Disarming bullies — from schoolyards to the White House

(Flickr/Thomas Ricker)

There is a strong link between bullying and suicide, which is just one reason why it is an issue to be confronted. (Flickr/Thomas Ricker)

In middle school, I volunteered in the school library. Yes, I was that geeky. Dewey Decimal and I were pals. One day, I stayed after school to shelve some books. The whole building was quiet, but it was not empty. On my way to the bathroom, I was stopped by an older girl.

I didn’t know her. But she grabbed my stocking cap off my head and spit in it. I had not done anything to make her mad — except be white, pudgy and sort of vulnerable. Maybe it was easier for her to be mad at me than at something big and scary and wrong in her own life. I have no idea. But she was mad. So she hocked a loogie in my hat and then shoved it in my face.

What happened next? I haven’t thought about this gross and unfortunate episode in a very long time. I think I took my hat, looked at her and walked away. I think I was quiet even though inside I was screaming. I think I moved slowly and deliberately even though my heart was racing and I wanted to run. I think I resisted the urge to cry. I went back to the library, collected my things and went home.

She was so angry. She was so itching for a fight. What did she do when that chance was taken away from her? Did she find someone else? Did she find a better way to cast off her anger? I don’t know.

I went home and told my parents. They gave me sympathy, compassion and a lesson in the corrosive effects of rage, powerlessness and racism. They had never met this girl, did not know her particular circumstances, but they probably did a really good job of explaining where her hatred and rage came from and reassured me that not reacting — not lashing back at her in anger, hurt, frustration, rage, grossed-outness — was a strong and nonviolent reaction.

“To those to whom much has been given,” my Dad intoned, “much will be expected. You are so blessed. You are loved and cared for and you live in a good, safe home. And you need to be generous with others who don’t have all those benefits. In this instance, what is expected of you is compassion. You can take what she has to dish out. It does not have to hurt you.”

Our dad was a pacifist, but a big burly one with five older brothers and a handful of medals from the killing fields of France during WWII. No one was stealing his bike or spitting in his hat. Our mom turned the other cheek, but you would have to be nuts to make her do it.

It hurt a little. I spent the rest of the school year skittering through the halls and peering around corners, hoping against hope that the girl had gotten herself expelled. But in the long term, I guess Dad was right. I bounced back. I did not suffer any long-term psychological scarring from the loogie in my hat or her hatred and anger. I did stop wearing hats so much (probably a good thing, in more ways that one).

I had pretty much forgotten about this entire episode until I watched Bully, the 2011 documentary film that follows five kids who are routinely bullied and their families. Two of the kids committed suicide after suffering years of abuse at the hands of their peers. When the film was first released, it was rated R because of the terrible language that kids used talking to one another. So, kids are not protected from verbal violence in their day-to-day life, but they are barred from watching it in a movie theater.

It was so hard to watch. Seamus, my 10 -month-old boy, lay asleep on my lap through much of the film, as kids hit, mocked, poked, strangled, punched and threatened other kids who didn’t fit in because of their looks, race or sexuality. Seamus grabs and lunges and wants what he cannot have. He is strong and determined. Will he grow up bullied or become a bully? Or neither? Or both?

Besides the loogie in the hat incident, I was not bullied as a kid. I was hassled and mocked. I was “ganked” (a form of theft-lite) a few times — mostly bikes that I let other kids “borrow.” Once a boy asked me what time it was and when I stopped to tell him, he snatched my Walkman (for younger readers: a Walkman was a chunky personal listening device that played cassette tapes). These were not personal attacks; they were not hateful — not even mean really. It was almost natural, the way lions eat gazelles, weeds choke out lettuce, or Starbucks supplants the local coffee shop. They were just bigger, stronger kids wanting something and taking it.

My favorite “being robbed” story also involves a hat (when you cut your own hair, as I did throughout middle school, hats do come in handy). My brother and I rode our bikes to the school playground on Saturday. Somehow we had cobbled together enough money to buy a can of Pringles potato chips and were riding around the yard eating them. These older boys showed up and chatted us up. And then, wouldn’t you know it, our bikes were pulled out of our hands and away they went.

As the boys rode away, I pulled off my hat and yelled in frustration — I might have said something like “not again!” “Oh no,” the boys were coming back. One of them looked at me carefully, “you a girl?”

“Yep,” I replied, wondering where this was headed.

“We don’t steal from girls,” he said. Then he and the other boy handed us back our bikes. “She your sister?” he asked Jerry. “You shouldn’t let people steal from her, you should have protected her.”

That thought had not occurred to either of us — we got a lesson in the subtleties of chivalry from a pubescent bike snatcher. We shared our Pringles, chatted about this and that, and then the boys went off. Jerry and I could hardly believe our good luck: We lived to ride another day!

Thinking back on that girl all these years later, it seems that bullies are made, not born. The bullied bully. Rewriting the story of the loogier and loogied from this distance, I find her a few days later. I explain to her how icky and hurt she made me feel, I ask her why she would do that to someone she did not even know. She starts out tough, but then she opens up to me, my vulnerability encouraging her own. She shares the particulars of her pain with me, and then we go off together to confront and convert whoever was bullying her. We don’t stop there. Our ranks grow larger and more powerful as we move up the bullying chain — person to person and then from systemic oppression to systemic oppression — all the way to the White House and the Pentagon.

Sounds good, right? I wish. Give me a little slack, I was a just a tween for heaven’s sake.

It is a fable. It is also a good lesson in nonviolence. Despite the built in negative, the word means more than not being violent, it means more than being meek and turning the other cheek. Being nonviolent means digging for the root causes of behaviors, policies and attitudes. It means understanding, addressing, changing, resisting and converting. All of that begins with asking why.

But that is not enough. Watching the film Bully, I was struck by the helplessness of the adults — the parents, heartbroken and angry; the administrators, cautious, equivocal and overwhelmed; the police, ready to lock someone up. It is so easy for everyone to cast blame — parents blame schools, schools blame parents, and everyone blames the media and video games.

What is the answer? Smaller better funded schools, for one, where kids don’t get lost, aren’t invisible and can learn, where teachers and administrators are accountable. We also need more involved parents, which means a living wage and just working conditions for all so that they can participate in their kids’ lives. Daily anti-violence and conflict resolution work will also help by providing a bulwark against the violence endemic in our culture and giving kids the tools to articulate their feelings and resolve problems as they arise.

Of course, all of these common sense responses come down to resources. So it’s only natural to wonder, “Where do they come from?” But maybe, if we disarm the biggest bully on the block, we will have the money we need to de-bully our schools.

This story was made possible by our members. Become one today.