We finally got around to watching the documentary Bully yesterday. Have you seen this? You should see it. If you were ever bullied, if your kids were ever bullied, if your kid is a bully, or if you just have a heart in general, you should watch this movie.
I was not a popular child. I was quiet and shy, and I was usually lumped in with the ‘brains.’ This was fine with me, because social interaction in school was tough on me. It was too loud to hear well in the cafeteria, and I couldn’t hear whispers in the classroom. My goal every year was to try to find at least one good friend that would stick with me during recess and lunch. I never had a big group of friends, but one friend was all I needed and I usually managed that pretty well.
I was probably taunted more than I realized, since I couldn’t hear what was being said unless it was to my face. I wasn’t physically tormented very much – I do remember one big girl in elementary school who would slam me from behind when I was sitting at my desk. When I got glasses, I was helpfully told by one of my friends that people were calling me ‘four-eyes.’ Things like that.
I was always picked last for teams in gym. I never really understood the rules for team sports because it was too hard to hear the teacher in the huge, booming gymnasium. So I’d hit the softball, for instance, and then I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do…keep running until I got back to where I started? I didn’t understand that I had to get on the base, and I didn’t understand the concept of stealing bases, although my teammates were all yelling instructions to me (and I couldn’t understand what they were saying). To say that I hated gym class with a passion is an understatement…although I did okay in individual things like gymnastics and roller skating.
I remember writing a story when I was in elementary school about a kid being tormented by her peers, and the teacher gently admonishing me, saying she was sure things like this didn’t really happen. I don’t have the paper anymore – I think I wrote about the girl being kicked and pushed down – but I remember thinking to myself, “Yes, it happens…I know, because it happened to me.” I’m pretty sure that’s when I realized adults don’t really understand what it’s like to go to elementary and middle school as a slightly unpopular, shy child. Kids are mean.
Dave talks bitterly of what he went through as one of the smallest, poorest kids in school. He was enrolled in kindergarten when he was four years old, so he was always smaller than the other kids. He learned at an early age that the only way to get people to leave him alone was to go nuts on them – if they think you’re a little crazy, they won’t bother you. As we talked about the movie last night, he mentioned, “Yeah, it sucked being at school…but that was nothing compared to what I had waiting for me at home on the foster farm.” So his perspective is different from mine; at least I had the relief of a comforting home waiting for me when the school day was done.
Eric, I’m sure, can tell lots of stories of elementary and middle school hell. He was a big kid, though, and Dave would always tell him, “If someone’s giving you crap, just pick up a chair and whale on them with it. I guarantee they’ll never bother you again.” Eric already had a bit of a problem with controlling his anger so I would intervene and tell him that no, this was not the way to handle things (then turn to Dave with wide eyes and upraised eyebrows, mouthing, “Don’t tell him stuff like that!!”). Eric put up a protective shell and went in the opposite direction, being just about as unconventional as he possibly could, absolutely shunning peer pressure to look and dress like everyone else. He took pride in being as different as possible, especially in high school. It was to the point where, on Crazy Dress-Up Day, when other kids were wearing the goofiest things they could find, he wore jeans and a t-shirt…and many people didn’t even recognize him. He customized all his clothes; I still remember him being told to take off a suit jacket he had customized because the teacher decided it was offensive. (There was something on the back…a song title, or lyric?…that had the word ‘die’ in it, I think.) So he handled his issues in a way that was completely unique (and luckily, he never did bash anyone over the head with a chair!)
Paige dealt with bullies all through school, poor kid. I think it was worse than I ever knew; she became very good at keeping things to herself and making up stories. It would come out in little ways; she would get a dress or skirt that she absolutely loved, but then refuse to wear it to school. After a while, it would come out that she had been teased before when she wore a skirt…and she never wore a skirt or dress again, until she was almost done with high school. She would make friends and they would turn on her; I think it made it really hard for her to trust people. She started cutting in high school.
At the end of freshman year, completely out of the blue, she told us she wanted to move to her dad’s house. We were stunned; things at home were great, so it wasn’t that she was having problems with me or Dave. Eventually she told us she was getting seriously bullied on the bus and at school, kids were calling her names and she didn’t want to go to that school anymore. The school year was almost over at this point, but we felt so badly when we realized what she’d been going through; we had no idea at all, so we couldn’t intervene. With a heavy heart, I agreed to the move and she spent the summer at her dad’s. When she came back for a visit on her birthday, she asked to move back home and of course we agreed. But she still had issues with various kids, and it broke my heart to see her trying so hard with people I could tell were not real friends to her.
At one point in the documentary, a boy named Alex is being terribly tormented on the bus. It’s bad enough that the filmmakers get worried for his safety, and they show the footage to his parents and the school. His mom sits him down for a talk, and at first I wasn’t sure what she was getting at. She was asking if it made him feel good to be choked and pushed; she told him, “Friends don’t make you feel this way. These people are not your friends.” I couldn’t believe that he really felt his tormentors were his friends, until I remembered that Paige was the same way. She would take so much abuse from people and make excuses for their behavior. Alex looked at his mom for a while and then he said, in a quiet voice, “If they aren’t my friends…then what friends do I have?” And she just looked at him – I could see her heart breaking.
For Paige, it all came to a head when she found a Facebook page where her ‘friends’ were saying unbelievably horrible things about her. It was painful for me to read; I can’t imagine how it made her feel. These were people who had invited her to their birthday parties, people she really thought were her friends. No matter how many times Dave and I tried to tell her that a friend doesn’t treat you that way, she just would not believe us. Until she found proof.
She was hysterical, and Dave was in a white-hot rage. He printed the pages and took them to the police station. I was terrified he’d end up in jail; he was so angry that if he’d gotten his hands on the kids, he would have landed them all in the hospital. The police actually took action, and an officer went with Dave to the home of every kid that was involved. Dave said the police officer really let them have it; he was impressed enough by what the officer was saying to the kids that he only got overly hot under the collar once (after which, the police officer casually mentioned that, ahem, he might not want to say that to the next kid). It scared them all enough that they left Paige alone after that (or at least, that’s what she told us…hopefully it’s true). The school was also notified and they were basically worthless; Dave and the police officer were the only ones who made a difference.
Not every kid has someone to stand up for them. And as parents, we have that fine line between being helicopter parents and getting too involved, doing too much for our kids, and not doing enough. A big message from the film was that the kids need to tell us what’s going on. We can’t help if we don’t know. I spent a lot of time yelling at the screen, especially at the school officials who seemed to be handling things the wrong way. It will make you think, it will make you angry, and it will break your heart. But you should still watch this movie, if you can. It comes out on DVD in February.