I originally posted this on March 13, 2013, but I have updated it a bit in honor of Bullying Awareness Week, November 17 – 23, 2013.
Human beings have always always needed leaders. Someone had to organize the fire brigade when the log cabin began burning down, right? The roots of competition, or as Darwin puts it – the “survival of the fittest”, began long before modern man, and was already developing back in ancient times. Think about it. Who would win the race run when a Saber-Toothed-Tiger was chasing two men: the faster and more clever one, or the one with a bum leg and poor eyesight who didn’t see the hidden cave to the left?
We need to be aware of others’ strengths and weaknesses, because they help us in every aspect of life. The problem happens when those with perceived supremacy try to hold back or harm someone.
I found a well-written definition on the Australian Government’s page, “The Line,” which provides resources and information on dealing with difficulties personal relationships.
Bullying is a form of abuse, and is intentional, repeated intimidating behaviour (sic) by an individual or group that causes distress, hurt or undue pressure. In most cases there is a power play within the bullying, with the target been seen as weaker than the perpetrator(s).
Bullying is as old as life itself, which is why it can start pretty early in life. We can observe it even in really young children, and it gets more pervasive as we age. Bullying takes many forms. Nobody – no matter your age, gender, bank account, geographical location, job, school, title – is exempt from either side. Bullies don’t always look menacing, and victims aren’t always the “lowest man on the totem pole.”
Nobody is Safe
It does seem like bullying is getting more intense and frequent. Is it because information travels faster in 2013, or because we have more access to results of testing or measurements, or because people really are that much meaner?
Bullying is the use (perceived or real)
of power or authority to coerce, intimidate or hurt others.
Perceived or Real. I don’t think that it matters which one it is, nor if the frequency is due to an actual increase in incidents or because people are finally taking notice, because perception is often reality.
Bullying has been in the news constantly for years now. I will never forget the story of fifteen year-old Phoebe Prince, a high school freshman in Massachusetts who hanged herself as a result of “relentless taunting” by classmates in 2010. A girl with her entire life in front of her, Phoebe was so beaten down by the verbal bullying and threats of physical harm, that she believed she was better off dead than having to face her tormenters. Imagine waking up every morning with fear looming over your head, no matter where you went – especially in school and online, which for many teens, is everywhere.
Thankfully, people are starting to rise up against bullying. Projects like The “It Gets Better” campaign, originally developed to target Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender Youth, promotes openness, and support in the crusade against the effects of bullying. The Centers for Disease Control considers bullying of all forms as harmful to health. Even the federal government has taken a stand against bullying. But is it enough?
A Right of Passage?
I’ve often heard others describe childhood bullying as something we all must go through. Some people (even parents and coaches) believe that taunting helps us compete, and that we must earn respect and friendship. This notion is what in later years manifests as hazing in sports teams, marching bands, Greek organizations, at work, and in the military.
Every living generation has their own version of what a bully is and looks like.
- If you’re old enough to remember the television show, “The Little Rascals” (created between 1929-1938 but shown in syndication for many decades), the neighborhood kids suffered under the thumb of bully “Butch” and his sidekick, “The Woim”.
- In 1980s, “My Bodyguard” told the story of a young teenager moving into a new school seeking protection from the school’s notorious resident bully.
- Ralph Macchio’s “The Karate Kid” had to fight off a whole squad of bullies, A.K.A. “Kobra Kai,” led by actor Billy Zane.
- Modern films like “Mean Girls” (2004) offer a humorous take on the cruelty that teen girls dish out to each other, not only to those they think are socially beneath them, but to others they consider friends.
So bullying is nothing new. In fact, it is happening much more often, and much more severely.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that five percent of children reportedly missed at least one day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe. Those numbers don’t count the kids that don’t miss school, but who still feel unsafe. I’m betting that number is much bigger.
According to The Bully Project, 77% of students – that’s more than 3 out of every four children – are mentally, physically, or verbally bullied at some point. The internet, and the ability to photograph/record videos makes it even easier to harass someone. What makes bullying so painful is that the bullies often focus on things that the victim can’t control – wearing glasses or braces, their family’s financial or marital status, physical traits like height or freckles, being new at school or work, etc.
“The pen is mightier than the sword”
This adage has been around for eons. People often attribute the idea to Shakespeare, a 500 BC Assyrian teaching, Greek philosopher Euripides, Islāmic prophet Mohammed, as well as both the Old and New Testaments of the bible, which tells us that people knew even back then of the power and the potential damage that words could inflict.
Some may think, what can words do? As kids, we use the phrase “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.”
However, words can hurt, and those scars might never go away. A 2003 journal article discussed the results of a study on adults to assess “the relationship between anxiety disorders in adults and self-reported history of teasing or bullying experiences.” Ninety-two percent of adults who suffer social anxiety reported that they were teased or bullied as children. In addition, they were also more likely to also suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Panic Disorder.
Indeed, words hurt. Words cause deep wounds. Words scar. And words can kill, even if it’s slow, relentless hacking away of self-esteem and perceived worth.
I am an adult survivor of bullying.
When I was kid, I didn’t seek help for bullying until after it became very, very serious. There are still some details I do not wish to share, but let’s say that if you made a list of the types of bullying, I’d probably be able to check off nearly everything on the list.
Thirty years ago, bullying wasn’t high-tech. The kids in my class did it quietly and subtly so that the teachers didn’t catch them until very late.
Having Cystic Fibrosis probably gave them a lot of ammunition. I was physically smaller than everyone else in class. I coughed constantly and had frequent stomach issues. I had strict parents who kept me from socializing with classmates. During the winter, when it was too cold outside for me to play at recess, I used to help teachers decorate the classroom and bulletin boards instead of going outside with the rest of my class, which is where I wanted to be – with everyone else.
Put it all together and you might as well have put a target on my back.
I remember an episode in fourth grade, I had awful stomach pain, and asked to go to the school nurse earlier in class. The teacher didn’t really believe me and said to go back to my desk to relax. As I walked back to my desk to get my notebook, several kids called me a faker. As I bent down to pick up a pencil I had dropped, I let out some gas without expecting it, which made the whole class laugh. The teacher asked “who did that” (I’m sure she knew it was me) and I froze. She held up class until somebody (I?) admitted it – as if it was a joke – and threatened detention to the four people at the back of the room from where she believed it originated. It took about twenty minutes and glares from the other three kids sitting near me for me to make the mile-long trek to Mrs. K’s desk at the front of the class and admit that I had done it.
That pain that I had supposedly “faked” led me to spending almost a month in the hospital with both a complete bowel obstruction and a kidney condition. When my teacher had everyone in the class draw and make me “Get Well” cards, I wanted to throw them away. For the rest of my school career, I had great fear and anxiety of having gas issues, which were inevitable given my CF.
If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all
The torture started to escalate in junior high. The kids – mostly a group of girls – used all sorts of tactics. They created a Slam Book about me. People tripped me in class. Fellow cheerleaders mocked my cartwheels in practice, to the point that once I got to High School, I didn’t bother trying out for the cheer squad. The class labeled me as “goody two shoes” for my good grades and called me “prude” because I didn’t know the meaning of words like “virgin” or “condom.” Boys would snap my bra, make sexual hand gestures, and would whisper sexual innuendos to me as they passed my desk. As a result, I grew more fearful of boys, dating, etc., and had anxiety attacks well into my 20s when meeting and dating new people.
When I was in the eighth grade, it was tradition to have every classmate write in your yearbook, usually on the last day of school (it was a half day of class for 8th graders, with Graduation that weekend). We just passed them up and down the classroom aisles so that we each of us could write in everyone’s books. Given that I didn’t have any “real” friends, I didn’t expect much, so I wasn’t as eager as everyone else was to see what people wrote to me. While everyone else read their books, I just sat at my desk quietly until the bell rang.
I knew that most messages would consist of non-personal messages like “good luck at High School”. Most people wrote next to, or over, their photos.
On my way home from school, I rode in the passenger seat of my mom’s car. I opened up my yearbook, flipped through a few pages, and my heart sank. I quietly closed it. I realized that it was smart to wait. I wondered if having a blank yearbook would have been better. I remember that I hid my yearbook from my family. I was already a loser and didn’t need them to realize it as well.
Here are some examples of the lovely sentiments left by my classmates, some of whom I’d known since Kindergarten:
1. “I hope I don’t see you next year at ———“R.P. planned to attend the same high school I had chosen. He was one of two boys who used to spit on me from the upper stairwells every day on our way back to class from working on a school fundraising committee. I have anxiety attacks and feel nauseated whenever I see people spitting. He also used flip my uniform skirt up in front of classmates, and block me from getting my coat and backpack from the class coat room.
2. “I know I won’t see you next year. Thank God.”I met A.P. in fourth grade, when he was a new student. He and a band of other boys liked to make fun of my family, my lack of friends and my unpopular status. I’m pretty sure he began doing it to gain acceptance at a new school, but as we got older, his insults grew meaner.
3. “SORRY for everything we did this year. Your friend, S—-.”S.C., a girl who I had considered a friend, who spent quite a few nights at my house during sleepovers, who I’d known since first grade, wrote words of remorse for the many things she and several other girls had done to me. I wanted to ask, “what exactly are you sorry for?” I still wonder, so many years later, if the other girls ever felt badly about what they did. It’s always been hard to trust people, even those I’ve spent a lot of time with or with whom we’ve had bonding experiences.
4. “I still Hate You.”Written by a boy who other kids accused of liking me, M.O. didn’t hesitate to share his feelings about me. You can see how hard he held his pen as he scrawled those words. I never acted any differently towards the boy. I don’t know why he hated me so, perhaps it was because the other boys would tease him about liking me. I’m not sure.
Growing a Thicker Skin
It wasn’t always easy, but I tried living like a duck – you know, just let it roll off my back.
Throughout high school, I worked really hard to gain confidence and began trying to stand up for myself when people made fun of me. I started to believe in myself and my talents for writing and acting. I didn’t care if people thought I was a geek for spending half the school year practicing for the annual musical, or spending my entire summer performing in community theater.
Once in college, I realized that I was a bit awkward and very naïve. I had a lot to learn about myself, about how to with strangers, about how to handle myself in situations for which I was definitely not ready. I made mistakes, but I learned how to pick myself up and dust myself off. I also learned how to talk to people I’ve never met before, how to interview, how function in a group. I took on leadership positions, worked hard, earned good grades, and received awards for my efforts.
I am proud of what I have overcome, but standing up for myself is a lesson I’m still learning. For those who cannot fight anymore, I will continue to fight for you.