Today: Jun 18, 2024

Waking up to the harsh reality of bullying


Justin never missed a day of school. He was reliable like that. Every day he showed up on time. He was usually dropped off by his father or grandmother and once he assumed his usual spot on the blacktop, he began assembling his prized paper creations furiously.

Justin was peculiar for an 11-year-old kid. He didn’t play kickball with the other sixth grade boys and hardly spoke to the girls. In a class of only 20, he had maybe one or two friends he actually interacted with. And they barely talked to him.

One Friday a month was a designated dress down day at my small Catholic school. Each Friday Justin wore the same outfit. He was proud of it. A khaki suit similar to a Boy Scout uniform with a pen in his front left pocket. We couldn’t understand why he didn’t wear anything else, ever.

Justin drew cartoons and wrote phrases only he could understand on tiny pieces of paper that he taped all over his desk and chair. If anyone took a piece of paper off his chair he would have an outburst. We thought it was funny.

At lunch there were two clearly defined tables per grade. Naturally, in elementary school, the girls sat at one table and the boys another. Justin didn’t quite fit into either category. Because there were only six girls, there was plenty of room for Justin to sit by himself at the opposite end of our long table. And that’s what he did.

One day, though, Justin was brave and sat down next to me. Panicked, I argued with him, pleading for him to move. What if the other boys saw him sit next to me? They wouldn’t let me live it down. Justin had to move. I couldn’t be seen next to him. I remember blurting out,

“Justin, you can’t sit here. I hate you.” Those words still haunt me. The next day Justin wasn’t in school. Justin

never came back to school. We were told he couldn’t bear being bullied anymore. We were all guilty. We constantly tormented him for his quirky habits, his insane rationalizations for his paper creations and the games he made up in his head. He was different. We didn’t like different. And so his father decided to pull him out of school, and we never heard anything about him again.

As many as 160,000 students stay home from school on any given day because they fear being bullied. One out of four teens are bullied and one out of five kids admit to being a bully. On the playground, a child is bullied every seven minutes and 43 percent fear harassment in the bathroom.

Name-calling and pointing fingers are sadly a right of passage through adolescence. Names do hurt as much, if not more, than sticks and stones; sarcasm at the expense of others, rumors, gossip and even the silent treatment,

though subtle forms of aggression, can often lead to major longstanding trauma in a teenager’s life.

There is a word, “bullycide.” How scary that this word even exists. Day after day, week after week, abuse from peers can lead to an increased risk of suicidal behavior in kids as young as 6. Six. That’s first grade.

I can remember being in first grade and starting a club. We thought we were so cool. We would only let select girls into our club. Every-one else, we thought, were losers.

When unchecked, this exclusivity and name-calling can lead to cases similar to Phoebe Prince.

Phoebe was 15 years old. She was an Irish immigrant going to school at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts. She was smart and charming. She was asked to the winter cotillion and planned on going. The other girls didn’t like that. They stalked her and called her a slut. They threw an energy drink at her head while she was walking home from school two days before the big dance. That night she hanged herself.

The United States is finally waking up to the sobering reality of the current bullying epidemic. So have I.

I fear the day when my nine-month-old enters school. Not because I won’t spend the whole day with him playing and learning. Not because that means he’s getting older and I won’t be able to preserve our precious time together. But because kids are mean. I was mean.

I’ll tell my son about Justin. How I was a bully but I am fortunate enough to realize my mistakes. And perhaps we won’t need to desig- nate October as National Anti-Bullying Awareness Month. Anti-bullying will be the new norm, and hopefully tragedies like Columbine and Phoebe Prince will be a sad reality of the past.

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