A few cases of bullying in the U.S. have — thankfully — received national attention in the past two years.
In New Jersey, two students at Rutgers, a local college, taped their gay room-mate in order to mock and bully him. He was so terrified of exposure and derision that he, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide. Only one of the students has been criminally charged.
In Massachusetts, a 15-year-old Irish girl, Phoebe Prince, made the fatal error of dating the wrong guy, and was soon targeted by girls in her school as a slut, mercilessly hounded. She hanged herself at home.
After her suicide, I spoke out against bullying in this USA Today essay, describing my own experience in a middle-class Toronto high school in the mid-1970’s:
I was 14, and also new to public school, having attended a private single-sex school in grades four to nine, with a year at a private co-ed school in grades seven and 10. Boys were an alien species. I had no idea how to dress fashionably, having just spent the past six years wearing a school uniform. I had pimples. I was socially awkward.
I quickly became the brunt of merciless, relentless public bullying by a small group of boys. They nicknamed me “Doglin” — a “dog” being the most vile name, then, one could bestow on a young girl. They barked and howled at me whenever I walked through the hallways, their taunts echoing off the metal lockers and terrazzo floors. One brought in a dog biscuit and put it on my desk in class.
I was terrified and traumatized. Like many bullying victims I and my worried parents felt helpless to stop it. I was lucky enough to make a few good female friends and to excel intellectually, appearing on a regional high school quiz show and helping our school reach its quarter-finals for the first time in years.
But the daily, visible, audible torture continued. In desperation, at 16, I started seeing a therapist, who recommended I take medication — I refused — to handle my anxiety.
Our teachers saw and heard it every day for years and did nothing.
I knew that I was taking a risk by speaking out in a national publication with more than a million readers. Americans, especially, pride themselves on mental toughness and self-sufficiency. Wimp! Wuss! Whiner! I knew these comments were possible.
Which was my whole point. Being bullied leaves you scarred for a long, long time. I have spoken twice as a keynote at two conferences, appeared on television a few times and routinely speak publicly — all to promote my new book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”
But for a long, long time I was deeply uneasy when people, boys especially, would look at me, fearing the next volley of vitriol. I’ve also been bullied several times in New York jobs, with one trade publication manager who shouted curses at everyone and stood subway-close when she threatened me. Another had a red-faced shouting fit in my very small office. Maybe it’s journalism, or New York, but some of the most toxic people I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter work in my field in this city I chose.
Maybe everyone who’s been bullied emits some sort of magnetic force field attracting even more of it!
Only by speaking out, ideally as someone who had had some professional success and had, in some measure “made it” could I make clear that one can, as so many people do, survive bullying, but not everyone has the self-confidence or resources to handle it.
The thoughtless, knee-jerk response to bullying is always the same: just put up with it. Sort it out among yourselves. Suck it up.
Kids will be kids.
And cruel fools come in all shapes and sizes.
Tacitly allowing bullying to continue creates a whole pile o’ hells for the bullied:
we lose faith and trust in adults whose authority is to care for us and protect us
we lose faith in others, who stand by idly and do nothing
we lose faith in ourselves as we find ourselves powerless to stop such abuse
we withdraw from social, athletic and professional arenas requiring exposure, competition and confidence, feeling unloved, even despised
The New York Times ran a front-page piece today raising questions about the new responsibilities recent New Jersey laws, passed post-Clementi, will impose on teachers and school administrators:
But while many parents and educators welcome the efforts to curb bullying both on campus and online, some superintendents and school board members across New Jersey say the new law, which takes effect Sept. 1, reaches much too far, and complain that they have been given no additional resources to meet its mandates.
The law, known as the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, is considered the toughest legislation against bullying in the nation. Propelled by public outcry over the suicide of a Rutgers University freshman, Tyler Clementi, nearly a year ago, it demands that all public schools adopt comprehensive antibullying policies (there are 18 pages of “required components”), increase staff training and adhere to tight deadlines for reporting episodes.
Each school must designate an antibullying specialist to investigate complaints; each district must, in turn, have an antibullying coordinator; and the State Education Department will evaluate every effort, posting grades on its Web site. Superintendents said that educators who failed to comply could lose their licenses.
Of course, some educators are annoyed and say it’s too much for them to handle.
Try being bullied.