, inside the ring, so to speak:

For the ostracized kid, it’s very real and very painful.  As a parent, you might hit a wall with the administrators who say they want to be informed of bullying. Your kid might tell you that you should definitely not get involved, that you will only make things worse. If you’re his mama, when you sense his defeat, his lack of confidence, you know what must be done. So you teach him what you can:

Like Mr. Miyagi, I also look great in coveralls.

And you send him back into the lion’s den to face this... every day:

Then one day, he goes and does something exactly like this:

...and through your proud tears you silently cheer Ohmygod the crane?? This is never going to work. It's suicide! Holy Shit, it worked! Wax on, Wax off, Daniel-San!!!

Things are better for my son this year than they were last. Not great, but better. Last night, I dragged him and my 10 year old daughter to a seminar on bullying. I guess it wasn’t exactly a seminar, it was more like a community forum. A discussion facilitated by a moderator who posed questions about bullying to a panel of guests, then encouraged audience participation. We didn’t participate. The kids because they were younger than anyone in the room and they're always uncomfortable and embarrassed about everything when I'm with them, and I because I didn’t want to embarrass them or make them more uncomfortable than they already were. But we listened. After, we had our own conversation about what we heard.

It was interesting to me how many definitions of “bullying” were submitted by the audience and members of the panel.  And how many questions there were to consider. What was agreed upon is that bullying is the act of making someone feel "other-ed." Like, less than, not as good, crappier, hence, not entitled to the same rights and benefits of those who are on the better list. Rights like getting to walk through the hall unmolested, or going from Monday morning all the way til Friday afternoon without being called a fag. Pretty basic rights. These kids aren't asking to be elevated to a superior status, or to have special considerations made for them... they're not expecting homecoming court, they just want to not feel so "other-ed."  

When I say that things are "better, not great, but better" for my kid this year, I mean that although he spends more time by himself than most other kids do, no one calls him names anymore. He crane kicked those little Johnny Lawrence fuckers in the teeth when he joined the football team and ran circles around most of them on the field. He's perfectly content just being left alone, and I'm content for him.

That doesn't give us the green light to close the door on this uncomfortable topic. On the contrary, our family has a personal and very painful understanding of this subject, thus an obligation to keep our awareness and sensitivity to it... acute. My objective as their mama is to help them stay aware, and to keep them on the side of advocacy for those who are on the receiving end of ostracism. They are not allowed to be bystanders of bullying. They are expected to stand up for the underdog, whether themselves or another guy. They are expected to know their own hearts and to speak their own voices, not to regurgitate the voice of a group they may be - or aspire to be - affiliated with.

My hope is that by the time they are adults with voting privileges, this will translate to a conscientious approach to civic issues, because there are no posters in City Hall, at the State House, in our House of Congress, on our Senate floor that look like this:

Though we lobby furiously to raise awareness in our schools, it's acceptable at the state level to enact legislation that ostracizes entire groups of people. Policies that bully, that keep people out, keep them other-ed. Policies that exclude people because of their gender or their sexual orientation. You there, gays, you are not entitled to the same rights as the straights because of who you sleep with, who you love. Now hand over your lunch money or we'll stuff you in the toilet stall again. And you women, you are not entitled to make decisions about your own body because it is lacking a penis, thereby lacking the good sense to make a sound decision about what goes on where one should be. Shut up, whores, or we'll give Paul Ryan your Facebook password again. You are less than... not as good as... other.

There are anti-bullying campaigns at every turn in tween culture today. The Disney kids are on board:

We need these kids with their folded arms and serious looks in Hutchinson, Kansas, in a city commission meeting, where LGBT rights advocates were recently asked by a city councilman to sit down with him and "show me where Scripture supports your lifestyle." This was in response to their request to be added to the city's anti-discrimination ordinance.  The gay rights advocates really should have taken note of the sign at the city gate that said Welcome to Medieval Europe! City ordinances should be reflective of Scripture? (What do the Scriptures say about commercial zoning or handicap parking?) The Disney kids could launch into a well choreographed song and dance routine about how bullying is not cool. Someone would rap something, probably. Usually on Disney they have the whitest kid do the rappy part, so no one can accuse them of racial profiling. Anyway, it would be awesome. The rappy part would be about how the bullied kids are stronger than the bully if they stick together, and then they'd help pick up the backpack and petitions that the bully councilman had thrown down and stepped on, and they'd all link arms and together they'd back the bully down the aisle of the auditorium until he turned and ran away.

I wonder how many parents are fully supportive of the anti-bullying campaigns in their kids' schools, yet turn a blind eye to bullying at the city and state level. What are we showing them if we redefine the notion of ostracism to justify a religious belief? Is gender or sexual orientation a good enough reason to exclude someone from protective legislation, to prohibit their civil rights, to deny them the same access to what we've decided is fair for the rest of us?

What is the difference between this:

...and this:


Okay, first, someone please point these children to a large pile of dirt to play in, because they do not seem to be having any fun here.  But before they go, take a quick look at their faces.  Someone has asked them to hold signs (sideways signs?) that promote bully legislation.  This day totally sucked for them.  They'll go to school and all the posters on the wall will say (besides being more boring than church with your zealot mom) those signs are not good.  And the school posters will have ponies and bears and talking candy corns and the Disney kids on them.  The posters win out over these boring, monochromatic, scratch paper hack jobs.  And if they're lucky, when they grow up they'll respond to bullying with half as much grace as John Franklin Stephens' beautiful crane kick to Ann Coulter's teeth in his response to her use of the word retard as an insult. "I thought first of asking whether you meant to describe the President as someone who was bullied as a child by people like you, but rose above it to find a way to succeed in life as many of my fellow Special Olympians have."

Whether or not the bully backs down right away (Ms. Coulter has yet to apologize), the power that is born out of a gracious rebuttal to bullying is undeniable.  It wasn't long ago that developmentally disabled and special needs groups lacked advocacy at a public level, when people like the eloquent Mr. Stephens would have been institutionalized and denied access to an education.  Today, he has millions of supporters speaking out against Ms. Coulter's bullying words in his defense (not that he needs us, he did just fine).  

I am a mother first, above every other hat that I wear in my life.  I am also a voter.  You can bet that not only will a bully never secure my vote, I will tirelessly advocate for my children and educate them about fairness, about the rights of all citizens... all citizens! ...and teach them to stand for themselves and for others who need their support in the school hall and at the poll.  

Wax on, wax off, kiddo-sans!


  1. As usual - "on point," as Guy Fieri (Food Channel) would say. Way to tie some disparate concepts together, kid!