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two readings on one subject

[Previous entries on the Mepham hazing are here here, here, here and here.]

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.


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Comments

Well spoke, Michele. Maybe that's why this story sickens me so much - I was not of the 'in crowd' in HS. However, Uniondale HS 25 years ago was light-years more civilized than this place.

The dark thought I had this morning while reading the paper was: Will the victim whose mom was interviewed NOT suffer retribution now that this is out in public? Sadly, I think he will, still, as will those now giving over information. That they are underclassmen has me worried that it will go on for a few more years at least.

People wondered why Columbine happened. This is a case study on those root causes.

WG, LI

I don't think I've ever read anything that better expresses what really goes on in our schools. Yet, I don't think it will make any difference because the same bullies who were products of this system run the show now. I know what I went through and the kind of crap my son goes through.

I think the greater part of the victims who manage to get even do it, not by a Columbine type incident, but by becoming...

...lawyers.

standing ovation

I agree with Dave's standing ovation.

Let me open up, and perhaps open some eyes (I hope).
I was bottome of the ladder for most of my school life (yeah, all the way back to pre-school). Weather or not this is my fault depends on the view of the person looking at it, but I can tell you where I am today. There are a number of exceptions, but for the most part, I hate people today. I do not support Columbine type stuff, but I will proudly stand behind any individual student who takes a gun to school and kills his tormentor. My hate drives me to think un-normal thoughts. Society would likely be anarchy with me as a leader, because I see the death penalty as a good method of stopping a lot of crime. Admitedly, my view of people is VERY twisted. I can count on two hands the number of people I truly trust, and I find it nearly impossible to forgive people for thier actions (they never get punished for them anyway).
It is my opinion that most if not all of these patterns within my mind result from endless insults and abuse as a child, with no-one in the school, or outside giving a rats ass about the problem. I am ****ing sick and tired of these ***holes getting away with whatever they want.
A common question in my mind is: why can't we just kill them all?

The only hope I have is that I recognize the issues I have, but I fear it will take a long time. For now, I just need to concentrate on self control so I don't go balistic (thank God I'm smart enough to stay away from guns, at least I don't have to worry about doing something like that).

re-reads Joy. did I actually say all that?

Feel free to rip into me if you wish, but I'd certainly be interested in others perspectives and experiences.

Itís true Ė victims of bullying are the ones who wear black, decide that they Ďdonít careí about whether theyíre popular or not, who daydream about drop-kicking Heather into the East River (they may even walk along the river to determine the best and most well-hidden point to do it, and the best, least-traceable way to get Heather there).

Itís an interesting mental exercise and it can even lead to an interest in murder mysteries and literature in general, but it doesnít help with the rest of the schoolwork. Most victims look forward to the day when they can prove that living well is the best revenge.

But the kids who take a gun to school and start shooting arenít victims. They donít aim for their tormentors. They go for the random targets, soft targets, anyone who is in firing range, even the nice quiet kid in black. Itís not an expression of despair, itís an expression of their power over everyone else. Theyíre just another version of a bully.

If the school made an effort to keep the popular kids from getting too much attention, that would be great for the real victims, but bullies who go postal can only be stopped be pre-emptive actions - if everyone (kids, parents and the school) watches them closely, and if people are willing to tell the authorities when they are becoming a threat. If the school doesnít encourage that, then they are to blame.

Ah, but don't you wonder about how all of those kids who are being home-schooled nowadays are going to deal with the hard knocks of life?

I do.

My nephew is one such child. He's five, in first grade, and he's bright and lively child, but if he were actually in school right now, he'd be bullied. He would turn into one of the kids in black. His parents, interestingly enough, weren't kids in black. They were the prototypical small town high school sweethearts that everyone loved, the king and queen of the prom, but one of the concerns that led to the decision to home school was their son's personality: they were afraid he would be bullied. After all, who would know better about the treatment a child like the nephew would receive than two people who were popular?

I fear for this kid. He's intelligent, lively and a wonder, but he has absolutely no clue as to how to deal with other children simply for the reason he's never around them. His parents don't have long term plans to home school him---they're taking it year by year---but I fear for the day he actually does enter school, or the real world, whichever comes first, because it will be the biggest disillusionment the world has ever seen. No defense system is being instilled in him for the occasions when the world won't treat him well and knowing him and his aversion to all criticism, he won't take it well. At all.

As wrong as bullying is, it does serve a purpose. It tells you early on to toughen up; that life sucks, so get a helmet---it prepares you for the real world.

This child, whom I love, is in for a very rude awakening. And as good as his parents intentions are in this circumstance, they're not doing him any favors.

Nice try, Michelle, but too simplistic. My kids go to an affluent suburban middle school, and my son had his head rammed into the blackboard five times last week for encouraging a victim of a bully. But the school handled it well and even affirmed my son - "just keep on being you." Why did my son have the courage and compassion to reach out to the victim? Because he has been there too many times. Yet he is mentally healthy because of his sense of humor, a naturally optimistic personality, and an extended loving family that is always there for him. We sacrificed, first with a part-time job for my husband and then with me, so we would always be there for our kids. And they need a steadying parental hand as much as ever in middle school. We worked hard at building relationships with the school - administrators, teachers, staff and bus drivers. So the lunch lady does intervene and the bus driver keeps an eye out for them, and that substitute teacher belongs to Mom's book club. It is a village, but not a government village ala Hillary Clinton. It is a village based on relationships built by the parents. Oh, and not all suburbanite have fled the city. We were born here and watched our pastoral countryside turn into suburbia.

Mona, consider yourself lucky. Not all schools have adminstrators and staff that are as attuned to the needs of their students as yours.

What the parent of a bully does - or neglects to do- at home with their child often negates all the love you give your child at your home.

I think your view is simplistic as well - you assume that everyone lives in a town like yours. Most people don't.

I am blessed, and thankful for it. On the way home after the incident, my thoughts were of the other mother called to school that day. I can't imagine the pain of dealing with a child that is cruel. My girlfriend suggested to me that the other mother probably did not react the way I would have. duh! Cruelty is taught the same as kindness is taught.

I was in high school when the two kids at Columbine tore through their school. At the time, I was in the black trenchcoat-wearing group. Since I went to a nerd school, this wasn't really an outcast situation... most of us in that school had been outcasts sometime previously and so there was always a certain level of respect between the different social groups. Columbine sent shocks of recognition and fear through us. It was unacceptable at the time to understand what those two boys felt... but we did. We talked about it in hushed tones so that the teachers and security guards keeping a close eye on us wouldn't hear and report us. Administrators see the students as the danger, as timebombs waiting to go off, and they make a big show of trying to find out who set the timer. Whether they realize it consciously or not, they are terrified, deep down inside, that someone, maybe even they themseles, will realize that they are the ones adjusting the wires.

Jon, I hear you.

I was always unpopular in school and I never had the feeling that my folks would back me up. The only thing that ever worked for me was the day I turned on a tormentor and cracked him in the jaw with a straight right. I forget how long his jaw was wired shut. After that, I was shunned and ignored, but not bullied.

I find it difficult even today to trust people. It seems like hardly a day passes where I don't mention how much I hate people.

If I had been more creative as a child, I would have taken revenge in nastier and less-lethal ways. I find that a few drops of Visine or a bit of Ex-Lax into the coffee of an obnoxious boss or co-worker creates a race to the bathroom that will be lost. ;-)

Jon, perhaps the best thing to remember is, "Don't get mad, get even!" But also remember that revenge is a dish best served cold.

As wrong as bullying is, it does serve a purpose. It tells you early on to toughen up; that life sucks, so get a helmet---it prepares you for the real world.

No, it doesn't, because the real world bears no resemblance at all to school.

Kids are trapped in their school. They can't decide not to go. The can't choose who they associate with, or where, or when. School is hell, and bullies are the demons torturing the damned.

In the real world, you choose where you work, who you associate -- all of it. If you go to work and a coworker physically abuses you, he generally gets fired, or arrested, or you get to sue the company and make a nice sum of money. In a school scenario that doesn't happen. It takes years of bad behavior before expulsion, and even then the bully just gets put in a different school.

There's a way to deal with bullies in the real world. They come at you with fists, you call the cops. They come at you with a knife, you put a bullet in their head.

Home-schooling just means missing out on years of abuse and mental torture. It doesn't mean failing to "toughen up".

School doesn't teach you how to deal with the "real world" because the priorities within the social structure are so messed up -- the abilities and qualities valued by your peers are not the abilities that will do you good in the real world. In the real world, it's good to be smart and athletic ability (except at a VERY high level) doesn't matter.

School taught me to be paranoid of my peers. I think the worst thing it taught me were my horrible study habits since nothing ever really challenged me and if I wanted to spend Advanced Algebra reading Hunter S. Thompson, not even my grade suffered because of it.

If it taught me anything good, it's that just because someone's in charge doesn't mean he's right, because most of my teachers were dumber than a sack of rocks.

Dan,

As Dennis Miller put it, "life is just tall grade school." I don't know what world you live in, but there are still bullies out there, even if you are an adult. Yes, you have more options as an adult than you do as a child, but to say bullying should go away is naive in the extreme. It's NEVER going to go away. It's just not. Yes, it's a f$cked up situation, but it's the truth. Human beings have two options: live in oblivion, or deal with it.

There will always be people gunning for you just because of who you are and what you are able to achieve. This behavior doesn't end when you leave school: it's everpresent all through life. It's never going away, so it seems to me that while it's nice that my nephew is being schooled right now in a loving environment, he's also not learning defense mechanisms that will protect him later in life. I'm sorry you disagree with that, but it's the truth. Which is the worse case scenario? That he's bullied a bit while he's in school and learns how to deal with other people who may hate him for no reason whatsoever? Or that he ends up in the real world and winds up hurt and reeling when someone guns for him and he doesn't know how to defend himself? At some point in time, we all learn these lessons. Whether it be in school or in real life doesn't really matter: it happens nonetheless.

There are lessons to be learned when you're bullied. In my opinion, the people who turn out to be more interesting as adults are the bullied. They've found themselves because they were forced to: bullies never have that opportunity.

I was one of the bullied. Believe you me, there was no one lower on the social strata than I was until I attended college. I did everything I possibly could to fit in, and when I realized that wasn't possible, I hid. I pretended that if I was as quiet as I could be, I would be invisible and no one would bother me, while simultaneously, I prayed and prayed that people would just like me. It didn't work. After one particularly brutal attack on my character, I finally came to the conclusion that I had one option: I could either stick up for myself or I could always be cowed. So, I walked up to the girl who was slandering me and popped her in the gut. I got suspended, but she thought twice about messing with me. In fact, everyone did and then they finally left me alone.

It was sad it took me twelve years of school to finally learn that lesson. But I did learn it, and no one pushes me around now. I don't give them the opportunity to.

It's social Darwinism at its worst. I completely agree, but you can either whine about it or you can do something about it. I prefer action.

I was bullied (psychologically, not physically, bar a little pinching and hair-pulling) through ninth grade, especially on the bus to and from school, by a sort of mini-gang of three neighborhood girls. The morning after I finally couldn't take it anymore, I "borrowed" the mini tape recorder my mom used to tape lectures, conferences, &c., left it running on the bus, and then wrote out a full transcript that night and deposited it and the tape with the principal the next morning.

That was the end of that.

Michelle Dulak:

Good idea! I wish I had been that creative. A perfect example of getting even rather than getting mad.

My Family moved around alot when I was growing up. I never had the chance to join cliques or make many friends. I was always bullied or shunned because I was the new kid. I was good at sports, but quit playing becuase I couldn't stand the people I had to play with. I never wore much black, but I did withdraw into myself. I was lucky in that I had wonderful, strong and caring parents and a tough old grandfather I admired. I might have turned into a Columbine shooter without their influence. But I couldn't stand the thought of hurting and humiliating them that way. Also, my father introduced me to Louis Lamour's books when I was very young. Those books planted ideas about right, wrong and appropriate masculine behavior in my mind. Ideas that still infleunce me to this day. I still believe their is no lower form life that a bully. No, wait, there is a lower form of life. A bully's parents.

Tom: No, I got mad, I just didn't have any other tools to hand. I couldn't stand up to these kids physically in the give-'em-a-crack-on-the-jaw sense, and mentally they were driving me nuts. I mean, I always spent the bus ride to school reading books, but you can't do that if other kids are leering in your face demanding, say, your opinion of "kinky sex."

Just telling my parents would, I think, have made a horrific mess of it. Much better to get the incontrovertible evidence first and then hand it over to the school authorities. As I say, it did work. I was never Popular Girl, but the nasties left me alone after that.

It'd be easier today — wish I'd had a minidisc recorder back then ;-)

As I read your piece, Michelle, I couldn't help but being transported all the way to third grade and all the way up to now, this my last year in college. It hasn't always ben desparate, just the overwhelming moajority of years with occasions here and there since maybe my sophomore year when I went to a boarding school for the gifted, where being different was acceptable and encouraged. Because most of the kids there had lived through the same nightmare I had and they understood and flourished.
My boarding school and much of my college experience helped heal many scars, but they're still there, and some won't ever heal. And worse of all, I know how much it hurts to be socially excluded, but one of the lesssons you learn in that situation is either bond with other freaks or shun them as others do in hopes of being included or raising one's status. And it sickens me when I think of times when I turned my back on others in order to feel more in, even though I knew it was a sham, and that any day I would be out again. That as adults we can act like one's difference is justification for mockery. Everyone at work is invited for a drink, except that one weird mousy guy from editing or something.
It never ends, does it?