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Posts Tagged ‘bullying’

Growing up in suburban America in the 1980’s, life felt like a cliché. Except that clichés often have hints of truth in them. The Breakfast Club wasn’t far off the mark from the social strata that I remember. Today, to some, that ladder of acceptance feels antiquated. Perhaps, because the obviousness of the hierarchy has disappeared, we have a false sense of equity and acceptance among our young people. Children learn that bullying is bad…that their words hurt…

And yet.

At least once a year, we have one tragic story of a young person who tried to be strong but who, ultimately, had no outlet other than desperation.

The problem is that even those who are not driven to desperate measures often find their worlds and responses to their worlds colored by the past. At moments when they least expect the response to be tainted by the past, they find it is. These lingering moments are the ones that haunt.

“But, you’re 36 now. That was 30 years ago. Don’t you think it’s time to let it go?”

Yes, I do think it’s time to let it go. Except that in different places and at different moments, the past comes pack to color the present. That present is a good one, happy. People don’t beat up on me or mock me anymore.

And yet.

In the middle of a discussion about the causes of prejudice and the need to pick on a weaker group, I mention that it’s like bullying a kid. Someone thinks I’m discussing a class member’s paper. I have a full on mental flashback to being picked up, placed in a trash can in the high school cafeteria, unable to get myself out of the plastic garbage can. In the middle of a seemingly unrelated conversation, eighteen years from the original event, several towns away from my home town, I am transported back to that moment, the feeling of helplessness, the reliance on someone, anyone, else. However, it was eighteen years ago. This shouldn’t matter.

And yet.

As an adult, raising my son, I look at him and, as do all parents, think about whether I’m making the right decisions for him. Every day, I look at my choices and watch him grow, in awe. Then, there are the moments when I say something and he cries. In those moments, I’m transported to my cousin having my dolls tell me that I’m a bad mommy and that they want to go home with her. That was thirty-one years ago. This shouldn’t matter.

And yet.

Every Easter, I prepare for another holiday. I pack the Easter basket. We get in the car and head to Easter dinner. At least one moment during dinner, I hear my son playing in another room. I’m transported back to the Easter I spent with my cousins at their house. The one where I was little and annoying, maybe seven at most. The one where my cousin decided that the game would be tying me to a chair until I untied myself, found her and her other cousin, and then they would tie me up again. When I was called to the dinner table, I was tied to a white rocking chair. I couldn’t get up. I could only scream. I got in trouble for not responding. It’s been close to thirty years. Everyone has dispersed, and family gatherings don’t happen much these days. I haven’t seen my cousin in four years. My aunt sold that house seven years ago. It shouldn’t matter.

And yet.

I’m a thirty-six year old woman living in an affluent community. I’ve achieved my life goals – I’m a mother, teacher, friend, wife. I’m the person I always wanted to be. The person I didn’t know I wanted to be. I have a tribe of my own. Thinking about this transports me back to the being in middle school and wanting nothing more than to have friends.  To the moment when I was excited to play truth or dare on a sleep away field trip, having never heard of the game. To my choice of a dare because truth seemed scarier. To being dared to take off my bra. The bra that ended up being submerged in Sprite. The sticky bra that I had to wear because it was the only one I had. The shame I felt at having trusted people. All that happened more than twenty years ago. This shouldn’t matter.

And yet.

I think about a little boy, who loves a cartoon. He’s 11 years old. He’s been teased about something he’s passionate about. He’s been teased so much that he tries to end his life. I’m transported back to the baths I used to take when I was around his age – when I imagined what it would be like to be in a bath tub full of water with just enough drops of red to turn it a deep pink. When I idly wondered whether it would hurt or just be like falling asleep.  When I wondered what people would think if I wasn’t there anymore.  When I would tell myself that everyone this age does this. Everyone imagines what death would be like. Everyone… everyone….

And yet.

Age doesn’t matter to the And Yet. Time doesn’t diminish the And Yet. Those who are bullied live with that And Yet no matter their age or what they become. The And Yet is part of us. When I was growing up, bullying wasn’t A Thing.

And yet.

Schools continue to blame the victimized children. Society continues to blame the victimized child. We tell these children to change, to leave a backpack at home, to stop watching a cartoon, to become like the others, to assimilate, to lose part of themselves. Even worse, we tell these children that their size or the things about them that they cannot change will never be good enough for our society. Schools have a responsibility to our children; however, the represent the communities in which they are located. We comprise those communities. We have a greater responsibility to our children. We have a responsibility as a society to change so that the schools represent the different, the underdog, the whole of society not just those someone, somewhere, deemed acceptable.

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic may be a trend, a fad. It may be something that in a year or two fades into the background. When my son is 10, 15, or 20, he may not remember watching it with me. He may not remember the lessons of the importance of friendship and diversity. He may not remember the characters. He may not remember the bright pink My Little Pony shirt that he proudly picked out from the girls’ department at the store because none were available in the boys’ department. He may not remember that when I asked him why he didn’t wear his shirts anymore he told me that it was because he was “afraid that the kids at school would tease him the way they teased those other boys.” He may not remember saying that because it was in the context of us discussing recent incidents and how they were unfair. He may not remember my holding him, looking him in the eye, explaining to him that I would never let that happen and that he should never stop being who he is.

And Yet.

I have chosen not only to make My Little Pony permanent on my body but to place it somewhere people will see it. When someone asks about having a cartoon on my arm, I will be able to open the conversation. When people laugh at the idea being ridiculous or ask the slightly snarky, “And so WHAT is THAT?” I can tell them. I can tell them that it was because a little boy inspired a moment in time. I can explain that his struggles are his own but that he is not alone. I can explain maybe people viewed it as a bandwagon, as a “good deal”, as a momentary zeitgeist. I can explain that people treating people poorly to the point of desperation exists.

I could hide a tattoo. I could place it somewhere under clothing. I could place it somewhere no one else but my husband and I can see it. I could keep the physical representation of that part of myself hidden the way the emotional has been hidden. I could cover it up while it is still a part of me. I could pretend that it doesn’t exist with only the people I trust able to see it.

And yet.

The “And Yet” needs to be changed. Because hiding something that has informed the person I am only makes me incomplete. Schools continue to blame the victimized children. Society continues to blame the victimized child. We tell these children to change, to become like the others, to assimilate, to lose part of themselves. Even worse, we tell these children that their size or the things about them that they cannot change will never be good enough for our society. Schools have a responsibility to our children; however, we have a greater one to them. Hiding the past that molded me is irresponsible to my child.

Because then.

I allow others to feel alone.

Because then.

I don’t admit to who I fully am.

Because then.

I let my son feel as though feeling afraid or nervous is something that has to be hidden.

Because then…

The And Yet has the power of the past controlling me. By owning that past, I can use it to change the future. Because then…I can look to the future and to the change I want to be.

I can change the And Yet to the Because Then.

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Society. That’s what. Over the last few months, bullying has become a disconcerting trend in the news. First, there was the story of Tyler Clement. Then the Trevor Project went viral.  Bullying over sexual and gender preferences has come to the national forefront, as well it should.

However, where does this all begin? Earlier this semester, I worked with students discussing the nerd and jock stereotypes. Resoundingly, my students told me that my understanding of the high school social structure was outdated. “There’s no such thing as the nerd!” they cried. “Smart kids do sports. This whole nerd thing is dumb.” “We’re all the same!” They all insisted that these were universal truths.

In the last few weeks, Katie’s Story has gone viral. Katie is a little girl who loves Star Wars. Her mother is absolutely correct – tolerance is preached in schools, but this does not mean that children accept it. Children look for those who are different, pinpoint those differences, and find ways to belittle those differences. In fact, in a class where students insisted that nerds and jocks were outmoded stereotypes, one student argued about a segment of a reading discussing gay porn that the reading created discomfort since it discussed “man on man sex” a lot even though “it’s not like I’m homophobic.” No, we’re not homophobic. We’re intolerant of differences that don’t jibe with our sense of social norms. There’s a difference, but there’s not.

The difference, to be honest, is that kids learn these norms at a young age. I’m more than proud of the fact that Monster knows Blitzkrieg Bop (B Bop) and can sing “Ay! Oh! … Go!” I’m beyond proud that he wants his Yoda shirt in the morning (even if that means making sure we have multiple ones in the house and have to make sure at least one is clean on any given day to prevent insane meltdowns). I’m thrilled that he looks at handstamps, then at his wrists, and gets a confused face because Mommy has “stamps” on her wrists known as “tattoo.” I’m proud of these things.

I’m not always proud of myself. I’m not proud that when I saw a kitchen set on sale at a local toy store I didn’t scoop it up. Although, in my defense it was more about having a lot of Christmas gifts already, a tantrumey child, and no idea how I’d truck that sucker home than it was about gender issues. I’m not proud that I don’t point out pink to him (although, it’s more along the lines of “I hate the color pink in general and want to view as little as humanly possible” than it is about not wanting my son to like pink). I’m not proud that I don’t offer him as many stereotypically non-boy things as I do stereotypically boy things.

Last weekend, we took Monster to Lego Kidsfest. For me, this experience tops the list of things I’ve done with my son. Why? I’m inculcating him to the concept of convention culture. I love that there are places where people of all ages can come together and share their favorite hobbies. I’m saddened that it was very obvious that there were far fewer girls than boys at Lego Kidsfest. Boys dominated. I’m saddened that when I walk into a local kids’ art place, it seems geared slightly more towards girls (two Fancy Nancy parties and one Planes, Trains, and Cars). I’m saddened that when I visited the art place, it was more girls than boys. I’m saddened that the things we assume our children will like when they’re young are things that have a gender identity, even if it’s subconscious through the use of colors and names.

For example, why are there only four female trains in the Thomas stories? Trust me, Monster has a serious crush on Rosie. I can safely say that I know almost all the trains by name at this point. Why aren’t there more female trains? Why does one of them have to be pink/lavender while the others are mostly primary colors? (At least Emily is a nice, happy, shade of dark green.) Why does Foofa have to be pink (with the requisite flower sticking out of her head) while both Brobee and Muno are regular primary colors (at least Toody is blue…)? Why do I walk into the Target children’s section or the Old Navy children’s section and see that all the cool graphic shirts are in the boys’ department while all the pink hearts and flowers are in the girls’ department? Why can’t there be flannel plaid shirts in the girls’ section?

The answer is the word stereotype. I spent the last three months trying to explain to my students why stereotypes matter, even though they insist that stereotypes don’t really exist today. This is the problem. This disbelief in the existence of stereotypes is where the bullying starts. Bullying against gays, blacks, Jews, women, and all the other more obvious societal categories is beyond wrong. Please, for those of you who know me or have read this blog before, understand that the following is more about the insidiousness of stereotypes as a whole as opposed to an attempt to minimize the larger societal issues of racism, Antisemitism, or sexism. This is about the underlying issues that society needs to address.

From a young age, we teach children that there are differences. In fact, children very often, notice differences, as basic as shirt color (yes, I read this somewhere…but my memory is escaping me.). Children and all people categorize. Categorizing on its own is not wrong. Categorizing but attaching a positive/negative connotation is where the problem occurs. These connotations are insidious in our culture and are part of the cause of the general bullying.

For example, why do there need to be separate lines of clothing for men and women when it comes to things like sports or Star Wars? Why should boys be the only ones who get to wear plaid? Why should there be a whole wall of really cute sneakers and shoes for little girls in Stride Rite and about two racks of similar looking shoes for boys?

At the youngest of ages, as small as birth, people start transferring implications onto their children. Yes, my son listens to the music I like. I’ll be damned if he didn’t decide he likes Thomas on his own. He also likes ABBA. He also loves his Rosie train. When we take him to the library, he beelines for the kitchen set area. More often than not, there are more girls than boys there. Within these seemingly minor moments lie the undercurrents of bullying. Bullying arises when people sense a difference from a perceived norm. Bullying arises when people assume that a difference implies that one of the options is better or worse than another.

With little Katie, it’s simply that most stores make blue Star Wars toys. With my son, it’s people looking at him and assuming that he doesn’t want a toy kitchen. These toy issues seem so very minor in the greater scope of societal prejudices and issues. However, they are the inception of the larger issues. They are the moments that define where children, who later grow into adults, learn their sets of norms. The norms of gender begin at a young age. However, these are not the only norms.

Over the course of the last three months, I’ve attempted to explore with my students the idea that intelligence, and thus the “nerd” stereotype, have evolved for various reasons. My students have steadfastly refused to admit that there is such a stereotype. The fact remains that when we look at those people considered “nerds” – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, or Mark Zuckerberg – an underlying “less than” implication exists. Sure, they’re smart. Sure, they’re wealthier than half of the American population combined. However, there just has to be something wrong with them. More people can recognize Sarah Palin or Dennis Kucinich than will be able to recognize two of the Supreme Court Justices. We can say that it’s because Supreme Court Justices do not use words like “refudiate” or run for president. The truth is that their job is far too esoteric for most Americans to grasp beyond the most basic level. By pretending that all people are equal, that there are no underlying norms regarding some amorphous agreed-upon level of intelligence, is to inculcate another stereotype. Like all stereotypes, this is another insidious way of creating bullying. One cannot be too smart. One cannot be too interested in some movie. One cannot love a certain type of music. One cannot fall in love with someone of the same sex.

Pretending that people do not recognize differences does not erase these differences nor does it erase the connotations contained therein. Assuming that tolerance means acceptance makes all of us ignorant.  Tolerance implies permission to be different but not necessarily liking it. Tolerance implies that people won’t do harm. Tolerance does not erase the inherent distinctions made between norm and non-norm. Tolerance simply assumes that people will not act upon these distinctions. However, if people begin to believe that tolerance equates to acceptance, then change cannot be made.

Acceptance implies an inherent approval. Assuming that permission equates to approval is the fallacy of many of the non-bullying activities in schools today. Accepting that people are not the same is a whole different story. Many young people feel that because they have learned about prejudice and why it is bad that they have learned acceptance. Bullying in the most obvious sense – racism, sexism, anti-gay, anti-religion – is what most children think about when we teach them about prejudice. They assume that by not using words like “nigger” or “faggot” that they have evolved beyond the underlying thoughts. They assume that because the American president was elected “in spite of” his race, that Americans have evolved. We now tolerate differences. We do not, as evidenced by many things in the last few years, accept.

Bullies inherently understand that while they need to tolerate the big things, they do not need to accept them. In fact, they feel that they do not need to accept differences as a whole. We cannot teach acceptance of all things. Acceptance, or the approval of differences, is a personal choice. We can teach the idea that different does not equate to negative. We can teach that just because you disapprove of something does not mean you have to demonize it. However, to truly define what lies within a bully, we need to understand that by teaching tolerance we are merely hiding the problems. Parents, more than anyone else, need to understand that teaching tolerance only furthers the bullying. Within every bully lies a tolerant child. Teaching children to understand that differences can be either chosen or not and that these differences do not imply a positive/negative connotation is different. People do not have to agree with everyone else’s choices. People do not have to agree with everyone else’s lifestyles. People do not have to agree with everyone else’s decisions. People should, however, learn that different does not mean demon.

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