Earlier this week, my Twitter feed filled up with links to stories about a nine (nine!) year old in West Virginia who committed suicide as a result of alleged bullying by his classmates. It stuns me that I'm even writing that sentence.
How bad must the bullying have been to drive a nine year old boy to take his own life? What nine year old even thinks suicide is an option? What kind of world have we created where a suicide by a nine year old barely makes a headline? Those questions have plagued me since reading about this boy's story.
According to Stand for the Silent, 60% of 4th through 8th graders report being victims of bullying. Bullying victims are two to nine times more likely to consider suicide than those who are not bullied. DoSomething.org cites that over 3.2 million students are victims of bullying each year. 160,000 teen-agers skip school every day because of bullying. Then there's this super fun statistic: 1 in 4 teachers see nothing wrong with bullying and will intervene only 4% of the time. I'm troubled by that one because the teachers I know would bust skulls before they would let bullying go in their presence. In spite of that, bullying does go on, particularly in our schools.
In 1980, at the height of my awful delayed puberty early teen-age awkwardness (I've shared the pictures so you know I'm not exaggerating), I entered the maelstrom known as high school. I wasn't an A-Lister by any stretch of the imagination but I didn't think I was on the bottom rung of my very class-conscious high school. I had friends and didn't do anything to stand out, for better or worse, my freshman year, or so I thought. One day mimeographed copies (remember it was 1980 - there were no Mac's, no boss design publishing software) of our high school's crudely produced "underground" newspaper, "Off the Deep End," (I still remember the name thirty six years later) were slipped under classroom doors and strewn about the hallways of the school. It mostly consisted of school yard gossip, including one surprising item outing me by name as gay because I'd been seen having lunch with a few girls on more than one occasion. What made me gay apparently was the fact that there were no other guys at those lunches (high school logic is awesome!). I was gutted as I read those few sentences. This was 1980 and the worst, the very worst thing you could be called in our high school, besides poor, was gay. As far as I knew, my fourteen year old life was over and I left campus and walked home. It was a very emotional walk. When I got home, my mother, surprised to find me there and not in school, listened as I wept (like I said I was convinced my world had collapsed). She helped me pull myself together and then did something I'll never forget and for which I am forever grateful. She told me in no uncertain terms I was not going to worry about what had been said about me. She told me I was going back to school. She told me I was to go up to the first seniors I saw and make a way to have a conversation with them. She told me she loved me and then she told me to get in the car and that I was going back to school.
I was terrified on that ride back but I was determined to follow her advice. As I got back to campus, I realize now that I should have been praying for the principal who was going to be getting an earful of righteous rage from my mother. Instead, I saw a group of seniors I knew and steeling myself, I went right up to them and asked what was up. After some awkward small chat, one of them said, "Dude, don't even sweat what was in the paper. No one reads it anyway." I took great comfort in that and within a few days, it seemed to have been forgotten. I'd like to say that my brief experience made me an anti-bullying advocate. It didn't, at least not then. I'm ashamed to say that when the opportunity presented itself during those ridiculous high school years, I tried to assume the role of bully because that's how my high school mind worked. My own experience being bullied never justified my own weak attempts at bullying. I knew better. Those opportunities were rare and I feel shame for them to this day and I am truly sorry for those moments.
That was thirty six years ago and as far as bullying was concerned, my experience was tame. But as I just wrote about it, it was with trepidation and shaking hands. I was being bullied for something I wasn't. I wasn't gay. I was able to shrug it off. I was lucky. But what about those that can't shrug it off? What about those who are bullied every day because of their sexuality? Or how they look? Or act? Or because they've made the cardinal sin of not fitting in? I can't imagine the torment of being subject to bullying every day as a teen-ager and its lasting effects. That torment is a significant reason behind the torrent of teen-age suicide in our country.
Our country, though, seems disconcertingly comfortable with bullying, especially on a national scale. So comfortable that we may be on the precipice of electing our first ever Bully-In-Chief. The Republican presidential nominee has built an entire campaign (let's be honest - it's his whole life) on bullying. The target of his mockery including, among others women, the disabled, our armed forces, Muslims, Mexicans and pretty much anyone else who is not white has been well documented. Twice now he has used the age-old bully
In those bad high school movies and in the media in general, the bully usually gets what is coming to him or her as bullying is no respecter of gender. Nelson Muntz has been bullying the children of Springfield Elementary for nigh on twenty seven years now, but on more than one occasion, he's felt badly about his shenanigans and even shed a tear or two. He's even tried to change his ways. There's a lesson there.