Is Courage Bad? On Bullying

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

–Philip Larkin

Dahrun Ravi got 30 days.  When I read past the headline, I felt better — he also got 3 years probation, 300 hours of community service, and mandatory counseling.  I do believe he did not have any idea Tyler Clementi would kill himself.  I do believe, as the prosecutor said, Ravi did what he did out of “colossal insensitivity.”|main5|dl1|sec1_lnk3%26pLid%3D162722

But it makes me wonder all over again how to stop bullying from happening.  I’m a teacher, and schools often get blamed for bullying that goes horribly wrong: accidental death, suicide, mass murder.  I do not want to be the teacher who “knew” and “did nothing.”

I used to think adults could change the culture of bullying.  I used to think bullying was abnormal, and that strong, intelligent grownups could, if they only would, make it stop.

I grew up in a fractured family, but our core values were devoid of violence.  We might have kept too much bottled up to be healthy, but at least we didn’t believe in physical intimidation or shouting or even saying negative things without very good reason.  As I got older, I had to teach myself to stand up for my own good; I went too far and developed a temper.  But even then, I kicked and hit only chairs and doors; I hurt only myself.

So I was never positioned to understand bullying.  I was bullied, sometimes, emotionally.  But like some kind of gnat, I quickly forgot the warning signs of each incident.  I forgave and forgot and made excuses for my friends and acquaintances.  Looking back, I can see that my mealy-mouthed posture may even have caused some of the hostile feelings the people around me held.  But I have never understood, and don’t understand, a mindset that resorts to hurting other people just because you can.  And you feel like it.  And, and … well, no other reason.

When I saw my elementary and middle school students bullying or being bullied, I stepped in.  When my own daughter chose friends who used her as an emotional punching bag — and they needed an emotional punching bag of some kind, because they were messed up people, as bullies often are — I tried to teach her how to deal with it.  When I saw middle school students being horrible, I called them on it.  When I transitioned to teaching high school, I could call the bully out in public — or in private in more straightforward terms.  “You’re being a jerk, Jason.  Why don’t you do that on your own time?”

I used to think adults could do something.  But sometimes we make it worse.  When a kid doesn’t want to tell about the bullying, it’s not necessarily because they have low self-esteem and want to be liked.  Sometimes they just know human nature.  You can’t trust anyone to keep a secret.  You cannot be sure the consequences you intend are the consequences that will happen.

So one day I asked a class of seniors what to do.  What exactly could teachers and parents do to stop bullying?  Some of them had the same old ideas everyone else does: honor council, call their parents, have an assembly.  But they were just answering by rote, as if it were a quiz for points.  Then Ellen said, “Nothing.”

“I can’t accept that,” I said.  “We can’t do nothing.”

“I know,” she said.  “But there really isn’t anything you can do.  Mean people are gonna be mean, and they do it when nobody is looking.  There’s nothing anybody can do.”

This was about a year ago, and I’ve pondered it ever since.  It rings true.  But it can’t be the whole truth.  It can’t be.

Add to that the widely-held notions that “kids today” watch too many video games and are entitled, and have helicopter parents.  I could go on all day about why I don’t agree with these assessments, but let’s talk about the one where we’re supposed to let our kids play outside more, unsupervised.  Let them walk to school.  And, if they are bullied, let them figure out how to handle it.  Because, in “our day,” that’s what our parents did, and we turned out all right.

Except we didn’t.  We survived, sure, in the sense that we’re alive.  But we’re all basket cases.  How many people do you know who can handle conflict skillfully? Even those who can handle it frequently suffer self-doubt in the aftermath.  I personally get stomach aches when I have to defend my position, even if the other person is clearly being unreasonable. How many people do you know who dread holidays because, even in their own family, they are reluctant to stand their ground?   But, you say, you have friends who have no problems with conflict?  Yeah … they’re the bullies.

So learning by doing can’t be the answer, either.

I’ve thought about this all for a long time.  Every time there is a problem with a student, or my daughter has conflict at work, or my husband or I run into some kind of inexplicable and hurtful behavior, I wonder all over again What Are We To Do?  All of us, I mean.

Then I realized.  Ellen was right.  We can do nothing to stop bullying.  It’s like trying to stop murder, or stealing, or underage drinking.  Or political corruption or wars.

But we don’t stop trying to stop those things.  And we help one another figure out how to handle them when they happen.

Society, including the legal system, schools, and other groups in authority, should make very clear that bullying, for any reason, is wrong.  No one, not parents or teachers or the media, should try to make excuses for Dahrun Ravi or George Zimmerman or anyone else who uses physical or emotional means to hurt someone.  You might not agree with homosexuality, but you should be unequivocally sure that Matthew Shepard didn’t deserve to be beaten and left to die.  You can be afraid of black teenagers because you don’t know any and you believe what your friends think about them, but you must know without a doubt that we can’t just shoot someone because we’re afraid of them.  You might be a radio ideologue, and you might very well be right about government policy; but you should know it is just plain wrong to call a young adult woman a slut.

You might think Tyler Clementi should have just gotten over it, for heaven’s sake, when Dahrun Ravi filmed him having a sexual encounter with a man, then invited people to another room to watch it and laugh.  But did Tyler deserve such despair that he killed himself?  He should have gotten over it.  But he didn’t.  And that’s Ravi’s fault, because what he did was clearly wrong.  Immoral.  Against any rational, philosophical, or Judeo-Christian notion of behavior.

Argue about Ravi’s sentence.  Argue about whether he meant to go that far.  But don’t ever say for one second that there is any excuse for what Ravi did.  No one should ever do that, to anyone, ever.  And we — society — need to make sure that much is clear.

But that’s not enough either.  The people who want our kids to run through the neighborhood unguarded have one thing right.  We do need to teach our kids how to handle bullies.  My parents, with all their faults, taught me a rule that seemed nonsensical, but which we all know to be true:  If you ignore a bully, he’ll usually go away.  Yes, he’ll pick on someone else, but if we all know and practice the rule, he’ll have nowhere to turn.  Of course there are psychopaths who won’t leave you alone just if you pay them no mind.  And there are strategies for dealing with them, too.  My husband finally got tired of the guy who harassed him in high school and punched him real hard, one time; that worked.  I have found that if you call adults out on their behavior but you say it in a really polite, collegial tone, you can make your point without humiliating anyone.  “Wow.  That was harsh.”  “You’re kidding.  Why do you think that?”  These strategies need to be talked about in a family where kids know their parents understand that bullying is a serious problem, one they should never have to handle “on their own.”

KIPP schools have a great, simple motto.  The more you think about it, the more brilliant it seems, because there’s almost nothing that isn’t covered by it.  It is, “Be Nice.  Work Hard.”

Our motto, the motto of the world, needs to be: “Be nice.  Speak out when you see wrong being done.”

Is that so hard?

Posted in What's it all about, Alfie? No, really. What? | 1 Comment

The Death Thing

An acquaintance of mine died this week.  I would say unexpectedly, but others seem to have known at least a little before it happened that it was coming.  We saw each other occasionally for breakfast –Darren and she were friends and we spouses came with — but we hadn’t seen them for months.  Anyway, my phone rang at work and I silenced it, only finding out a couple of hours later that Darren was calling to tell me this old friend of his was dead.

She wasn’t even retirement age, and she was a successful writer, so added to the usual “why?” of it all is that: the waste.  She was still doing stuff.

None of this is surprising; it happens all the time, to someone somewhere.  People die and their friends and family and coworkers blanch, struck by how casual and random the end can be.

This isn’t surprising either, not really, but it really struck me: reading the emails and Facebook posts in the hours and days after she died, I found a person I didn’t know.  I don’t mean, Gee, I had no idea that she liked lobster, or Wow!  She once worked on a submarine?  No, I mean the accolades were needlessly sprightly, like “She always had a kind word for everyone.”  Like, “Her positive outlook made us all feel good.”

Not so much.

There are lots of good things you can say about her.  She had no kids of her own, by choice, but was generous and thoughtful to others’ children, remembering them when picking up souvenirs on vacation and sending a gift at graduation.  She loved animals.  I mean, she LOVED animals.  She felt their pain.  She had a dog named Bear, as if to multiply the effect of the animals she could have in her immediate surroundings.  She always said you can’t call yourself a real writer if you don’t write every day.  I don’t agree with this, but she lived by it.  She walked the walk, publishing her first stories when she still had a day job, until she earned enough from her writing that her husband said that, tax-wise, it was better if she retired early.  Eventually, she published novels, and she did not flinch from the tedious work of promoting her sales at conventions and signings and in interviews and by judging contests.

There’s plenty of good to say about her.  And yet, the people who wrote about her said things that seemed way off-base. The person I knew was highly critical of others.  She hated confrontation so much that she once bought a new two-seater car so she wouldn’t have to tell a friend she didn’t want to give her a ride to a convention.  But behind that person’s back, she nit-picked her every action.  She ran more than one person out of the writing group she and my husband belonged to.  Sometimes she mocked people to the extent that I used to get stomach aches when we socialized.  She wasn’t the type of person who took disagreement well; a friend of hers, so close that she hosted the woman’s wedding, suddenly was banned because of a simple point-of-view disagreement.  The woman told me that she had tried and tried to get our friend to talk to her, to be friends again, but no dice.

I’m not saying this is the kind of thing one should write in eulogy.  But why make things up?  Why concoct a personality that didn’t exist?  We all have a bad side, and we all have a good side.  But if your friends can’t describe your true goodness, what the hell?

When I die, I don’t want lies told about me.  I would prefer people not dwell on my worst traits.  I would prefer they forgive me for the wrongs I have done.  But if you can’t say anything true, don’t say anything at all.  Please.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Human Beings: Wrong Again

The worst moment was when I sarcastically suggested we all get t-shirts, and the other jurors started a sign-up sheet.  I really wasn’t as mean as they thought I was, so I didn’t point out how ludicrous it was for a group of responsible citizens to celebrate sending a woman to prison for two decades.  I just passed the sheet along to number ten.

Linda did not murder anyone.  She did steal, and she did smoke pot with her son’s friends, and when she came home from the movies one night to find her son and his school friend had beaten her handicapped employer to death with baseball bats, she did clean up the crime scene.  She did not call the police.  She did not turn in her son.

By law, the prosecutor told us, she was equally responsible for the vicious crime.

My fellow jurors, however, convicted her of being fat.  Of being nervous on the stand.  That part they said out loud.  I surmise, I think, they convicted her of being dumb.  When they discussed her weight, I tried to explain that jail food is fattening.  I know, because my brother, who could usually eat anything he wanted and not put on an ounce, came out of a four-month jail stay as husky as a lumberjack.  The only time I’ve ever seen him fill out.  But they weren’t listening.  They could just tell she had planned the whole thing.

I thought maybe the two actual murderers might be the ones who organized such a heinous act.  The old man was about to turn them into the police after discovering their marijuana stash, then he winds up dead.  Coincidence?  I think not.  But Linda’s “peers” gave them the benefit of the doubt.  Linda had masterminded it all.  As I argued with them, number two, a man in his early twenties, did point out that teenage boys aren’t often easily manipulated by their mothers; quite the opposite, in fact.  But they beat him down, too.  In the end, they did back off of giving her life without parole, so I guess we made a small dent, anyway.

This article brought all of this rather traumatic experience back to my mind.  Amanda Knox was also pre-judged by her appearance, by her perfectly natural actions.  These are extreme examples, but we do it every day.

Back in high school, my best friend James was an oddball like me.  James used to tell me he sometimes thought the whole world had a different set of facial expressions than he did.  Everyone else knew that to express surprise, you did a certain thing with your mouth or your eyebrows, but he didn’t know.  He thought he had been deliberately taught the wrong expressions.  It would explain so much.

For so many of us.

Posted in What's it all about, Alfie? No, really. What? | 1 Comment

The Good, the Bad and the Quaint: Bad Movies

The greatest thing about my job, aside from constantly being inspiring, changing the lives of the young people all day long, and being so universally respected, is that I do get the summer “off.”  It’s not all candy and foot baths, as any teacher can tell you — I am currently prepping to teach a class I was assigned for next year, and am woefully behind already — but it’s better than 9 to 5 all year ’round.

One of the things I do to wallow in my freedom is watch old, bad movies.  In part, this is a nostalgia thing.  These were the movies my parents were entertained by, and they bring back glimpses of the days before the divorce, when we all lived in one house and the ‘rents watched these on broadcast television while we pretended to go to sleep; sometimes we even piled into the car and watched them in our pajamas at the drive-in.

When I saw that Hotel was scheduled to run on TCM, I was really excited.  This particular genre of movie — movie stars after their prime, portraying the tropes of modern society brought together in crisis — is one of my favorites.  There is the nostalgia, but there is also a little snapshot of history.  In this movie, a graying Michael Rennie and puffy-faced Merle Oberon play a diplomat and his wife, who, it turns out, have killed a small child with their car and are trying to cover it up so he can still have a chance at that Washington DC appointment he is longing for.  Rod Taylor is The Bachelor, the savvy guy whose life is taken up with the management of the hotel, who visits the bar several times in a work day, whose duet with the black jazz singer implies his loneliness, and who is bedded by The Ingenue — but does she really love him, or is she only spying for the evil Kevin McCarthy, who wants to buy the hotel, then destroy everything it stands for (with automation and cost savings, and, and … gifts shops)?  Melvyn Douglas, the great Melvyn Douglas, plays the aging and crippled owner of the hotel, representative of old-fashioned Quality and Personal Attention.  Hotels were really something, back then.

Unfortunately, Douglas’ character is also the one who upholds the hotel’s old-fashioned policy of not allowing black people to check in, inciting an incident that in the end, undoes Rod Taylor’s plan to save the hotel.  Bad publicity, don’t ya know.  Rod is on the side of right; he even tries to track down the nice doctor and his wife and bring them back to the hotel in a limo.  Turns out they work for the competing hotel (in menial jobs)  in Philadelphia, and at their boss’ behest have played a part in a publicity stunt.  How conveeeeenient.

Also, the hotel is located in New Orleans, and yet the touristy shots of Rod Taylor and Unknown Actress seeing the sights are strangely devoid of people of African heritage on the streets.  A fascinating hint at How the World Was, or rather, How the World Appeared to the Powers that Were.

Worth remembering.

In Good Neighbor Sam, Jack Lemmon and his wife Dorothy Provine live in a cool but homey, contemporary suburb of San Francisco, where he works as an ad man.  Yes, Don Draper with no self-possession whatsoever.  The zany plot is that Dorothy’s European friend, Romy Schneider, moves in next door and finds that she will soon inherit $15 million dollars — and those are 1964 dollars, folks — but, alas, only if she can prove she is married!  What will she do?  Enter a list of fine character actors portraying private detectives, disinherited cousins, ad clients with high standards of traditional morals, and confused across-the-street neighbors, as Jack traverses the conjoined lawn of both houses (strangely reminiscent of the set of Big Love).  Add Mike Connors as Romy’s estranged ex-husband and the hijinks could not be better.  Here’s a sample of an exchange between Jack and Dorothy:

Didn’t you take a shower at Janet’s?
No, I didn’t take a shower at Jan… What do you think I am? Some kind of a sex maniac?

There you have a little piece of the past.  1964, when exiting the wrong door on your way to work was a scandal of million-dollar proportions, and 1967, when black people were not just knocking on doors but kicking them down.  Or about to.

In one scene of Good Neighbor Sam, as I’m sure you can guess, Romy has to attend a dinner party as Jack’s wife, at his moralistic client’s house.  Jack is seated next to the client’s haughty, Margaret Dumont-chested wife, who explains that she and her husband are concerned about certain works of literature, “which litter our libraries and our newsstands.  I’d love to have Mrs. Bissell join us next Thursday for our weekly book-burning if she’s free.”  “Gee,” Jack answers, “I’m sure she’d just love it, Mrs. Nurdlinger, but Thursday, I think, is her church bingo committee.”

I love that.  No outrage, though clearly the audience is meant to know how outrageous it actually is.

Shock at black people showing up.  Secret sex.

How quaint.

Posted in Something is Boring Me But I Don't Know What (Entertainment) | Leave a comment

I hate it when you don’t hate what I hate

It’s nobody’s fault, really.  And it doesn’t happen all the time.  But when it does, I feel awkward.

Pretty much every bookfriend I have — the people who give and take book recommendations to and from me, and who are known to follow up later with lunch talk — loves Cutting for Stone.  I gave up on page 301.  It’s supposed to be about some twins who are at some point separated and have different, no doubt ironic, fates.  They aren’t even born until p. 149, so I couldn’t tell you.  I did skip to the end and it turns out one of them saves the other’s life.  I do not feel as if I missed anything.  Anything.

Same with The King’s Speech.  Everyone I know raved about it.  I kept saying, it looks pretty predictable, and kind of contrived.  Everyone said no, it was a wonderful movie.  I finally saw it, and spoiler alert: he learns to talk without stuttering.

Not every movie or book I like has to be completely unpredictable.  I mean, I was pretty sure Schindler was going to rescue some Jews.  But how?  That’s the interesting part.  How would he fool the Nazis?  How would he maintain his credibility with them even as he kept his Jewish workers alive?  It’s delicious to see the biggest haters of them all made out to be buffoons.

In The King’s Speech, however, nothing happened that I couldn’t have predicted.  The prince balks at being told what to do.  His wife convinces him to try.  The teacher is irreverent, and the prince has to learn, slowly, to respect him.  Eventually, he makes the big speech.  World War II still happens.  Zzzzzz.

Maybe I’m spoiled by Tarantino.  He upended everything about movies, but the best thing he did was to speed them up.  The pace of his movies isn’t frenetic.  Rather, as soon as you know something is about to happen, he skips over it.  Because if we already know, why should we have to sit there and watch?  He spends his precious time and ours on what we can’t already know.

We do not expect de Niro to shoot Bridget Fonda in the parking lot no matter how annoying she is; we cannot predict that Samuel Jackson’s wallet actually does feature the words “Bad Mother Fucker.”  No way is Christian Slater’s amenable Clarence going to be able to stand up to Gary Oldman’s psychopathic Drexl — until he does.  And Johnny Cash’s “Tennessee Stud” — a song wherein two horses get married — playing as Jackson drives around the corner to kill Chris Tucker?  Genius.

On that note, go watch Animal Kingdom.  Or read Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts.  You’ll be surprised.

Posted in Something is Boring Me But I Don't Know What (Entertainment) | 4 Comments

Reading Damn Jane Eyre

One of my sophomore friends approached me on the commons and asked me if I’d read Jane Eyre, because she had just started reading it, and the math teacher’s positive response shamed me into starting it immediately (see earlier post, “On Reading Six Books at a Time).

I love it.  It’s a bit different from what I had imagined.  For instance, I’m only fifteen chapters in, but who knew Rochester would dress up like a gypsy and fool everyone?  I did not see that coming.

I hope they don’t all die at the end.  If they do, don’t tell me, okay?

Posted in Something is Boring Me But I Don't Know What (Entertainment) | 2 Comments

On Reading Six Books at a Time

It didn’t seem like a bad idea at the time.  It was so damn easy to let it happen.

When you teach, you are constantly having to read books for class.  Oh, occasionally a teacher will try to wing it; if you’ve read The Grapes of Wrath nine times already, you know it well enough to fake it.  But inevitably, a student will ask you some fool question you would have been able to answer if you had reread the chapter the night before.

“But, was the box car on train tracks, or just in the middle of nowhere?”

Hell if I know.

But, as great as my “school” books remain — The Grapes of Wrath and In Cold Blood are in play now; The Basketball Diaries and Macbeth are on deck — sometimes I just want to read something else.  Just for fun.  (Students feel this way all the time, of course.)

In conjunction with Steinbeck and Capote, the third book I’m reading is the result of a shameful episode.  One of my students came up to me at morning meeting all excited, wanting to talk about Jane Eyre.  Before I could offer an elaborate explanation of why I hadn’t gotten around to reading that one, and how I had always planned to, the math teacher said she had read it and they had a scintillating conversation about it.  Scrambling to hide my deficiencies (I also haven’t read Wuthering Heights or 1984, or Silas Marner or well, I’m only so many years old), I decided I would read it right away and found it on my 101 Classics app.

Then, I discovered I had already downloaded on my Kindle app the recent novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, and just out of curiosity I started reading it.  I got two chapters in and realized if I stopped reading it now, I would have to start all over, so that made four books all at once.

Then, one rare lazy Sunday I decided to start a LeCarré book.  I was just in the mood for some perfect writing, and that same math teacher had asked me to lend her one of his earlier books.  That reminded me I had his last three piled up among the mass of volumes by my bedside.  I like to read them in order, so I picked up the third one back, The Night Manager, and was immediately immersed in the lonely life of mercenary spy/assassin Jonathan Pine.  That made five.

And then, I was asked for my book list for next year.  I teach a class called Literature of Social Change, which centers on paradigm change over the last 50 years.  I was wondering if the new Patti Smith autobiography might be a good replacement for The Basketball Diaries. But I had to read it before I decided for sure, just to troll for passages that might upset a parent.  We seldom have censorship problems at my school, but just when you get relaxed about it, that’s when you’re suddenly going to find yourself in the headmaster’s office.  So I didn’t want to go in blind.  I downloaded Just Kids on my iBooks app, and that made six.

When you are reading six books, you just can’t plow ahead with one ’til you finish.  No, if you don’t want to have wasted all that time getting to page 61 (or 278 iTouch pages out of 890), you just have to rotate.  Of an evening, Rosasharn’s baby dies, Miss Eyre escapes the typhoid, Jonathan ponders why he always kills the thing he loves, the Major realizes he likes Mrs. Ali unreasonably well, Dick Hickock fashions a shiv, and Patti wonders why Robert is so distant lately.

Then, as I drift off to sleep, my dreams are a pentimento of Jane Eyre living and starving with Robert Mapplethorpe in Greenwich Village, British intelligence agents trying to make their way to The Promised Land on Route 66, and Perry and Dick breaking into Major Pettigrew’s house only to be beaten with a cane.  The Major was in the war, you know.

Come to think of it, any of those plots would make a fascinating book.  But please don’t write it.  I have papers to grade.

Posted in Something is Boring Me But I Don't Know What (Entertainment) | 2 Comments