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.
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.”
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?