I clearly have something to say about everything.

While doing some household chores, I watched Lee Hirsch’s documentary, Bully, which follows several kids who are victimized by adolescent bullying. I was not bullied in junior high/middle school but have the kind of steel-trap memory that causes me to remember all the bullying I heard and saw at that age. And even before that. If I was bullied or mistreated, it was much, much earlier when I was six or seven years old. I was so shy and sensitive as a young girl that it was easy to pick on me and even if someone was not trying to hurt my feelings or bully me, I still felt hurt. It’s why I turned out to be such a tough cookie now – I don’t care what people think. I clearly remember waking up one day when I was about 11 realizing that I had no interest in what other people thought about me (which is why I have lived a life of valuable and often challenging – but rewarding – experience, as mentioned in an earlier blog on happiness).

But that time before making that realization – and even in self-doubting moments thereafter – during these really hard years of youth, that was rough. The private hell each of us feels (maybe “hell” is taking it too far, but maybe I am too far removed from adolescence to be able to say that for sure) is so intense and personal that it is impossible to imagine that anyone else is going through the same thing, and it is insulting to experience the condescending and simplistic responses of adults (as kids, we experience a sense of disconnect from adults – they seem about as far removed from the trials of being a child or young adult as they are, and so completely incapable of comprehending – teen short-sightedness cannot imagine that our parents or other adults were in the same situations 20 years earlier).

Somewhat related, what struck me about this documentary is this sense of how much these kids’ parents loved their kids but how helpless they felt. Even if they understood the magnitude of their kids’ suffering – if they even knew about it – they could not do anything about it. They tried, but there was/is absolutely nothing they can/could do. I remember having conversations with my mom when I had friendship problems in adolescence, and all she could do was try to be comforting, try to talk about the future and how all these things are just a speck in time, almost meaningless in the big scheme of our lives. But when your whole life is just … going to school, day after day, exposed to the same people, these kinds of responses seem so hollow and out of touch. That far-off “someday” when things will get better feels non-existent. (And as adults we are constantly trying to remind ourselves to live in the present moment – yet try to tell our kids that they should hang on for some illusory future moment of relief.)

In the documentary, there was a scene in which a school administrator or teacher forces one kid to shake hands with another. The bullying kid accepts the handshake and the bullied does not. He essentially gets into trouble for not respecting the bully. The teacher tries to reason with the kid using these principles that barely even register with mature adults (i.e. “don’t stoop to his level”/take the high road). And the kid made a great point, “But I am not hurting people.” This was a perfect example of how unheard these kids feel – all kids actually – but certainly more acutely those who are picked on every day.

And while parents struggle to find answers and ways to support their kids, the school districts are seemingly totally clueless.

In some ways, many of the scenes in the documentary break my heart because it is obvious that the parents are struggling to support their kids but still come across as though they are blaming or punishing the kids. One kid, “Alex”, is “friends” with a bunch of people who abuse him, and his mother basically tells him that he has no friends if this is how they treat him. She is clearly searching for some way to help him – but he probably ends up feeling worse. When the same mother goes to the school trying to see that the abuse Alex gets on the bus stops, the school administrator explains that there is no way to guarantee safety but they will do their best to do something about it – and more or less that riding the bus is dangerous for everyone?!

I am not sure what more I can say about it since school bullying has existed forever – but it seems to have escalated. Or perhaps it is just that we hear about it more given the ease of information spreading. I don’t understand the drive to bully others, and I think it’s disturbing that children end up taking their own lives in response to it. But, as described above, it feels like it will never end, and probably seems like there is no alternative to make it stop.

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