The Bullies Need Not Win
Note: This was originally submitted elsewhere on November 5th, but not ultimately featured. Given the events that have happened since, the title stings, and the final paragraph reflects feelings many of us have felt recently, but it is still a needed call, so I’m republishing it here today.
Warning: contains mentions of suicide.
Just last week, two news stories stung my eyes with tears and filled my head with flashes of memory. In one, a Louisiana mother had to have police track down her five year old son after he didn’t get off his school bus one afternoon. In another, an 11-year old girl who had survived a battle with cancer didn’t survive another battle — that with bullying.
The scared mother was told her son had a note saying it was okay for him to walk home, but the child had lied to teachers, preferring to go it alone rather than travel in enclosed space with his bullies. He got lost, and was located walking the wrong way sometime later. At five years old, the anxiety was already enough to fire acute survival instincts. The same ones that caused me to slip out a side entrance of my elementary school at the age of nine.
At 11, Bethany Thompson was a curly-haired child who, according to family and friends, loved animals, swimming, and music. Her battle with cancer had left her with nerve damage in her face that affected her mouth, giving her a crooked smile. A difference that caught the notice of bullies.
When you go to your teachers and they do nothing, the world closes in tighter and tighter around you. You get the message that your pain, your suffering, your agency, your sense of self, are not worth anything. From there, the all so large world through a child’s eyes can feel tight and suffocating. I remember when I left school that day, age nine, the principal called my mom and we had a meeting. I told them I feared for my life. Words like that are from a small child who feels even smaller; believe them. I have better words for the anxiety now, but no, the statement from nine-year-old me doesn’t deserve its impact blunted. Every child deserves to feel safe.
“Bullying” as a concept is blasted, an easy issue to get behind that no one could really oppose. That’s why it often comes off as so empty when people claim to take a stand, to call for ending bullying, to say they will do something. It’s easy to rah-rah rally and make promises while the cycle repeats. Bethany Thompson’s school issued a statement, confirming awareness of her bullying and claiming a reported incident had been “appropriately resolved”, and the school would be continuing to educate staff and students on matters of bullying.
Yet, while Bethany had the support of friends, the principal claimed to be investigating more recent cases. Meanwhile, the administration failed her one last time.
“Bethany and her friend went to administrators with anti-bullying posters on Bethany’s last day at school, and were told they couldn’t be used, Feucht [Bethany’s mother] said.
They made signs with anti-bullying slogans like “Buddies, not bullies,” she said.
Month after month, there are more anxious children, suffering children, and yes, dead children. Those of us that grew up with these same scars, even long after recovering (or discovering) our zeal for life and knowing that we do matter, we hope for true change, but see ourselves in their faces. Decades later, puffy statements, somber politicians, and toothless regulations later, we still see them. We hope, or we try, we see talk of training, of standing up to bullies, of addressing incidents with empathy and counseling, with supposedly proven methods for harm reduction. That was me, we say to ourselves, lamenting the fact these children never got to see that other side, never managed to survive like us, to glue themselves back in an imperfect whole, never unaffected, but knowing there is more out there.
When it comes to taking a stand and truly saying enough is enough, how do we change? Culturally, we need to treat bullying as serious. We need to show bullied children we will do what we can to protect them. For the bullies, we need to stop their behavior and reinforce that it’s unacceptable, but also not neglect to treat them with compassion. These behaviors have roots. No more empty talk.
When administrators, teachers, and schools fail to act, the messages sent come through, even when they’re never intended that way. Helping you is not worth my effort. I’m not listening to you. I have no interest in stopping your pain. You don’t matter. Sometimes a kid, in response, runs off. Sometimes she finds the family gun.