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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Thoughts On Bullying At School

I was listening to the radio yesterday - John & Ken, my favorite talk show, and the topic was a boy from the Sacramento area who was driven to suicide by roughly 27 days of intense bullying. According to his mother, who has now founded an organization called "BRAVE", Michael, her son, had been a well adjusted kid up until the point of the bullying episode.

After unsuccessfully seeking help from the school, Michael apparently felt the only way out was to shoot himself in the school bathroom. He died the next day in the hospital. Tragic, beyond what words could express.

As a mother myself, I can't help but sympathize with Michael's mother; she has paid the ultimate price and regardless of any crusade for "change" she is now undertaking, I suspect she will spend the rest of her life wondering what she could have done differently to prevent this. In the off chance she ever came to read my blog, the last thing I would want is for my writing to add to her pain. I say this in advance because I don't know yet exactly what I am going to say; "bullying" is a complicated issue which, on the one hand is a part of life, on the other, a societal choice in the degree to which we tolerate it.

Of course, once I read about the method Michael used to kill himself, my first thought was, "where'd he get the gun?" I am very much for our 2nd amendment rights to own firearms, however, rights come with responsibilities, which could have been met with a very locked gun safe, if in this case, as I suspect, the gun came from home. So as you read this, if you have a gun in the house that is not locked away, stop reading this and go buy a gun safe and put your weapons in it.

Guns add an element of finality to the mix which somebody in extreme distress might not be able to fully grasp. I can think of a few moments in my own life where I thought "I'll kill myself and that will show everybody". I can't say that I was actually ever really suicidal, but who's to say that, in the absence of the gun, this boy might not have been able to kill himself? A less efficient way of suicide would require much more effort - allowing for additional intervention opportunities, reconsideration by the boy himself or an increased chance of survival should he have proceeded anyway. Teenagers are particularly emotional creatures and do not have the benefit of perspective that adults do. (My own tendency to over-dramatize and the fact that I can be a bit of a hot-head has thus far kept me from buying a gun - I don't trust myself to own one.)

Now on to the topic of bullying. I can remember a time in high school when I was a victim of what would today qualify as bullying. I think it lasted a month or two, and without going into the details -most of which I can't remember anyway, I do have to say that it was Hell. I remember the sick feeling in my stomach and the dread of each new incident. I wanted to curl up in a ball and hide under the blankets and never come out. I was afraid to walk out to the mailbox lest I encounter the girl who was tormenting me on her way home - she lived up the street from me.

It ended when I couldn't take it anymore and picked up the phone and called my former best friend and my tormentor's accomplice (or so I had thought) and asked her why she was saying all of these horrible things about me. My former best friend had had the same question for me. Once we realized that the other girl had been fabricating supposed 'she saids' and feeding them to both of us, we thought, "what the heck? what a total psycho!" and her power over the both of us evaporated. I simply avoided this chick in the future and let her know with teenage female facial expressions that she was a loser, I was on to her, and she should keep her distance if she knew what was good for her. That worked.

So my own experience with bullying had a "happy end" in that it was limited in time and scope, I was able to resolve it on my own thereby learning an important life lesson, I gained confidence in my own ability to navigate the treacherous, shark infested waters of high school society and I was ultimately able to chalk it up to "character building". However, the Hell I experienced at the time was real and it was a period of intense suffering - which my analytical brain might describe as "existing for an extended period of time in fight-or-flight mode". Extreme stress and absolutely no fun at all. On the other hand, if I had not experienced this during high school, I can guarantee you that I would be ranting about one or the other aspect of this case, instead of the extended hmmmmmmmmm, which I am now doing. I am able to empathize with the victim because of my experience.

That said, tormentors have a powerful tool available to them today which mine thankfully did not; the Internet. The Internet changes the scope and scale of the ability to inflict pain on others. In my case, technology came to my assistance in the form of a phone call - and the conflict was known to only three people, though at the time my imagination conjured hordes of conspirators. In Michael's case, the tormentor was able to focus and magnify his efforts on Michael like a magnifying glass focuses the rays of the sun - hot becomes searing and ultimately incinerates the object of focus.

That is obviously no longer character building.

But what to do? That is the tricky part. On the one hand, we need more laws like we need more holes in our already airy heads. On the other, since the adults commissioned with the responsibility to a) send halfway civilized children to school and b) provide for a safe and civil environment for the kids they are responsible for and c) consider the harmful effects one's fab new social networking site can have on kiddies and take steps to mitigate them, have all failed miserably, perhaps we as a society have earned some new nannying by the state. We get the government we deserve says a part of me.

The first step, however, is to have a discussion and to include the kids in this discussion because they are both the perpetrators and the victims. It has been my experience that many "kids" are able to rise to the occasion and lead, once they are made aware of the problem and are given the opportunity to participate in the search for solutions. They also have far more credibility amongst their peers as we boring adults do, thereby increasing the chances of suggested solutions becoming actual solutions.

So, it appears this is what I think on the matter.


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