One Saturday afternoon, I finally managed to wrangle my middle school boy into the barbershop for a much needed haircut. As he sat there chatting away with the barber, clumps of his unruly hair falling everywhere, I picked up the local paper and started to read. There were the usual stories: sports achievements, town budget issues, wedding announcements, and so on.
Then a small story caught my eye. Two girls in a nearby town had held a bake sale to raise money for a family of a young teenage boy who had died “at home.” The story never said how the boy had died and the family did not want to be interviewed, but the girls who held the fundraiser told the reporter they had felt bad because the boy had been bullied at school, teased for being overweight and for the clothes he wore, among other things. It didn’t take much to put the tragic pieces of the puzzle together. I looked up and reading my horrified expression, the barber nodded and over my child’s head mouthed the words, “Suicide. So sad.”
I looked at my child and thought, What if…what if that happened to him? What if he were being bullied? What if he were so desperate and lost? Would I know?
My stomach flopped.
And then I looked at him again, and thought, What if…what if he was the bully? What if he were the mean one? Would I know?
My stomach flopped again.
I did not know the boy who died, but I do know what it is like to be lost in the mess of puberty, unable to see the future that is right down the road. If only this boy had held on, made it through the chaos of adolescence, maybe he would have been OK, blossoming into a young adult, succeeding in college. Maybe he would have married, had children, and settled down in a small town. Maybe he would have become a teacher, or a doctor, or a barber. Maybe, but he didn’t survive; he was too afraid and lonely and young. He didn’t know that things might get better if only…
We were all there once—adolescence—struggling to make it through the day. Worried about how big our boobs were or weren’t, worried about the zits on our face, the clothes that we wore. Do I smell? Will anyone sit with me at lunch? Will anyone ask me to the dance? We have all been there, and instead of pulling together as a group and seeing our strength in numbers, we separated, divided by unseen walls of status: the victims, the invisibles, the druggies, the jocks, the populars.
Ask yourself, right now: What group were you in? Would you want your child to be in this group? Did you give up anything to be in that group? Your pride, your individuality, your voice? Maybe you sacrificed your best friend. They were not cool enough so you threw them aside, hoping to move up the ladder of popularity or just trying to protect yourself from being rejected.
Or maybe you were the one who was left behind. Feeling small and alone, you decided to become invisible, pretending it didn’t hurt. Now you are determined that your child does not suffer the same fate. You will do anything to make sure that he is captain of the football team or she is head cheerleader. You guide them toward certain friends, the “right” group to associate with, side-stepping those who are “different.”
Are you thinking right now, My kid wouldn’t do that! They would never pick on someone or leave someone out! Why not? Why would they be any different than any of us? Did you ever snicker at the chubby girl in gym class or the boy with the acne? Perhaps you didn’t participate but instead stood by silently, watching. Did you ever step outside of your group to offer an outsider a seat at the lunch table? Were you willing to stand up for a friend even if it meant you might be turned on next? Bullying is not just physical harm or rude insults; one of the most potent forms of bullying is exclusion, being alone, forced out, made to watch from the sidelines.
Do you think it is different now? That children no longer bully one another because of all of those anti-bullying programs? Wrong. The only difference between then and now is technology—technology that makes the insults quicker and easier to throw around. So don’t be fooled by the kid who says, “There is no bullying in my school. We have a program for that.” The anti-bullying programs are wonderful and necessary, but it cannot end there.
The conversations must continue at home. We must teach our children to accept, to stand up, to challenge. Teach them when they are young not to exclude others on the playground, to give everyone a chance, to invite all the kids to the birthday party, to open up their circle of friends. It is natural to develop a group of friends over time, but maybe if they just reach out to the child who is sitting alone, the one whose pants are a bit too short, or the one they don’t really know very well, they can help that one person to feel included and give them a reason to hang on, to look just down the road.