I don’t know how to start this post, but I guess beginning with a simple statement of fact will suffice: I was bullied in high school.
It’s not something that I really like to talk about, and largely haven’t in the nearly nine years since I graduated. But that doesn’t change the fact that it happened. My story of being bullied is worse than others, but not nearly as bad as some. I was lucky in the fact that, even though people picked on me, I was a big kid: tall, overweight, but at the same time intimidating. Most of the abuse came in the form of verbal stones instead of physical attacks. That’s not to say that I had an easier time than my friend who was shoved down a flight of stairs; it’s just that my scars are a little different.
The teasing can almost be pinpointed to have started when my family moved between second and third grade. I attended a large school district. I don’t know about now, but at the time there were around five or so elementary schools alone, and they all converged into one big middle school once you reached sixth grade. At the elementary school I went to for the first few years, I hung out with a group of popular kids. They all turned out to be football players and other jocks in later years, part of the group of people that would harass me. It makes me wonder how I would have turned out had we never moved. Would I have become one of them?
But we did move, and I was forced to make new friends. I’ve never had a particularly easy time with that, and people who know me might try and call bullshit on me, but it’s true. It takes a while for me to trust people, and I can be relatively shy in new groups. So when we moved, I gravitated towards other shy kids. Most of them are still my friends today, some sixteen years later. But then, we were all teased and picked on. I went from being friends with jocks and cool kids, to the nerds and outcasts – my people.
A lot of the incidents blend together into several years of unfortunate existence, but a few instances do stick out in my head: my agenda planner being stolen in eighth grade, only to turn up a couple hours later with phrases like I LIKE BOYS and I’M GAY scrawled across the pages; a boy, while we were in sixth grade, grabbing my breast and commenting on my weight; another boy, in twelfth grade, approaching me in the locker room while we were alone, wearing nothing but his underwear, and asking me if I liked what I saw (and no, he wasn’t hitting on me); and again, in twelfth grade, yet another boy sitting two desks behind me in class, and ramming the desk in between us repeatedly into my chair so that my fat jiggled while the class laughed.
I’m not saying all of these things to get your sympathy. Yes, it’s painful to remember them, but it was a part of my life, my youth, my developmental years. I was a victim of bullying.
It would be amazing to say that it stopped there, but there have been other instances, even into adulthood. An old roommate, an ex-coworker, an old boss. Very few and far between (those are actually all I can think of), but some people never grow out of the need to bring others down, to dominate them.
Why am I thinking about it now? Because I went and saw the documentary Bully last weekend.
I know bullying exists—obviously, I lived through it myself—but to see such blatant examples of it shocked me in a way I hadn’t anticipated.
Take 12-year-old Alex, for instance. He’s the main focus of the documentary (it revolves around several young people and their families, but he gets the most screen time), and the school he goes to actually permitted filming on school grounds and on the bus. It follows Alex on his first day of a new year, and on that very first bus ride, they catch a boy telling Alex that he’s going to kill him, that he’s going to bring a knife to school the next day and stab him and kill him. Other kids on the bus verbally abuse him and call him names, and some resorted to physical violence: punching, smacking, stabbing him with pencils, and even going so far as choking him.
He seems to take it all with a laugh and a smile, but you know he’s not okay. How could he be? But what good would it do him to cry in front of his tormenters? Only provide them with more fuel to use against him. So he keeps quiet and takes the abuse.
The pain he’s harboring becomes abundantly clear while he’s talking to his mother later. She asks him how his day went and if anyone picked on him, and he lies to her face, says he had a good first day. But then she says, “What really happened?” and he just looks at her with this dead, vacant expression and can’t answer.
During another discussion, he confesses that one of the boys strangled him, but he thought they were only playing around. She says, “Alex, that’s not playing around. Those boys aren’t being your friend.” To which he replied, “If those boys aren’t my friends, then what friends do I have?”
I’m paraphrasing that from memory, but the context is there, even if my words aren’t exactly correct.
There was another boy, 11-years-old, who shot himself with a hunting rifle. His parents attended his funeral wearing jerseys from his favorite baseball team, the husband leading the wife and telling her “We’ll just tuck him in. We’ll tuck him in and he’ll go to sleep one last time.” His best friend collapsed into the casket at the wake, inconsolable at the loss of his dear friend, who he said was bullied all the time. The principal of his school was filmed on the local news saying there was no evidence of bullying.
One girl came out as a lesbian. When she sat down in class, no one would sit next to her. Some neighborhood boys also felt it would be appropriate to run her over with a minivan. She tried to laugh it off, saying she couldn’t even be hit by something cool, but her tears said otherwise. Their entire family got shunned, even by people they had known for years.
Another girl felt so threatened at school that she took a gun with her one day and pulled it out on the bus. Luckily no one was injured, but she had to go to jail at 14, and be charged with severe crimes. The consequences of her actions will follow her for the rest of her life.
And finally, we met a family of a young man who felt like he had no other option but to end his life. His mother found him hanging from a rope in his closet.
I can honestly say I never considered suicide as a means to end the pain, but I have several friends who not only thought about it, but attempted it. I count myself lucky that none of them succeeded and I didn’t have to cry inconsolably into their caskets. But it came close on several occasions.
It never got that bad for me, but I do remember the extreme loneliness I felt at times. I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it, didn’t want to admit it was happening, that I wasn’t strong enough to stop it. There was nothing more demoralizing than having to tell my parents what had happened. I remember lying to them to save face, just like Alex did.
I’m admitting this to you all now because I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this movie. About how things haven’t changed, and how kids still feel threatened, like they have no way out, no hope or help.
The principal at Alex’s school witnessed another two other random boys fighting and pulled them aside. She told them to shake hands and forget about it. The one boy offered his hand willingly, but the other one was very reluctant to. She scolded him and, after dismissing the other boy, asked him why he wasn’t willing to shake. He said the other kid picked on him a lot, followed him around and tormented him. He said that he’s told teachers, and his parents, and even the police, but the boy refuses to stay away from him. Her response? That by not shaking hands, he was just as bad as the other boy.
He tried to get her help, but she completely barreled over him. Even when confronted with evidence of bullying, she claims her students are “good as gold.” She basically told him that he didn’t matter, that his pain meant nothing.
Now, people are out there that kids can trust. I had a teacher who used to stick up for me all the time, and I’m grateful to her every single day. But the thought process of most is, “Suck it up and be a man,” or “Boys will be boys.”
No, verbally abusing someone is not boys being boys. Stabbing someone with pencils is not boys being boys. And threatening to bring in a knife and kill someone is not boys being boys.
It’s harassment. It’s bullying.
And it needs to stop.
This film is a powerful vehicle for change, and I hope its message spreads. But I know that the people who really need to see this movie most likely never will. Bullies don’t think they’re bullies, or don’t care. They’re never going to go with their family or friends to see this, and they’re going to continue to spread their violence and hate.
I really hope that the world evolves into a place of acceptance for my future children’s sake.
And in the meantime, I recommend that everyone see this film.
Kyle W. Kerr