Bullying sucks. And Middle School is probably something akin to my notion of hell. Annoying teachers, arrogant, stupid boys and confused, intoxicating girls all crammed into tiny classrooms learning things that may or may not be useful (counties and county seats, anyone?) The In Crowd, the Outsiders, the fringe folk. Whatever you call them, the cliques are universal. The Jocks, the stoners, and the preps. The nerds and oddballs.
When I was in school NO ONE was out. Period. Boys didn’t even admit to masturbation, the prevalent thinking being that a “real man” didn’t have to do it. Or that it was the next worst thing to homosexuality. I didn’t even recognize the insult “fairy,” or “queer,” as a sexual slur until I was in my mid-teens. Funny thing that my stepmom realized she was lesbian after leaving my father (something he took very personally, but I personally thought answered a lot of questions). It should have given my dad a feeling of relief but it didn’t. Then again, he’s not the most introspective person on the planet.
My childhood was hell. I would say that in grade school I suffered hundreds of bullying sessions. In middle school or, as we knew it then, junior high, it dropped to once a week or perhaps fewer such episodes. I’d grown so inured to many attacks that I stopped recognizing them for what they were. Two kids trying to beat me up left me laughing at them as they ran away. When you’ve been bullied for years, including by a former Force Recon Marine who happens to be your father, you tend to achieve a kind of resilience.
By the time I was in high school it had grown… more difficult to bully me. I had spent years training in the martial arts of one kind or another (though my father specifically made sure I gained no high belt, fearing the urban legend about black belts having to register with the police). I finally grew to some size, which helped.
It’s been many years since I had to tolerate a bully, and even as gnarled up as I’ve grown these days, I’m still not afraid of the breed. They’re cowards, one and all. Little people with self-dialogue that tells them how much of a loser they are, spurring them to strike out at others to make themselves feel more powerful.
I can’t imagine what would bring a kid to the point of suicide. When things got bad I just ran. That’s how I ended up hitchhiking much of the west coast several times before the age of 21. And how I ended up more or less physically fearless. And how I ended up convinced of my own mortality even earlier than most folks. Because any sense of invulnerability conferred upon you in your youth will be paid back later. Take my word on it.
We want to stop bullying? We need to give people a better sense of their own power and responsibility for their lives. If we put obstacles in children’s way rather than allowing them to flex their minds and imaginations to stretch toward their dreams, we risk creating a generation of bitter cynics who feel they have nothing to lose. Yet if we hand them regard and self-esteem for no accomplishment whatsoever, they lose the gift of pride in a job well done.
ALL our children need to feel valued, and given the opportunity to grow and gain skills that suit them. Depriving some kids of these chances because of an inconvenient or difficult home life, a background of poverty, which is SO often the case (take my word for it, I know this refrain by heart), risks having great talent fall through the the cracks. Not taking care of ALL your students, making sure their emotional, intellectual, and emotional needs are being taken care of, is a mistake too many administrators and none too few teachers make. And of course some of this is funding, but some of it is also clinging to foolish notions of psychological support… like “self-esteem.”
It behooves us to find and nurture the inherent talents and skills of a child, so the child learns to feel pride in accomplishment, whether it be in the skillful crafting of a sentence, or the playing of a song. Something on which to hang that pride. For without it you simply get children who believe pride is their due, that it has nothing to do with their behavior or actions.
And we come all the way back around to bullies again. Bullying sucks. And those who feel worthless, even if that is a secret fear hidden deep within them, become bullies. This may be because they were told they were worthless their whole lives, or it may be because they’re told they’re somehow special without ever doing anything special to prove it, leaving behind the hidden fear that they are not really all that special at all.
Special is what you make of yourself. It’s in your interactions with other people. And, yes, even good deeds can be accomplishments in which to feel pride. Being thoughtful, kind, and considerate. Also accomplishments.
We just have to start teaching ourselves and our children better.