Nine students of a Massachusetts high school have been charged with various felonies after a student they were systematically bullying at school and on social networking sites committed suicide. This type of action taken by our prosecutors and our courts can only be seen as a good thing.
We each can remember the terror felt walking down the hall with a new boyfriend or a new outfit or a new haircut — do we look okay? did we make the right decision? will we be admired, laughed at, or, perhaps worst of all, ignored? Many of us have also witnessed bullying — sarcasm, ridicule, scorn — taken to excess, and struggled with our own response, or lack thereof. What kind of risk do I take if I stand up for what is right? Will I be next? Am I strong enough to bear the scorn of my peers? Most of us, when in high school, would probably have answered no; many of us maybe still.
And there’s no need to wait for high school — I witness this even with young children. My super-athletically-thin daughter comes home and tells me she’s going on a diet because her 50-lb-overweight friend told her she was fat. Two of my nine-year-old piano students thump their chests at each other at the half hour as one lesson transitions into the next. It’s like watching puppies jockeying for position next to their mother when they’re not even hungry. We can’t even generalize and say it’s a guy thing; “women” are probably harder on other women than men are, even when we’d like to believe that we should all stick together. In any case, we’re each trying to find our place in the hierarchy, and to the immature or simplistic mind making someone else feels small makes “me” larger.
In an article in the New York Times, David Brooks points out that “Most schools and colleges spend too much time preparing students for careers and not enough preparing them to make social decisions.” Interestingly, though, the Brooks article was not about the case regarding the bullying, but about Sandra Bullock’s “difficult” week last week – you know, the week when she won the Oscar and lost her dignity because of her philandering and apparently, possibly abusive, husband — and whether professional success trumps personal tragedy in our individual and societal quest for happiness.
Are these two things related? Are we doing what we need to to teach our children about the subtle and surprising manifestations and effects of bullying? Are we stressing enough the importance of how we get along in the world, how we present ourselves, how we can, and need to, build ourselves up without tearing each other down? How the social decisions we make, from how we make and keep friends to how we choose our lifetime partner, impact our lives?
If our children perform a “Yes Dance” with a group of friends at a talent show, are the closeted gay students in the audience intimidated even more than they were before into keeping their identities secret? Do the performers get a “pass” if their actions were harmful but their intentions were not malicious? If we agree to buy our children trendy clothes are we contributing to the idea that these things matter so much that those who do not wear them, for whatever reason, are “wrong”? Should we all just breathe a huge collective sigh of relief that we are safely OUT of the halls of high school? Or is our work just beginning?
We need to teach our children that what we think, what ANYONE thinks, doesn’t matter a whit compared to what they think of themselves. If your child asks if you like a picture that she drew, ask her first if SHE likes it. When a student asks how they did in a competition compared to other students, steer the conversation toward how they did compared to how they HOPED to do, how they EXPECTED to do, how they would like to do next time.
We all like to pat our little charges on the head and bolster their self-esteem. But maybe there are better ways to do it than letting them beat us at card games, and cleaning up after them. Teachers should command respect, stop the grade inflation trend, and not let students text in class. It’s hard to keep after it, I know. Mentoring children, as either a parent or a teacher, is often not the beautiful, inspiring, profound experience we imagine it would be. I liken it more to erosion — they’re the dripping water, I’m the sandstone. What happens when we’re worn down? Despair?
Until then, I’ll try to keep fighting the good fight, and hope that every other parent, teacher, administrator does the same.