I cannot say much about bullying.

My friends-list is full of posts about bullying, or more precisely the experience of being bullied, because I am friends with a lot of geeks and nerds and other such target types. They’re heart-wrenching to read, but not because they call up echoes of my own past. You see, I was never bullied. And to all the adults who tell the victims “It’s your fault, you must have done something to provoke them,” I have this to say:

The sole reason I didn’t get bullied is that I was lucky.

It’s the only explanation I can find. I was freakishly skinny — seriously, I look at pictures of myself and wonder how I didn’t snap in half — I wore thick glasses all the way through elementary school, I was an unabashed smart kid and book nerd. I was in the band. I had a weird name. There was an abudance of reasons to pick on me . . . but to the best of my recollection, nobody really did.

See, I went to school in the kind of affluent area where parents generally drove their kids to school (as mine did), so I never experienced the rolling hyena cage that is the school bus. During my early years, the only time I rode one of those was when a group of us were bussed to the once-a-week gifted program, held in another school — a program that was large enough, and included enough like-minded kids, that I had plenty of friends. We had honors and AP classes as I got to junior high and high school, so that I never even saw a whole subset of the student body, the subset that might have thought being smart was something to mock you for. The band in my high school was roughly 150 students out of 1500 — ten percent, and a large enough block that we could (and did) just socialize with each other, filling up entire lunch tables, going to practice after school, storing our things in the extra lockers we got by the band hall. Hell, our head drum major was voted homecoming king one year, because the drill team thought he was the cutest thing ever, and that plus the band was enough to lift him above the various football players who were his competitors. Our solidarity protected us.

Not a single piece of that was my own doing. I didn’t conform, didn’t scare the bullies off, didn’t do any of the things adults might advise to prevent the crimes of others. I was lucky.

But even luck may not save you. One of my classmates — a guy I’d known since elementary school, who’d gone through the same system I had, who was in the band — committed suicide during high school. I don’t know if he was bullied, but I know the football team talked some appallingly ugly shit about him afterward. He left behind a community, though; the entire band was devastated, and a posse very nearly went after the football players who were saying those things. That’s a lot more than most bullied kids have. But he didn’t have it because he did anything, other than being himself; he had it because the circumstances made it possible.

The kids who get picked on do not have power over their situations. Telling them it’s their responsibility to make change happen isn’t just unfair, it’s adding to the problem. It’s like grabbing the kid’s hand and smacking him with it while saying, “stop hitting yourself.” We need to not blame the victims. We need authority to step in, the same way we ask authority to step in when adults get stalked or assaulted or harassed. And for the love of god, we need to remember that our instincts are animal ones, and that altruism and compassion and so on don’t happen because a fairy waves a wand, they’re things that need to be fostered — that children need to be taught how not to act like beasts. We need to improve our math scores and everything else, too, at least here in the U.S., but I think I’d happily trade that for a school system that raises kids to be human beings, rather than hyenas.

I don’t know how to do that. But I know it needs to happen, because not everybody is lucky, and even luck can’t save everyone.

0 Responses to “I cannot say much about bullying.”

  1. Anonymous

    As your mother I’m glad to hear that you were never bullied. You and others might like to read this article from the Dallas paper about a program in the Richardson schools that they’ve implemented to try to teach kids to respect one another. That should be a parent’s job, but sadly all too often that doesn’t happen. If something like this program works, lets hope it gets implemented all over the country.


    • Marie Brennan

      I’m curious to know how that program is supposed to work. It’s true that getting someone (kid or adult) to see another person as a person can do a lot to forestall ugliness; I just don’t know if their little face-to-face things will make that happen.

      As for me not being bullied . . . the only one I remember picking on me regularly was my brother. 😉 Seriously, though, I made it through my childhood with so little trauma, it’s nothing short of amazing. Some of that was luck, and some of it was you guys; I thank you for that.

  2. la_marquise_de_

    The kids who get picked on do not have power over their situations. Telling them it’s their responsibility to make change happen isn’t just unfair, it’s adding to the problem.

    Yes, this. Precisely.
    And I am so happy that you were lucky. It shows that people can get through safely.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yes, just as people can survive falling out of airplanes without a parachute.

      Okay, that’s probably an excessive comparison. 🙂 But still — I don’t like the notion that the only ones who get through unscarred are the lucky ones, or else the ones who conform.

      • zunger

        It’s not just the lucky ones or the conformists, but it does require some kind of working strategy, which isn’t really feasible for all kids. I got through it by becoming a really vicious fighter, to make up for being small and nerdy… but I don’t think that this would have worked for most people.

        The working strategies for the victim all, I think, have to do with being able to establish control — either physically, or emotionally — over the bully. Not something which I’m confident can be universally done or easily fixed with some kind of program.

        I suspect that any strategies for dealing with this on a large scale are going to have to focus on the bullies rather than the victims, combined with active intervention when the problem happens — authority to step in, as you said.

        • Marie Brennan

          I was interpreting “safely” as “without being bullied.” There are strategies for responding to it, but those are a different can of worms.

          • zunger

            Well, yes. The whole vicious-fighting thing was a strategy against being bullied; bullies go for people they can intimidate, not people who are potentially dangerous to them. 🙂

      • la_marquise_de_

        But it shows there’s hope. And that’s always good.

  3. tiamat360

    I will say what I said in another friend’s post on the same topic: Clearly, adults need to do something about this situation. But, it’s problematic if an adult is always the solution. What happens if a teacher/parent can’t be called? (say, because the bullies accost the victim on the way to school) What happens when these kids grow up, and there’s no obvious authority figure?

    Certainly adults/teachers need to provide help, but at some point, it’s important for kids to learn what to do to help themselves. I don’t think it’s enough for adults to step in every single time.

    • Marie Brennan

      I think adults need to step in more systemically — not just stopping the moments when they happen, but creating an environment in which kids learn that it is not okay to do this. That there will be consequences for cruelty, and benefits to being kind. You right that you can’t just play whack-a-mole with the problems when you see them, because you won’t always see them; the point is to prevent, or at least reduce the odds of, the victim being hit on the way to school. Then when everybody grows up, they don’t need authority figures to stand over them and say, hey, driving this person to suicide might not be the thing to do.

      And I really flinch at the “kids have to learn what to do to help themselves,” because for me that really echoes the motif that it’s up to women to make sure they don’t get raped. Yes, it’s pure pragmatism to know and engage in behaviors that will help protect you — but I flat-out hate that we focus so much attention on getting the victims to avoid the crimes, rather than stopping criminals before they try. (Yes, I do believe bullying can and does rise to the level of criminal behavior.)

      • tiamat360

        So I’d like to point out that I didn’t actually say that “kids have to learn what to do to help themselves,” but rather that it’s important that they do so. It’s a minor distinction, but I think it reflects that you read my comment as saying “victims need to do everything for themselves” rather than what I meant, which posited that the problem needs to be worked on from multiple angles. Furthermore, your rape analogy doesn’t quite work: I’m not saying that kids need to change their behavior to avoid bullying, I’m saying that they need to learn what to do when it starts happening (trying to fit your rape example better, an equivalent technique might be to teach women self-defense or have them carry rape whistles – or are these things you think shouldn’t happen?).

        And therein lies the problem. Does you think it hurts kids to teach them how to react to and stop bullies? Because I think it’s a great idea, even if you are also trying to stop them by using your authority as an adult. It’s simplistic to think that we live in such an ideal world that just telling kids that “bullying is wrong” will stop bullying altogether, and not attempt to give victims of bullying a way to fight back.

        • Marie Brennan

          My issue is that, based on what I’ve seen from people’s reports of their own experiences, advice on what the victims ought to do is not at all lacking. Stand up to the bullies, be nice to them, try harder to fit in, stay away from them. Strategies that all too frequently don’t work, or work but have negative effects on the kid who uses them (like making them lonely or violent). So proposals to the effect that we need to teach the victims how to stop their tormenters . . . I look very much askance at those. I think we’ve been trying that solution, for a long time now, and it isn’t doing much good. We need to work on the other side of the problem, which is the sociopaths causing the harm.

          • tiamat360

            I think you keep missing the point. I’m not saying that’s all that should be done, but I think it’s an integral part of the solution. As I said, you have to give the kids some kind of tool to deal with bullies, or they’ll have nothing to defend themselves with in their adult lives.

            And, believe me, bullies exist in adult life.

          • Marie Brennan

            My point is that I feel like bringing up that particular (well-covered) part of the solution deflects attention from other parts, the ones we as a society haven’t been working on very much. Why do we need to spend more time talking about what the victims should be doing to help themselves? It is, as you say, only part of the answer; I think we need more conversation about the other parts. The ones that have to do with preventing bullies before they happen, responding to their actions, and generally creating an atmosphere that doesn’t let this stuff slide.

          • tiamat360

            All I’ve seen on LiveJournal the past few days about the topic has been concerned solely with getting teachers/adults to step up and stop bullying. Very rarely has anyone mentioned giving the victims techniques to help themselves, and everywhere I have seen it, the idea’s been attacked.

            If your intent is simply to stop bullying while kids are in school, then sure, focus on getting teachers involved. But, speaking from personal experience here, learning how to deal with bullies is a LOT more important as an adult than knowing that an adult can whoosh in and save you (and sadly, try as you might, it isn’t going to be possible to prevent every bully before he happens). It sounded very much like you (and others on teh Intarwebs) were espousing the idea that ONLY teacher intervention would be worth a damn, which is very much not the case.

          • Marie Brennan

            I’ve seen a lot of proposals for intervention from without, but that’s because all the stories have been about how the victims were left to defend themselves.

            And here’s the thing, that I saw someone point out the last time this discussion went around. If, as an adult, you found yourself in a situation where somebody was habitually stalking you, destroying your personal property, assaulting you physically — what would you do? Would you try to talk them out of it, or scare them off? Or would you go to the police? We don’t actually expect adults to just deal with this kind of problem on their own; we have mechanisms in place for them to get help in shutting it down. A co-worker who regularly terrorizes his colleagues gets fired. A neighbor who fucks up your car has to pay for it. A husband who beats up his wife (hopefully) gets arrested. But when it’s kids doing it to other kids, for some reason we shrug and say, well, they’re kids. They need to learn to deal with these things.

            Not all bullying rises to that level, of course. But some of it does, and yet we still treat it as some kind of childhood thing, and don’t subject it to the same kind of response that an adult iteration would get.

          • tiamat360

            I…think you’re comparing apples and oranges a bit. If the bullying proceeds to violence, then without question an adult (or three or four…) needs to step in; I would not expect (nor endorse) children trying to physically attack their bullies, and even if they chose that route I wouldn’t expect them to be able to solve the problem on their own.

            The kind of “bullying” in adulthood I’m talking about is the kind that shares much more similarity to, say, the emotional bullying many middle school girls participate in. Speaking at least from my own experiences in middle school, this was a significantly more common form of bullying than anything involving violence (of course, I went to a snobby private school, so YMMV). Again, I’m not saying that, even in these cases, teaching victims how to protect themselves is the only thing that should be done, but a) it’s a lot more powerful a tool than in cases involving violence, and b) it really, seriously provides a necessary skill for dealing with things like rudeness, passive-aggression, belittling, etc. in adulthood. I’m guessing you don’t think adults can or do go to the police for that sort of “bullying.”

            Another “help the victim” type of technique that I think is very important (and I’m not sure I’ve seen mentioned elsewhere) is boosting the confidence of kids who get bullied. Certainly not a trivial task, but it must make teaching them to stand up to bullies a lot more effective.

  4. jennifergale

    Creating the right environment is definitely part of it…difficult to manufacture via policy, though. Bullying wasn’t tolerated at either of the schools I attended during my elementary years (private, Christian schools), and the adults stepped in, but my experiences…wow. So different. I think a lot of the difference had to do with the attitudes of the teachers. There’s a difference between saying, “Stop that or you’ll get a detention,” and completely halting everything to talk passionately about why we need to show compassion. There was plenty of opportunity for bullying at School #2 (the good school), but we had teachers who explained why we needed to, for instance, be culturally sensitive to the girl who had a different religion. Intolerance wasn’t tolerated.

    So, yeah. I completely agree with you, especially since I employed every single method taught to help me deal with the bullying at School #1, and not a single one of those methods ever solved the problem. Just changed the problem.

  5. astres

    *creeps in*

    Since you were all excited about it:

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