Jesse Logan, Phoebe Prince. I am sure there are others. Beautiful, young girls with their whole lives in front of them. Diamonds just starting to shine stolen away by the dark demons of depression and the slick, slippery slide of low self-esteem. Pecked to death, slowly over time by the taunts of their equally insecure classmates. Teenagers, who tormented by their own lack of confidence, repeatedly called them vile names, squashing them beneath the black boots of adolescent disdain as they clambered over their bodies in at attempt to climb up the ladder of prepubescent success.
I did not know Phoebe, or Jesse. I do not know their peers, but I do know what it is like to be a teenager, to feel desperate and to be unable to see the future even if it is right down the road. If only they had held on, made it through the mess of adolescent, maybe they would have been okay. Maybe they would have blossomed into a strong, young women, succeeding in college, going on to do research and to write and talk about their experiences of being bullied, hoping to stop the pain for someone else. Maybe Jesse would have discovered life on another planet. Phoebe, the head of the United Nations. Maybe they would of had children and settled down in a small town doing the most important job, parenting. And as a parent they could have imparted onto their children the knowledge gained by their humiliating experience in high school, and taught them the importance of reaching out to others. But they didn’t survive, they were too afraid and young to hang on. They didn’t know to look down the road, that things would get better.
And now we will never know, who or what they might have been. They were stolen from all of us. So we, the parents, must now act us parents should and stand up for them. We must cradle in our arms the victims of bullying and confront the tormentors, no matter who they may be, even if they are our own.
We were all there once, middle school and high school, each of us struggling to make it through the day. Worried about how big our boobs were, or weren’t, how many zits did we have on our faces, do I smell, will he talk at me, is my fly open, will my face turn red when I talk in front of the class, what if she won’t be my science partner? We have all been there, under attack by our fear and hormones, and instead of pulling together as a group and seeing our strength in numbers, we were separated. Divided by unseen walls of status: the victims, the invisibles, the druggies, the jocks, the populars’. Ask yourself, right now. What group were you in? Did you like it there? Would you want your kid to be in that group? What did you give up to be in the group? Your pride, your individuality, your voice? With exclusion comes sacrifice. Maybe you sacrificed your self, your relationship with you family, or your best friend since kindergarten. The one you watched Creature Double Feature with everyday at five, played long stretched out games of Life or Monopoly, and told your inner most secrets to. Suddenly, they had to go. They were not cool enough, pretty enough, strong enough, they were holding you back, so you threw them aside to move up the ladder of popularity or avoid the scars of being shunned. Do you think it is different now? It’s not. The technology is different; the insults quicker and easier to throw around anonymously thanks to computers, and the feelings and the outcomes remain the same.
Maybe you were the one who was left behind. Unable to protest, feeling small and scared you decide to be silent, become invisible. Pretend it didn’t hurt. Now, you are determined that your child does not suffer the same fate as you. You will do anything to make sure he is captain of the football or she is head cheerleader. You guide them towards certain friends, families to associate with.
Don’t be fooled by the kid who says “There is no bullying in my school. We have a program for that.” As history has unfortunately shown us over and over again, we are all capable of aggression and brutality. I know this is hard to accept but even your own kids, the ones you love with all of your heart, the ones whose eyes you look in every night and think, “Oh, he/she would never do that.” Really? Think back with true honesty to your own experiences. Did you ever step outside of your group to offer an outsider a place at the lunch table? Were you willing to stand up for a friend even if it meant you might be turned on next? Do you ever participate in the jeering, sneering, meanness of middle school? Why would your child be any different?
The anti-bullying programs are wonderful and necessary, but it cannot end there. The conversations must continue at home. Just as you practice math and science with your kids, you must practice this as well. Practice kindness. Teach them to accept, to stand up, to challenge. Teach them when they are young not to exclude others on the playground, to give everyone a chance, to invite all the kids to the birthday party, to open up their circle of friends. Bullying is not just physical harm or rude insults; it also comes in the form of exclusion. Being alone, forced out, made to watch from the sides.
It is natural to develop a group of friends over time, but perhaps, maybe, if we just reach out a little to the child that is sitting by itself, whose pants are a bit too short or wears the wrong style, or we don’t really know very well, we can help one person to feel included. Give them a sense of belonging. It is our job as parents to teach this, to reinforce it, to bring out the grace and goodness in our children.