Sunday, July 7, 2013

On Bullying, I Look in the Mirror First

About three weeks ago, I watched the documentary, Bully (2011), and it hasn't left the front of my mind since. It actually moved me to action: my superintendent and I are now considering a community-wide book club to encourage conversation among all people--students, parents, staff, and the greater community.

I started looking for literature that was current (what referenced Facebook and other technologies as new frontiers for bullying?) and readable (would the book be too theoretical and lose a big audience?). I've found it in Slate Magazine's well-known author, Emily Bazelon's book titled Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. (Purchase it here: Emily Bazelon's STICKS AND STONES)

Without getting into too many details, she lays out the book by understanding the history, definition, and theory of bullying. Then, she turns to highlighting important cases in bullying, following the stories of three teenagers who each have differences in their bullying stories: different socioeconomic backgrounds, different details within the case, and different results. Bazelon is quite amazing at pointing out the complexities of the issue. She asks important questions: how has Facebook and anonymous comments changed bullying? how can we decipher a two-sided fight from one-aggressor bullying? how do we change and get better?

All that said, before I can ask "we" questions in regards to a school population and greater community, I have been forced to look in the mirror.

I don't always like what I see.

In her book, Bazelon breaks down the act of bullying into three roles: the bully, the victim, and the witness. 

I've played all three roles. 

The Bully
I remember it vividly. In high school, I joined a group of boys in calling a girl "beautiful" in a mocking, sing-song tone. It makes me sick to admit it. This mockery went on long enough to call it bullying (Bazelon reports that the definition of bullying has to satisfy three criteria: verbal/physical abuse, repeated over time, and an imbalance of power). The group of boys (which included me for a short stint) decided it would be hilarious to make fun of someone's appearance and lack of self-confidence by throwing a seemingly-innocent barb her way every time she passed. 

The people who know me best, I think, would quickly come to my defense. They'd make me feel good about myself by reminding me that this kind of behavior was extremely rare for me, that I bullied much less than the average person, that I shouldn't worry about it. But that's the harm, isn't it--excusing our behavior without really understanding the full effects of it? I don't know how much those words, said so long ago, hurt her then--or hurt her now.

The Victim
I spent a good deal of time in the victim role. Primarily, this happened after my move from Iowa to Michigan in the middle of 3rd grade and it lasted through 8th grade. It happened at varying intervals.  I'd get a reprieve as the main culprits would switch victims based, seemingly, on whimsy. I couldn't identify the feelings then as well as I can now (embarrassment, shame, fear, self-disgust), but I remember many tearful nights. I'm thankful for my mother who sat at my bedside and talked through my days and my feelings and the potential results and the best ways to face the next day. 

I've linked in a "This I Believe" essay I wrote about the importance of self-love, but that self-love didn't just come out of nowhere--it was created from my parents.  


The Witness
The bulk of my time as an adolescent--and even now as an educator--is that of a witness. While reading Bazelon's book, I realize that the power of change belongs in the witnesses as 90% of bullying happens when others are around. Yet, as Bazelon writes, "...students...were allergic to snitching: they could see that when kids did report bullying, the situation often worsened for them."

This must have been how I felt because I saw bullying daily--repeated mocks and jeers--and said nothing. I suppose it was part of the school culture. I'm sure I excused my inaction by simply noticing how much it was happening and how little others talked to authority figures. The classic defense of "no one else was reporting it, why should I?" That is the definition of inaction.  Martin Luther King, Jr. poignantly stated during the battle for Civil Rights, "History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people." The same is true for the bullying problem. So, the questions is this: how do we get adolescents to see this before they turn thirty-six?

But, who am I kidding? Thirty-six-year-old people can't use this same advice? If honesty is to win out, I have to acknowledge witnessing bullying as a teacher. I stand by the fact that I report most of it, but I can think of journal entries I've let slide without investigating or handing over to my assistant principal. I've witnessed a hallway pushing which I assumed was mutual joking. But, what's the story I'm not passing along? Does that journal entry root in serious depression? Is that pushing an actual dominance struggle and I passed it off as a rare occurrence because I've only seen it once? I must pay better attention to my surroundings.

So, how do I deal with this? What do I take away? What do I do about it?
  • The more I think and write and read on the topic, I believe the fix begins in the witnesses--by empowering them to stand up for what is right without retribution. 
  • Before that, the power is really in keeping bullying in the conversation and in the forefront of our minds. This topic is valuable. It is deserving of a community book club.
  • That said, the most important thing I can do (and should do as often as possible), is look in the mirror and see how I can be better to people.