Saturday, April 07, 2012

BULLY: The Unwritten Social Contract to Grow Some Balls

          I saw Lee Hirsch’s documentary Bully Thursday night with a group of fellow volunteers from WriteGirl. We mentor teenaged girls through their writing. After the movie we sat in the lounge and talked. We all agreed that the parents and school officials in the movie were often clueless when dealing with bullies, and that this most likely mimicked real life.

          The implication is that failure to stand up to the bullies is, well, failure. The bullied know it and so do all the bullies and the multitude of youthful bystanders who are just grateful to stay under the bully radar. In movies, we root for the underdog who finally finds his courage and his fist (Crispin Glover in Back to the Future; Carrie; Mean Creek; Heathers). The victim’s predicament is summed up in homilies: kids will be kids; water seeks its own level; the pecking order; dog-eat-dog.  It’s the predominant philosophy rampant in not only the families, but especially the Vice-principal and the school counselor in Bully. Even the best friend of a victim who resorted to suicide says on camera that he was bullied until he challenged his torturer.

          This happened to my son when he was four: He came home from a small, private pre-school with a huge bruise on his shoulder blade. Over the next few days, more bruises appeared. I talked to the head teacher/administrator at the school. The kids were learning their alphabet and each student was assigned a letter according to their name. My son’s letter was “E” for Eric. Turns out another student named Edward didn’t want to share the letter, so he was pinching my kid on a daily basis. The teacher said she’d talk to Edward about it. The bruising continued. I talked to the teacher again and she pointed out Edward’s father, who was dropping him off. I approached him figuring he’d tell his son to cut it out, you know, share. Be nice. Edward’s dad showed no emotion when he told me that my son should learn to stand up for himself. The term “grow some balls” remains vivid in my memory. I moved my child to another school.

          Most people don’t have this option and find it difficult to deal with school officials. The scene in the movie where the vice-principal essentially shuts down the parents who have come to her for help in protecting their son is infuriating. One can only assume that this experience is pervasive in the communities that these schools serve. But it’s not limited to just rural towns in the South and Midwest.

          A Darwinian survival of the fittest mentality pervades much of American society and the solution offered by Bully is to teach our children not to meekly stand by and allow a fellow student to be bullied. Will this make the defender(s) a target? Yes. That’s why the emphasis is that they organize and act as a group. Is the movie enough to make a change in the schools?

          Bully’s message will positively affect a few students, but it’s their parents who need to hear it and embrace it. Only if the parents model and reinforce non-bullying behavior in their offspring will this problem be eliminated in our schools and in our society. In the movie, the school officials said the behavior was normal and that “nothing is gonna change.” If the parents are not involved, I couldn’t agree more. Think about when and if you’ve ever advised your child not to get involved. And then think again.

Children's talent to endure stems from their ignorance of alternatives.  ~Maya Angelou

 Bullying and the media here.

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