When Adults let children abuse children, there are no happy endings
by Clif Garboden
My bullying experience was textbook, or perhaps storybook, straight from the pages of a 1950s Boys’ Life. I was in first grade and the youngest kid at the bus stop where the “big kids” frequently stole my hat for taunting games of keep-away or threw my lunchbox over the hill into the nearby creek. They didn’t like my boots. They didn’t like my answers when we compared grades. They didn’t like me because they weren’t especially nice or bright, and probably because their parents and siblings didn’t like them much. Pay it forward.
The gleefully delivered ritual indignation went on until one winter day when Donny, a tall-for-his-age fourth grader, “washed my face out” — a then common form of child-on-child assault that involved rubbing some relatively helpless kid’s face with handfuls of snow. I fought back, literally jumping up to deliver a flailing punch to my tormentor’s face. I expected to be killed, of course, but, to the amazement of all, Donny started to cry and ran home. More remarkably, just like the fables about cowardly bullies predicted, the harassment stopped after that. Stand up for yourself, my son, etc.
That scene — true story — wouldn’t happen today. (Actually, today, I’d be the one expelled for fighting.) Bullying seems to have changed. On the universal spectrum of hectoring, my episodes (traumatic enough for me, thank you) land somewhere in the territory of “children can be cruel.” This was before the invention of poison-pen Tweets and Facebook defamation. Most low-tech browbeating was randomly dispensed in service of no greater ideal than an age- or size-defined pecking order. Big kids picked on little kids. Our adult supervisors ignored it. Some, apparently, believed it somehow purified us.
The bullying we hear so much about today is, by comparison, downright evil, and it’s actively enabled by our schools. Often, the poor misfit being hounded is some student that teachers don’t like much anyway, and so adults turn a blind eye. Worse, some sorry teachers will tactically scapegoat an unpopular pupil in an attempt to win over and control the rest of a class. School boards will deny it, but bullying at school never, ever happens without at least one adult’s tacit sanction.
Image-conscious suburban schools have done a pretty good job of minimizing physical bullying, but that’s merely shifted persecution’s arsenal to taunts, threats, and rumor mongering. In my experience, no kid ever said “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” First of all because where I grew up there was always a ready supply of sticks and stones at hand with which to test the claim. But mostly because everyone knows that cliché retort is a lie.
Today’s educators try touchy-feely tricks like group reconciliation, a technique my son once defined as “getting everyone into the same room so they can tell you what’s wrong with you all over again.” Bullying can indeed be stopped by a courageous peer or a scolding adult, but heroes are hard to come by these days.
What are bullies’ victims to do? There is no good choice: they can A) hate their tormentors or B) hate themselves. Plan A condemns them either to seethe in frustration or to strike out and, inevitably, end up being blamed for the whole situation. Plan B offers a life of cowering despair versus the impulse to attempt an often self-destructive escape. Which brings us to the late 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, a Central Massachusetts high-school girl allegedly bullied unto suicide by verbal pressure applied by a pack of jealous Northampton brats.
Relentlessly humiliated, the courts contend, Prince tragically took the extreme way out, but millions of other bullying survivors simply live with some unfair stigma they’ve been forced to internalized. My friend Jeff, who was bullied mercilessly at the Northfield Mount Herman school eventually snuck out and ran away. Retelling the story decades later, some Pollyanna type asked him if, given the perspective of years, he’d forgiven his attackers. He answered quickly, simply, and offhandedly, quipping, “No, I hope they’re all dead.”
I don’t cut Donny any slack either. It’s that simple — and that permanent.
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