A Note On Bullying

| October 28, 2010
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Over the past year, bullying has been in the news. We have had teens kill themselves over senseless taunts. We have seen a local child beaten to death as he rode his bicycle. Recently, we have seen two assault cases in our high and middle schools as well as a sexual assault.  Call them what you will–gangs, bullies, fights, altercations. The fact remains that it is out of control.

Just yesterday, the Department of Education sent a letter to schools and colleges telling them that they had to do better. Countless celebrities, including our President, have created videos to bring attention to this plague.

While addressing the bullies and the victims certainly makes an impact, many people are missing the largest group of people who need to hear the message–the people who sit back and let it happen. In schools, some kids witness and keep silent. Others cheer on the bully. On his blog, comedian and actor, Patton Oswalt addresses just these people in frank and straight forward language. [Editor's note: the language may be considered vulgar by some.]

Dear Guy Who Hangs Out With the Bully and Eggs Him On –

Good move. Really. I know what you’re doing, and I know how it seems like the smart move for you. ‘Cause I did it, too.

When I was in the fifth grade, I started gaining weight, and by the end of that school year, I was a fat kid.   I’d been skinny and oblivious up until then – free time meant running around outside, playing soccer, climbing trees.   Summer meant swimming.

But then I got swept up in reading, and movies, and music and other sedentary activities. My mind felt like a blazing stock car engine most days, and I didn’t miss the running around so much.   If I could curl up with a good book, or a drawing pad, or an old monster movie on TV, all the better.   Pretzels and chips and Cokes had the carbs and sugar to feed my swelling, itching brain – especially when I was re-listening to Devo songs.

By the time middle school started, I had the Victim Kit firmly sewed on.   Cystic acne, headgear and braces, man-tits and a stupid haircut. Sixth and seventh grade were no fucking fun for me. Summer camp was torture, swimming pools were humiliation ponds, sports were a whirling wall of razors I didn’t dare approach.

By the time eighth grade rolled around, I’d adjusted my strategy.   Figure out who the biggest bullies and abusers were, use my nascent comedy skills to make ‘em laugh and hone their taunts, and become part of the asshole entourage.

It was a survival strategy. I had a hand in tormenting an awkward girl named Robin in my eighth grade personal hygiene class.   Also a fat(ter), asthmatic kid with a stutter at YMCA camp whose name I can’t remember and countless, faceless others as I glided painlessly in the wake of a trio of bullies whose names I also can’t remember.   I only knew they weren’t bullying me, and were actually glad to see me in the morning, ‘cause here comes a guy who knows seven crueler ways to call someone an asshole or shithead (beyond just “asshole” and “shithead”).

By junior year of high school the braces and headgear came off, I lost weight and my skin miraculously cleared up.   I got a girlfriend who taught me how to cut my hair. And I carried around (and still carry) a poison vein of self-loathing.

In someone’s memory – in many people’s memories – I’m a snickering, sneering asswipe who hurt and insulted them while peering out from behind the muscular lats of a bigger, more frightening asswipe. There are times when I firmly believe I should have also ended up like a lot of the bullies – stupid, directionless, job-bound and destined for obscurity, anger and oblivion.

It doesn’t fix a fucking thing, for me, to try my best to take the underdog’s side now. Or to embrace the awkward and outcast.   That dark slice of regret and disgust with a younger self will never be erased.

So I’m talking to a younger self here – the young Bully’s Little Buddy.   I’m trying to tell you that yes, I know how scary middle school and high school and the world must seem, with this clear demarcation (and it seems to get bolder and uglier every day) between abused and abuser. And I understand exactly why you’d want to be on the side of the powerful, cruel and, by default, secure.   It’s the reason why some poor people get angry about rich people having to pay more taxes. It’s why people join celebrities’ entourages.   It’s why two oppressed, disenfranchised groups fight with each other, instead of the powerful entity that’s oppressing and disenfranchising them.

All of that is true.   But it doesn’t change the fact that you have power if you choose to take it.   You have power to go stand on the side of the bullied, to stand up to the bullies, to set an example.   You can take a deep breath and look at the popular crowd – are they popular because they’re good, smart people?   Or are they popular because people are afraid of being their targets?   If the second example is the truth, then you can reject them.   You can form your own circle, be your own person, and start thinking for yourself early.

I didn’t. And I won’t blame you if you don’t either.   It’s so fucking hard.   It does get better for the outcast and the bullied.   But you, in the bully’s entourage, can help make it better by taking away part of the bully’s power.

You can take away you.   And if you take the dare, and do it, you’ll be shocked to see how deep it diminishes the weight and scope and space a bully takes up in the world. And when you see that, and experience it, it’ll be your first – and unarguable – taste of how much weight and scope and space you have.

I’ll never know.   I never did it.

Will you?

Sincerely,

Patton Oswalt

Well said Mr. Oswalt!

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Category: COLUMNS, Education, Local News, NEWS, OPINION, The Observer

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  • http://www.annapolissound.com KStewart

    Is it ironical that during a period in history in which we spend so much time and so many resources trying to instill ‘self-esteem’ in people – and particularly our youth – that we are having such terrible problems with bullying?

  • Running with scissors

    The problem today with bullying versus 30 years ago is in ten minutes the act can be heard and seen around the world, with myspace, facebook and youtube. The act takes on a whole life of it’s own. Where 30 years ago it took place in a five minute window between classes and then it was usually over. Teachers had better control over their classroom.

  • http://www.annapolissound.com KStewart

    Jon, I appreciate what you’re saying about bullying existing… well, since the beginning essentially, but I disagree that most parents are teaching their kids to kick the *&#$ out of each other. At least within Caucasian circles, there’s been a huge push to socially effeminize males. Maybe I’m missing the backlash against that push from the rank and file, but if anything the power structures at the top of American society are telling us it’s not cool to be macho.

    Judging from the way a lot of high school guys are dressing these days, it seems to be working.

  • Running with scissors

    I don’t think they are trying to effeminize men as much as trying to make everyone on the same level. When I was a kid and you played little league the winners got trophies and the losers got nothing, now everyone gets something for just signing up. No child left behind while a nice effort we should not have to dumb down everyone else to bring a few extra into the fold. There has always been some that get left behind it’s nature.

  • http://www.annapolissound.com KStewart

    I thought the point of this was to have a meaningful conversation, not just give feedback. My bad.

  • Michael Willis

    Bullying as Hate Crime… Well, whatever works, I guess. But it seems to me that such heavy-handedness as a memo from the federal government shouldn’t be necessary to get the schools to perform the function of protecting innocent children under their care..

    It ignores the fundamental problem that teachers have zero authority, and administrators have practically zero motivation to impose meaningful punishment on those who show early signs of anti-social behavior. After all, administrators are judged on discipline referral rates; the lower that number, the better their school must be running.

    The problem is that, like any metric, referral rates can be gamed and manipulated. And that is exactly what happens. When referral rates got too high, the powers that be simply invented a new form called a “Minor Incident Report (MIR)”. Since this was not technically a “referral”, as the original form was called, it didn’t count on the discipline count.

    Teachers were then very strongly advised to put things on MIRs rather than referral forms to the point of referrals not being accepted for “minor” disruptions such as cussing out a teacher until a kid had a certain number of strikes or certain other hoops had been jumped through by the classroom teacher.

    Any questioning of this process by classroom teachers led to the very real threat of being labeled as someone who couldn’t control their classroom. Now classroom teachers are a very meek bunch, by and large, and this type of thing works very well on them.

    This outright threat to performance reviews on top of the increase in an already onerous amount of paperwork just to get a kid dealt with leads to teachers doing a kind of cost-benefit analysis as to the relative up-side to paperwork and “rocking the boat” vs. simply ignoring the kid as long as they stayed in the corner and slept or otherwise kept quiet.

    Of course, the referral rate is artificially suppressed, and all is happy in the universe. Until, of course, one of these kids, now conditioned to know that bad behavior never leads to actual bad consequences for HIM, feels that he’s been dissed, and lashes out with his version of the “South River Stomp”. Then we all wring our hands and gnash our teeth and call for raises for the poor overworked teachers.

    What this memo does is give local school administrators yet another excuse to sweep things under the rug unless it is abundantly clear that the bullying (read assault) was committed for the purpose of violating the civil rights of somebody in a protected group (whatever that means).

    Trust me, this memo will not lead to an increase in the reporting of these types of incidents. None of the recent events in AACPS were like this. They were about exerting power for its own sake.

    This memo will merely be perverted into one more reason that vicious attacks can be called anything other than what they are. After all, they’ve already started equating the South River Stomp with bullying, and this memo can be construed as saying that bullying is a hate crime. Therefore, in the mind-numbingly twisted logic of the professional bureaucrat, unless it’s a clear hate crime against a protected group (again, whatever that is), it must not be so bad and can be down played.

    My opinion is that most of these events happen not because somebody doesn’t like blacks or gays or whatever. It happens to inflict authority and pain for pleasure and amusement. In this sense, they are much more prevalent, overt, and dangerous for your students and their teachers than hate crimes.