Defined by Wikipedia, a bully pulpit is “a position sufficiently conspicuous to provide an opportunity to speak out and be listened to.”
It is also “only distantly related to the modern form of "bully", which means "harasser of the weak."
This week, I will write about bullying from the vantage point of my bully pulpit.
I have learned the very sad news that in one of my child’s circle of friends, there is someone being bullied. Bullied so meanly that this child is afraid to walk in the halls in school alone, and cowers until friends, including my child, come to the rescue.
This has all been happening in the last few days of school, and I don’t know what the parents of either child involved are doing about it officially, since it is not my child who is the victim.
But it was me. And when I heard the story, it pushed a button deep inside me and I started to cry. Because I was that child who cowered in the bathroom, who was afraid to walk in the hallways without a posse of friends to protect me, and who never mentioned a word to my parents for an entire school year about what was happening to me at school.
Because I didn’t think I was being bullied. I thought the issues I was facing had to do with the fact that I was the only white kid in my school, and that because the torture was racially motivated, it was a natural consequence of my being in that place at that time.
For the all the years since, all the times I’ve talked about this experience, written about this experience, I’ve never, ever thought about it as a bullying experience.
Until I reminded my husband of this story, and he said, “well, of course you were being bullied.”
And now I feel like a brick has fallen on my head and has changed the way I view the world.
As a parent of school-age children in the early 21st century, I am surrounded by an awareness of bullying that did not exist 38 years ago, when I was in 6th grade. There is hyper attention being given to the issue today, with media coverage everywhere, and many important programs and organizations dedicated to the elimination of bullying.
I have been particularly moved by the work of the Trevor Project, which offers support to gay teens and works to prevent suicide among LGBTQ youth. I started supporting them in light of the tragic suicide of Tyler Clementi.
I have been a bit skeptical that bullying can be completely eliminated from our schools’ halls, and believe that there is some natural tension among children as they grow up and learn how to navigate relationships. Not that bullying another child is ever excusable, but I’m not sure it can be completely prevented. Sometimes issues arise as children learn how to play and work together in groups, and even when we, as parents and educators, do our best to teach our children how to overcome their prejudices about people who are different from them, we sometimes are unable to prevent an errant comment, or a negative behavior.
But the bullying I experienced in 6th grade ran rampant and unchecked for an entire year. I was told that I shouldn’t walk to school with the girls on my block because they hated me, but I had no one else to walk with. I was laughed at in the halls, and had my glasses pulled off my face. I couldn't walk safely anywhere without being flanked by my group of friends. I was told I would get beaten up after school if I left the school building alone.
The worst story of all happened in the lunchroom. I was sitting with my friends from my class, and two 7th grade girls sat across from us. One of them asked my friend to pass her the salt, which she did. Then the 7th grade girl looked at me, curled her lip and snarled at my friend, “You’re lucky you’re not white."
I went home trembling that day, and couldn’t stop thinking about that for a long time. I still think about it, obviously. I’m stunned at the power that girl had over me with that one comment.
When I left that school the next year, I was faced with different kinds of bullying experiences. I went to a junior high school that, while more racially diverse, still had tough girls (of all races.) One couldn’t use the bathrooms, ever, because the tough girls were in there, smoking. I had to “hold it” all day and run to a friend’s house after school every day to use her bathroom.
I also was unable to take the second bus in my two-bus route to school. It was a very long, four-block stretch from the junction where the first city bus dropped me off to my school. A couple of times I tried to transfer to the bus that would take me and drop me right in front of the school building, but every time I did, I was literally pushed off the bus by the mean girls who “guarded” the back door, again, because I was encroaching on their turf.
And again, I never thought of any of this as bullying.
That shows how deep the bullying penetrates and fools you when you are the victim caught in its cycle. In some warped way, you think you deserve what you are getting. It makes it hard to process, hard to report, and hard to forget.
I am distraught that there is some of this going on in the lives of one of my kids’ friends, but proud that my child is supporting a friend in need. I am saddened that there is opportunity for children in our midst to create such awful despair and anxiety in one of our own. I am torn about the role of the schools, of the community, of the parents.
But what I am not torn about is the acknowledgement, at last, that I, too, was a victim of bullying. I don’t think it has prevented me from doing the things I want to do, but it has certainly shaped my life story and the way I approach people and things. I hope it is in a more empathetic, listening sort of way.
I’m not about to join a support group. But I feel a kinship now with the victims of bullying that I hadn’t before. Before, I thought my stories were isolated experiences, based on a very specific time and place. But now, I understand that they were real, and hurtful, and brutal. And I know that my parents wish I had come home and told them about it, so they could use their strength and influence to help me.
Instead, I cowered in the bathroom. We haven’t come far enough, apparently.