I spent a lot of time thinking and brooding over the Amanda Todd story. The young girl who killed herself after years of being victimized by a sexual predator and then bullied by her peers. Because I have 3 daughters myself, this story hit me hard. One small mistake at age 12 and a life is destroyed and a young girl is savagely bullied by kids no older than her. What is it about these years that allows teens to love and hate so powerfully and so destructively?
But I don't want to talk about the bullies. What I want to talk about is the onlookers. The ones who avert their eyes and walk away whether out of fear or indifference. Or they stand by and watch, titillated by the drama. Whatever their reason is, they do nothing. And to me, they are just as bad, if not worse, than the bullies themselves.
I'm going to have to apologize in advance for what is a long and painful post for me which was pretty hard to write. But I hope it has some impact.
When I was young, I was a very angry kid. The stereotypical child of immigrant parents that had to work every day and night in the family business. I was always getting in to fights - in school and out of school. The fighting had started in grade school. Racism has always been a hot button for me. I never took a racial slur quietly, I fought back both verbally and physically. I got beaten up regularly by some of the bigger bullies in school. My father would punish me for bad grades but he never punished me for fighting. He knew firsthand how bad the racism was. He said, "If someone hits you once, you hit them 10 times back!" In retrospect, this was not such good advice. It led to the beginning of my inability to control my temper.
C was a really big and really heavy boy who liked to pick on the little kids. I had, and still have, a strong sense of fair play - and yes, there is a direct correlation to my sense of justice and the amount of racism I had to endure. In sixth grade there was a girl in my class, who I'll call A, who was really tiny and really sweet with big blue eyes, crooked teeth and freckles that covered every inch of visible skin. She was C's favorite target and he was relentless. Everyone was aware of the bullying but no one had done anything about it because no one wanted to become C's next victim. But then there was a table reassignment and A was placed next to me for the quarter. Now I could see how bad the torment was. Now I could see how desperately scared she looked. A few days later, I bore witness to C terrorizing A and then stealing her lunch and her money. Furious, I raised a huge ruckus and called him a thief and a bully and he hit me in front of all the teacher's aides who promptly dragged him to the principal's office. I'll never forget the look of gratitude on A's face. A few days later, C cornered me in the staircase and swore he was going to get even. He pinned me to the wall and kicked my right knee over and over again until I fell to the ground in agony, my knee swelling up like a bowling ball. I couldn't walk for days.
I reported C to the principal's office and he was expelled. I never regretted what I did. Even though I suffered horrendous pain and still have a scar on my knee, I would have done it all over again. Not because I was particular friends with A, but because it was the right thing to do. I only regretted not doing it earlier.
In middle school, I learned of an entirely different form of bullying. A subtle and ostracizing bullying delivered with saccharine sweetness that a clique of mean girls seem to excel in. When they taunted me for being poor, for wearing second-hand clothing, for having immigrant parents, for working in a restaurant and smelling constantly of grease, for eating school lunch, for only having 1 pair of shoes, for being underdeveloped, I gritted my teeth and took it. This was a small select honors class. So there were only 15 or so kids in the class. It was also a new school for me and I had come in during the middle of the semester, the worst time for anyone to change schools. For once I couldn't lash out at the bullies with my fists. I had never started a fight, I was a self-defense fighter. The idea of attacking someone for words alone was not something I could do, my actions were always to bait them back until they threw the first punch, then I could fight. But these group of girls didn't work that way. Nothing I could say or do fazed them. This was an entirely new brand of bullying that I didn't know how to handle. They made every single day of middle school hell. I remember feeling so very alone and so very isolated.
Verbal abuse is just as damaging, if not more so, than physical abuse. Bruises and broken bones eventually heal, but the scars from verbal abuse can fester forever. I didn't have anyone to tell these girls to stop. I didn't have a single friend in that class through the rest of 7th grade. Some of the girls would pretend to be my friend and then would gather the information they found about me and share it with the others so they could all mock me in class. These false friends were truly cruel. They would come to my house and be nice to my parents who would eagerly feed them and treat them well, only for these false friends to return to school and mock my parents and their accent and my house. The scary thing was how they could say the most hateful and hurtful things with such sweet tones in their voices. But for their words, you would think they were complimenting me. I hated that school. I hated those girls more than I had ever hated anyone else in my life.
Sometimes I would sit there stone faced, listening to them mock me and I would catch some small glance of compassion from M, one of the nicer girls. M was nice to me, only when the others weren't around. I knew that she felt bad for me, but not enough to friend me publicly. To her, losing her friends and her standing would be so much worse than being kicked in the knee twenty times by a bully. In some ways I despised M more than I ever did any of the girls that made my life a misery. Because she knew it was wrong and she did nothing. Because to assuage her guilt, she would only be friends with me in secret. But I didn't want that, what was the point?
When you do nothing, you essentially condone it. You become part of the problem. And this, in essence, is what happens to young people like Amanda Todd. Teenagers need to know that it is important to call out bad behavior. It's not OK to look away or worse, stand by and laugh. If even one person stands up for the victim, that victim doesn't feel like the world is against them. I can't tell you how important that is because when you are a teenager, being ostracized is the loneliest feeling ever. It does feel like your life sucks and that it will never get better.
Everyone who stands up to bullying makes a difference in someone's life. It may not stop the bully, but it can do something even more important - it can help the victim realize that they are not alone. If M had just once, in the midst of the worst of my harassment, said "leave her alone!" I can't tell you how happy it would have made me. How I would have realized that it wasn't my fault. That I had nothing to be ashamed of for being poor, Asian, and working in my family business. I didn't need her to be my friend, I just needed her to affirm that I had done nothing to warrant their bullying. That she recognized that they were in the wrong and I was not a bad person. I just needed someone to stand up to them and say "Stop it, she doesn't deserve this!"
I can't help but wonder if even one person had stood up for Amanda when she needed it most, if she might not have killed herself. We will never know.