two readings on one subject
Reading 1: What Becomes A Bully Most
"These children who have come forward are the heroes of this town and I want to stand up for them the way they're standing up for my son," she said. "They need to know that we appreciate it, that we know how hard it is and how strong and brave they are to sit there and say what they saw and heard, with the boys who did it staring them straight in the eye."
Those words are spoken by the mother of one of the assaulted players in the Mepham case. Itís not a surprise that the only one to think the kids who are speaking out are heroes is a parent of one of the victims.
"We see it on the TV talk shows and the news and I can't believe they're talking about us," said the father of the other boy, who is 14, shaking his head, amazed his family's pain is now public domain. "You move out here, you know, to make a better life for your kids. This isn't what we came here for."
Suburbia isnít the safe little haven it used to be. While the cities have gangs and drive-by shootings, little Levittown-like enclaves have their equivalent as well, in the form of school bullies and cliques. They may not carry switchblades, but they have other weapons just as powerful in their arsenal. People out here in the burbs have a false sense of security. Their sleepy little towns are well groomed, caressed by trees and beautiful landscapes. Most of the schools donít need metal detectors like their city counterparts. The police can more often be found chatting up neighbors than chasing down criminals. But they forget the one thing that every school - urban, suburban or rural - have in common: the hierarchy of power. Those who are stronger, prettier and quicker tend to lord it over the kids who donít have those qualities that make one popular. And even among the cliques of popularity, there are sub-cliques within them, where the leaders and followers are defined by egos. You can still be in with the in crowd - the football crowd, instance - and be hanging from the bottom rung of the hierarchy so that you are nothing more than a jester in a kingís court.
And what happens to the kids who are constantly bullied and picked on an assaulted? What happens when they canít take any more and the district is protecting the abusers instead of protecting the victims? What happens when day after day, they are used as a scratching post for the sharp tongues of the powerful and elite and everyone assumes that they must be the problem, that they must be sending out the wrong signals to the wrong people?
Eventually, some of them go ballistic and shoot their tormenters. Some of them kill themselves. Some of them live lives of quiet desperation. The bullies go on to live like they are the king of the hill. They go to parties and graduate high school and maybe some of them get football scholarships. Later on in life they will become that boss you despise, the neighbor you fear, the youth baseball coach who screams obscenities at 13 year old umpires. They are the ones driving through stop signs and parking in handicapped spots and demanding special treatment at every turn. Once a bully, always a bully. Especially if youíve been trained that you can get away with it.
Iíd like to see where the three young abusers from Mepham High School end up in a few years time. Here, they are being taught that power buys silence, that popularity buys secrecy when needed, that being a bully has its rewards.
[Below is the second reading, an essay I wrote on this subject almost three years ago (and printed here before)]
Reading 2: Playground Politics
Bullies. Bullies beget angry children. You want to know where those loner kids come from? Where the angst ridden, black clothed, dark poetry writing kids come from? It's not where you think.
The leaders (elected, appointed and self-anointed) of the world would like to place some blame. Movies, video games, and music - their holy trilogy. But I know better. I know where it all begins. School. That nice brick building where the future of our world trots off to five days a week, that place that is supposed to teach, educate and inform...it is there that most the blame lies. In the hallways, the cafeteria, the library, and especially on the playground. Itís where you learn the hard lessons of life. Itís where you first get the notion that life isnít fair. Itís where you discover the inequities of life, learn about the haves and the have-nots, where you first feel the pains of hurt feelings, bruised egos and dodge ball.
Your kids spend a good portion of their life in school. We send them off to kindergarten, knowing that we are setting them on the path to some glorious future. We head off to work, assured that your kids are in the safest environment possible. But are they? Are they safe in school? And I donít mean physically safe. Iím not asking if they are afraid of knives or guns or sharpened pencils or flying mystery meat. Are they emotionally safe in school? No. Our kids are not. School is a place where gangs can roam free. What is a clique really, but a glorified gang? Teachers, administrators, they let it all go. They let the leaders lead and the followers follow and they see that there are kids who cry all through recess and find a reason to go to the nurseís office when itís time to pick kickball teams. They see the tears, and the shame and the embarrassment and the hurt and they turn the other way because, well....kids will be kids. I know, I know, they say. Kids can be so cruel at this age. You just have to live and learn. Stand up for yourself. Go to the library during recess instead. Read a book. Find other friends who are more ďlike you.Ē Be more like them. Stop calling attention to yourself. Call more attention to yourself. Talk more. Talk less. Be more aggressive. Donít be so aggressive. Ignore her, she just wants to get a rise out of you. It will pass. These are the kids who end up hiding in a corner, who are told not to stir the mix, not to rock the boat, just let it go. Just let that anger and hurt build up. Donít talk about it. Donít worry about it. Just let it sit there in their gut and rot away their insides for a while. Let the acid seep into their soul and heart where it will fester until say...high school, and then everyone will wonder why your child is so angry. Why she are such a loner. Why he still gets picked last for kickball, why he still ducks out of dodgeball games, why she still hates lunch time, why he isnít a ďjoiner,Ē why she stays in her room all night listening to depressing music and searching for the razor. Just to look at it, to hold it, to wonder if anyone would miss her.
Meanwhile, on the playground....
Look, there she is. The leader. The boss. Sheís a Heather. Sheís Hilary Clinton running for office and she wants your vote. So she plies you with compliments and math test answers and you follow like a butt sniffing puppy. She wants favors. She wants the snack in your lunch box. She wants your lunch money. She wants to borrow your CDs and your hair gel and you know somewhere deep down that you are never going to get them back. And you know, too, that this isnít right. This is not how friendship works. But you do it anyhow because this is your first friend, the first time someone has wanted your attention and itís not just anyone..it's Hilary, itís Heather, itís the leader of the pack. So you become ďfriends.Ē You laugh at recess, you get picked fourth for kickball instead of last. You go to her house after school and meet her mom and play with her dog. Itís been a good week. Monday comes. You try to talk to her at line-up before class. You offer her gum. She looks at you like she doesnít know you. She turns to Amanda and rolls her eyes. You were in. Youíre out again. Because Amanda, who was the outcast last week, is now in. Because Amanda has better snacks in her lunchbox. And better toys at her house. And her clothes are cooler. Youíre back to the end of the line, the corner in the cafeteria, volunteering to stay in and clean the classroom at recess. Because Heather canít be friends with two of you at once. And Amanda, who invited you to her birthday party just a month ago, no longer wants anything to do with you. If the boss doesnít want her to play with you, well....she wonít. She canít jeopardize her standing in the playground politics.
And this is the way it goes. You spend your grade school years fluctuating between being in and being out. Middle school is more of the same. By the time high school rolls around you are loitering in the alcove outside, smoking and hiding under your walkman. You no longer care whether the Heathers like you. You no longer want to be liked. And the older you get the more reasons there are to be disliked. You talk funny. You walk funny. You live in a trailer. Youíre a rich snob. Youíre a poor slob. Youíre a cheerleader. Youíre not a cheerleader. You listen to death metal. You have a wart on your hand. You read too much. You donít know how to read. Youíre a democrat/republican/facist/socialist/commmunist. Youíre Jewish/catholic/buddhist/born-again. Youíre fat. Youíre too thin. You watch Dawsonís Creek. You smoke pot. You donít smoke pot. Your hair is blue/green/purple. So you do what anyone in this situation would, and should do. You lash out. Your mother sends you to a psychiatrist. The school makes you spend your lunch hour in the social workerís office. The social worker asks if you thought about a nice a trade school. The psychiatrist blames your mother. Your mother blames your father. Your father blames Marilyn Manson CDs and the internet. But you blame Heather. You blame the lunch lady in first grade who watched the de-evolution of your social life without sticking her neck out for you. You blame the second grade teacher who raised Heatherís already made pedestal another foot or so. You blame the gym teachers who canít see that dodge ball is not a game, itís mass execution of the outcasts. You blame Amanda for being Heatherís whore all those years and forgetting that in pre-school you were in inseparable. And you feel relieved that you still have a bit of your dignity left, a tiny bit of sanity stored away in your brain somewhere. You think about blowing up the school, but you donít. You think about drop kicking Heather into the East River but you donít. You think about razor blades and nooses and a bad impression of Kurt Cobainís last few moments on this earth but all you do is think. And you wonder about the other kids...the ones like you, the outcasts, the weirdos, the freaks, the geeks, the school shooters waiting to happen and you wonder. What if? What if you didnít have that last shred of sanity left? What if you werenít still a somewhat stable person? What if you took all this a little too much to heart? What about all those kids who do? When the next kid takes a gun to school, plots a classmateís death or hangs himself from the gym rafters, you will know who to blame. Itís not Marilyn Manson. Itís not Quake. Itís not the endless barrage of MTV or R-rated movies. Itís Heather, and the school system that allowed Heathers behavior to go unchecked. Itís the class system of school and playground politics, the hierarchy of leaders, followers and losers that pervades our lives from pre-k to the workplace to retirement.