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.