When I read Bullied Michigan Teen Shines . . . on CNN, I couldn't help but shake my head. The story was all too familiar. I am so very glad this young woman responded like this. It is the only way to come out of it with any sense of self-respect and very likely taught a valuable lesson to those who played this joke on her. For the record, I don't think those responsible for it were aware that what they were doing would be construed as bullying. Chances are, they thought she'd done something to earn it. This is how kids, especially teens, often work.
How do I know? Well apart from having four kids of my own--two currently teenagers, the other two young adults, I was once an awkward teenage girl--and the target of ridicule myself.
Back in the early 80s we were living in Northwest Arkansas in a small yellow farm house in an old, defunct mining town known as Zinc. Money was tight at our house and my brother and I wore a lot of thrift shop clothes that smelled like wood smoke during winter. When clothes wore thin, Mom patched them, and we wore them some more. We attended school in a nearby larger town, catching the long yellow school bus at six thirty every morning and returning at four thirty in the afternoon. My class had about thirty or so students, so the line between the haves and the have-nots was especially pronounced. There was no hiding in the crowd--everyone knew who you were and where you were from. I was one of the few kids in class that hadn't gone to school there since at least the early elementary years.
Roy (not his real name), the boy in this story, often ran with the "in crowd" (kids with money, most of whom had gone to school together since kindergarten). I did not know him well--he was often foul-mouthed and rude (at least to me) and I chose to keep my distance (never quite knew what to do with that). I didn't find out until a couple of years later, when he momentarily let down his guard, that he was actually an excellent student and could be well-spoken and funny.
While I had a handful of very good friends, I was not especially popular. Some of this was of my own making. I was not shy (what a surprise, right?) and had strong opinions and wasn't afraid to voice them for fear of making someone else mad. I inhaled books, made good grades, and answered my teachers in the southern vernacular--"Yes ma'am"/"No ma'am"--which struck some of my peers as phony. My parents may have been hippies, but my mother was a southerner and it naturally follows that she was strict about manners and respect for elders and dressing modestly. My grades were closely policed, as was my attitude.
In mid-October, when it came time to nominate the Sophomore class Halloween King and Queen (a big all school event), the in-crowd was in high spirits. There was a lot of joking around, and, to be honest with you, I was only half paying attention to what they were doing. I was very likely reading or maybe talking to my best friend, Marty (that IS her real name). It was just one more thing I couldn't attend because we couldn't afford the extra gas to town or the clothes, and it involved dancing, which our Fundamental Baptist Church frowned on. Add not caring about basket ball at a small town school that played no other sports and my case for indifference is well solidified. Probably another reason I wasn't popular, come to think of it.
Someone had to tell me that they'd put my name beside Roy's on the blackboard. I could hear hooting and unkind laughter and equally unkind comments. I suppose I just froze, not quite believing it was happening, and just waited for it to not be me, for someone to erase my name, or ask me if I wanted it (at which point I would have said no). But they didn't. When Roy and I and the other couple they'd nominated stepped out into the hall to wait for the class to vote, I was still expecting it to NOT be me. The blood was pounding in my ears and I wanted to cry, but I held it together (barely), comforting myself with the thought that it would soon be over as I could still hear the laughter inside the classroom.
A few minutes later we entered a quiet classroom. No one was laughing. Marty, who understood me better than anyone, gave me a sympathetic look and said quietly, "Congratulations. You're the Halloween Queen." The first thing out of my mouth was a soft, "I don't want it." Being Marty, she said, "Yes you do. They need to learn a lesson."
Looking back on it, I have no idea who voted for me that day because they thought it was a great joke and how many voted because they wanted it to be someone other than the kids who'd always run the show. At the time it seemed to me like everyone (except Marty and a couple of other people) were in on the joke. I wanted to go home. I wanted to hide. For just a few seconds I wanted to simply not be anything. I confess, at that stage, I did cry.
During lunch I was approached by a couple of girls from the "in crowd", offering apologies. "The joke wasn't supposed to be on you. It was supposed to be on Roy."
How was that supposed to make me feel better?
"If you want, you could choose one of us to do it for you," they said.
Before I had to time to give it away, my small group of friends, Marty among them, stopped me. "You need to do this," they said.
Through out the rest of the day and part of the next, the girls from this group, one by one, came by and "offered" to take the responsibility off my shoulders. And every time, still feeling a bit like an animal with its foot caught in a trap, I said no thank you, though I wasn't sure why. Obstinacy being basic to I am, I suppose some survival instinct was slowly kicking in. Hell no, you can't kick me and just apologize and expect me to give you a prize for it.
Roy found me a couple of days later. "You gonna do this?" he asked.
I shrugged. "I guess so."
"Good. Me too."
When I got home my family pow-wowed about it. Mom was dismayed and thought I should just withdraw, but the men the house, my Step-brother, my brother, and my step-father were clear. "You don't back down," they said.
My step-brother, Steve, told me in private later, "You're just as good as they are." He shrugged and grinned. "And you clean up pretty good, for a sister." (I will always be grateful for that pep-talk).
Mom, trooper that she was, hunted for a week and finally found a beautiful formal dress that I could borrow. She helped me do my hair and make up. She rocks.
So when I showed up for the Halloween gathering that night, I looked pretty good. And Roy? He appeared dressed in a white tuxedo and carefully walked me across the floor, his hand on my arm, to take our seats with all the other Halloween Royalty (he even told me that I looked nice). I remember some surprised faces and I remember my friends telling me over and over how pretty I looked. It should have been a favorite moment. It isn't, but it should have been.
The most vivid memory? The ridicule. The fact that I was--somehow--a joke, the gag gift. The message was "You don't belong up there. You aren't good enough." But I was a joke that backfired, thanks to some support from friends and family and that part of me, deep down inside that refused to be put in "my place" (where ever that was supposed to be). I don't remember ever being teased again after that. And for some reason or another, those girls were actually nice to me from that point forward. Perhaps everybody just grew up. Or maybe we all learned something.
I'm fairly sure that the people involved in that joke didn't think of it as bullying, any more than the kids who voted for the girl in Michigan. They thought it was funny. That's all. They didn't consider consequences or the feelings of the other person (Someone in this article about mean girls said "Teenagers are awful, even when they're not being awful" and even from the standpoint of someone who likes teenagers, I have to agree). Chances were it was--to their way of thinking--justified.
So when it got back to me that Sam, my youngest, (Yes, folks, that's right. Our sweet little Sam, the one you've been reading about on this blog since 2005) was caught by an older brother making fun of a student with special needs, you can imagine my response. And when I learned that it was a boy who I've known since he was five years old (had him in various classrooms as I substitute taught in and in the money skillls classes and after school programs), a boy who used to run across whatever space that separated us and hug me when he saw me, I was livid. The older brother had already chewed him out, but knew that he needed to hear it from someone higher up.
I knew where this was coming from, in part. Sam is fairly popular with his peers and has never been on the receiving end of bullying (apparently my youngest is a part of the "in crowd" How did that happen?). So he really has no sense of what it's like to be the target of ridicule. This is not an excuse, by any means. It just means that Sam needs some sensitivity training. Training I'm more than happy to execute.
When I confronted him, Sam's argument was what I expected. "But he deserved it . . . "
I did not ask him how he thought a boy with an IQ of 70, at best, deserved anything. I did give him an earful. I told him what it was like to be on the receiving end, and how I can still remember how it felt like it was yesterday. And that while the rest of the world may be okay with making fun of people who "deserve it" (???) WE--in this house--do not. Not ever. We remember that God's love for us has nothing to do with whether we deserve it or not and because of it we are supposed to treat other people with kindness and decency.Always. And we remember the times people in our own lives granted us forgiveness and kindness when we actually "deserved" something worse. And, finally, I also told him to be sure and ask his older brother, Daniel, what it was like to be bullied on the bus by people who thought he deserved it because he was different.
Sam was silent for a second, his eyes serious. "Someone bullied Daniel?"
"Yep. How does that make you feel?"
"Mad for him. Pretty crappy."
"Good. Justin has brothers and sisters too. If thinking about Justin's feelings isn't enough for you, consider how they'd feel if they knew you were picking on their brother who has special needs."
"I'll apologize to him."
"Good plan. And I'm pretty sure we won't ever have to have this conversation, ever again, right?"