I wasn’t the victim of a prolonged bullying campaign as a youngster, indeed I doled out far more than I got. Sure, I was taunted at times, mainly for being a nerd, but these were occasional epithets shouted from passing cars or from positions of safety across the street. In high school, there were a few objects of my own derision–slighter kids that I perceived as being more nerdy than I–but even that was little more than an occasional sarcastic comment or humiliation. I don’t know that any of the kids I poked fun at harbor dreams of vengeance against me today, but I’d hope that they don’t. If the best revenge is living well, then they may savor their victory over me because my life is a fucking mess.
I saw plenty of peers bullied more ardently, of course. There were more than a few children who gave up their lunch money on a daily basis to a kid one or two heads taller than they. Some girls couldn’t traverse certain hallways for fear of having their hair pulled and clothing ripped clean off their bodies by other females. And yes, I can remember some kids getting the shit beaten out of them for no reason other than being different. These aren’t pleasant memories, and in my adult state I wonder why I didn’t take some kind of stand and renounce these oversized teenagers and their bullying ways. Then I remember that, at the time, I was a teenager myself, and it was all I could do to maintain the status quo. It’s not like I was glad to see these poor saps get punched in the stomach and their jackets thrown into trees where they could not be retrieved, I was simply glad that it wasn’t happening to me.
There’s no great excuse for bullying, and far more intelligent people than I have written founded words as to why it happens. But there’s one thing about the bullying that happened when I was young versus bullying today: it ended after school. Maybe this is more of a New York thing, where we leave school by hopping on various city buses and subways, returning to densely-packed apartment buildings containing tenants of every strata. I suppose if your school enrollment is the sum total of the few hundred kids in your small town, you might get shit after three o’clock. But when school ended, behind front doors and before an afternoon of shitty cartoons, the bullied could have their respite. Today, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Kids are connected to each other 24/7 via a plethora of electronic means, and the ability to humiliate another has increased tenfold. I recall a story where a girl’s love poem was xeroxed and posted all around the school for everyone to jeer at. She was embarrassed and spent an entire day scouring the campus to eradicate all traces of her creativity. Nowadays, one can set up a multimedia website dedicated to dishonoring another person’s whole existence. That site can be forwarded around the world, until your shame is global.
I think that my generation and even older farts than I need to realize that bullying today is different than when we were younger. We have a collective tendency to dismiss bullying, to regard it as character-building and largely inconsequential. That was true in my school daze, but no longer. Certainly, I entertained dark fantasies in youth of murdering my every antagonist and exacting satisfying revenge on those I perceived as enemies. But I also had fantasies of looking up particular teachers’ skirts, or becoming the most popular kid in school by performing some undefined heroic act. They were fantasies, ones which I wouldn’t and couldn’t act upon in my frenetic state of hyper awareness. Today, it seems every school has its “freak out,” where some kind of violent act by a bully’s target or targets is ferreted out and sometimes enacted on the student body. The idea of committing violence at school is nothing new, but the reality of its occurrence once or more per semester certainly is.
I don’t have any suggestions on how to stop bullying, to be sure I don’t even know what are the exact causes. Surely bullies pass their own self-loathing down the line to kids, who then turn around and bully others. But one thing we should not do is dismiss it, to suggest that bullying can be dealt with through talking or that our kids should “pop ‘im one” to stop an assault. Because bullying is not the same as it was when we were younger. Kids are dying over this shit, now tell me what kind of character is built from that experience? The only lesson learned there is that life is cheap.