Sunday, October 14, 2012

Bullying and the Problem of Doing Nothing

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.


Alyssa said...

Ellen, thank you for posting this. I feel like I understand what you're saying. I've never been directly bullied, but my parents are Asian (Indian), and came to the U.S. with basically nothing. My two older siblings and I were born here, but it seemed like people never liked us because we dressed differently - because my parents didn't work for much money. I've never been physically bullied, but I know when people talk about me behind my back. I've stood up for myself as best as I could, but it still hurts. I'm in high school now, and I've asserted myself with my academics and personality, and I believe that has made a difference. But no one ever called anyone out when someone was talking about me negatively. I have always vowed never to be a bystander. Because I my opinion, bystanders are worse than the bullies themselves.

Thank you for posting this.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks Ellen, for sharing such a personal experience. I was made fun of all through school for being overweight, not pretty. Probably some because I was the smartest kid in the class. I hardly had any friends all through high school.

Luckily my daughter hasn't experienced this and she's not afraid to be vocal. Her schools have always taken a proactive stance toward bullying. But it still went on. Her best friend at a different school was bullied in silence for a year and there was definitely bullies at my daughter's school. It's important we all speak out.

Christina Farley said...

Excellent post. It always amazes me how subtle bullying can be. It can form seeds at an early age and grow from there. Sometimes I don't think kids really know it's bullying until later on. This something we're trying to deal with in the schools but man, it's tough.

Kelly Polark said...

Thank you for sharing with us, Ellen. I'm so glad you stood up for A. She must be forever grateful to you, and you saved others from being tormented at that school too.
Thankfully our school teaches the students about bullying and what to do (I know it won't eliminate it, but it's a start). Last month my daughter instructed her little brother that it's just as bad to sit by and let someone bully another as it is to be the bully.
Kids need to know it's okay to speak up.

Lena said...

You were very brave and courageous to post this Ellen!! I know that was probably hard to write. I was bullied, but it was easier because the teachers put a stop to it... I still know the girl who was mean to me, and well I still kinda hold a grudge... ( i think the girl had some really serious family problems too...) ANYHOO Bullying has gotten out of hand in our world right now, I don't understand people can be mean, don't they feel horrible afterwards? Thank you for this personal post, and I hope we stop bullying together!

LK Griffie said...

Thank you for sharing your personal experience that definitely speaks to many. You're right, we cannot afford to stand by in silence. We must speak up and stop the bullying.

Heather Zundel said...

I was an under-the-radar girl. No one harassed me or tormented me (that I can remember or am aware of). I was not stylish or particularly pretty, but I also wasn't anything that could be directly poked fun at. I worked hard at school and had a decent group of core classmates and that really helped. In essence, I operated off the grid.

Because of that, or perhaps because of my own bubble I put myself in, I did not notice the bullying of others. The thing is, I'm sure it happened. Looking back, I wish I'd had better eyes (and hopefully the courage) to stand up to see something that I knew was wrong,, and then act.

Ellen, even though your and my school experiences happen a while ago, your story makes me want to be more aware here and *now*. Just because we're grown up doesn't mean the bullying has stopped. I want to be the girl that cries out "leave them alone!" and mean it.

denise biondo said...

very good post ellen. i also really thought a lot about amanda todd yesterday.
the first type of bullying, as in your example with C, must be painful but at least it's out in the open and you had a chance to fight back and react to it.
i believe that the second type of bullying, more subtle and is easily carried out by many in adulthood. being passive-aggressive, it's very hard to stop it and react to it. sometimes a victim just knows something isn't right but the details are actually invisible to them. the onlookers partially cooperate because there is manipulation involved, mostly by damaging the victim's reputation and making people think that they deserve it for being... (insert hyperbolic adjective here.)

Charles Gramlich said...

I just don't know how people can see the hurt in another person's eyes and keep doing what is causing that hurt. It horrifies me.

Jo Ramsey said...

Thank you for sharing your story, Ellen. I was bullied throughout school, and all I wanted was for someone to stand up for me, to show me they cared, to make it stop.

That never happened, and now, almost 25 years later, I'm still affected by the bullying.

Both of my daughters have experienced bullying. One doesn't always notice it; she has Asperger's Syndrome, and subtlety is lost on her. The other has learned to stand up for herself, something I wish I'd been able to do.

Jaime Morrow said...

Thanks for sharing your story, Ellen. I've never been bullied to this extent, but I have experienced mild bullying. I can't begin to imagine what pushes people to be so cruel to others. I'd like to think that we as humans are better than that, but sometimes I really wonder.

I posted about Amanda Todd on Friday. I heard her story on our local news in Alberta just after the VP debate. Such a heartbreaking story.

Christina said...

Thanks for sharing your story. I know how hard it is to confront past pain.

Your story is amazing. I cannot believe you stood up to that big bully and that he did that to your knee. You could have been injured for life. Children have such a capacity for cruelty that it terrifies me. Thankfully, I never experienced physical bullying or had my lunch money stolen or anything. Nor do I remember witnessing such behavior, although I don't believe that's because it didn't happen. I think I was just so far outside the social circle I just didn't know what was happening. I never witnessed a fight or drug use either, all things that definitely happened.

However, I do have a lot of experience with the second kind of bullying you mentioned, the pretty girls with nice clothes and mean words. Their cute faces and vicious behavior create a horrid juxtaposition.

The bullying started when I was in second grade; the fifth grade cheerleaders on my bus would pick on me, because of my curly, tangly hair. Three of the most popular fifth graders versus a student just entering the school in second grade? I didn't stand a chance.

Add to that a series of two-faced friends, the only kind I seemed capable of getting for most of my formative years, at least in school, and I was in a sad state. I remember specifically in elementary school that my 'best friend' told me I had been too mean to the gross boy in class (and I still kind of thought boys had cooties, so double ick). Mostly I think I avoided speaking to him as much as possible, but temper has always been an issue I struggle with as well. Anyway, I took her criticism to heart and tried to be nice to him. Then she started a rumor that I had a crush on him.

In middle school, I basically faded to the edge of people's awareness. I don't think I was picked on much (I don't remember anything specifically awful), but I was practically invisible, particularly in sixth grade. I remember that we were forced to eat lunch with out homeroom, and I had no friends in my homeroom. Well, I didn't really have any friends, but I did have a group that would let me hang around. I remember sitting at a table of kids and listening to them talk, never having anything to add to the conversation. Apparently, in sixth grade, during the parent teacher conference, the teacher commented on how quiet I was and how she'd like it if I spoke up more. My parents were stunned, since I have always been a very talkative person.

I still struggle with self-esteem as a result of all of these factors. My default thought when I look at myself and my curly hair is that I'm ugly, that I should look different. I'm getting better, but it's tough. I still expect my friends to betray me at some point, afraid to really trust.

Many had it so much worse than I did, but the things that happen to you during these years have such an impact on who you become. Damage done to your psyche during your formative years is not easy to repair.

Bish Denham said...

How horrible that you had to go through that. You were so brave and strong to stand up to that bully. Fear and longing are such strong motivators in kids. Fear of rejection, fear of becoming the brunt of the bullying, longing to be a part of a group, longing to be noticed. None of that excuses bullying, only puts it into context.

It has to start at home. That boy who bullied you I would be surprised if he was physically abused in his home. Those girls, they may well have been verbally abused by a sibling or a parent. Kids mirror what they see and experience.

It has to start in the home. Behaving and responding to another human being in a compassionate manner has to be taught, just like bullying does.

moonrat said...

i wish i had been as tough and brave as you as a kid. and, i hope i can figure out a way to teach my kids to be tough and brave if i ever have kids.

Kimbra Kasch said...

Great post.

My oldest son once stopped a bully who was beating up another kid. The bully had just been transferred to our neighborhood school because he'd caused too many problems in lots of other schools. My oldest is big and he grabbed the kid and just held him. He must have felt powerless because he threatened to come back with his brother and kill my son. Yep, "Kill."
Thankfully, the kid was expelled from our school but I can't help but wonder what school he ended up at - and who else he bullied.

Unknown said...

This was a wonderfully inspiring Blog. So many of us can relate. I hope you don't mind I quoted you in my own Blog addressing Authors, Writers and Bloggers and dealing with internet bullies.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Thank you everybody for your comments - it is an important issue and one that I hope can get better if more people stand up against the behavior.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Thank you for this, Ellen!

Stacy said...

I saw the video she made for the first time today. It was heartbreaking to watch. She seemed like such a sweet girl who wouldn't hurt a soul.

I do think social pressure to end bullying would help. But I wonder if there's any way to start support groups for girls and boys who are bullied. That's an idea I've never heard put forth. It seems to me it would help bullied kids immensely if they know they are not alone while they are enduring the abuse instead of figuring out long afterwards that it was their bulliers who were the problem all along. For some kids, that time never comes.

Diana Julianna said...

Ellen, you are amazing, and I am grateful.

You know, it's really funny. I moved here too, with my parents, when I was in fourth grade. From China, yeah. I was always so intense that I think it scared people off. There was this guy that used to make suggestive gestures at me during class and I glared at him with my evilest look and I think since then he sort of feared me, which I find interesting because it correlates with your post: sometimes it's not the physical, male harassers that do the most damage, but the ones you learn to trust.

So I guess my point is that I'm not a very good temper-controller, also, but I hope that I've been able to grow stronger through the years, like you. Thank you. :)

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