Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Expendable - My Struggle With Bullying in School

There’s been a lot of talk on the subject of bullies over the last year. I’ve read about it in blog posts and newspaper articles, heard it from friends and media personalities, even saw a TV special on bullying in school. Much of this talk came as a result of the most recent string of teen suicides. So often it seems that, if you are a teen suffering relentless abuse from your classmates, suicide is the only way to make your suffering worthy of attention. And that simply isn’t acceptable.

Considering that this is National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, I figured it was time to throw my own two cents into the discussion. After all, I am something of an expert on the subject. There hasn’t been a phase of my life that didn’t involve a bully or three. They have, for better or for worse, shaped a large part of my life.

I’m going to detail four examples of bullying from my own school experiences (for this post I’m going to stick to high school bullying, and save workplace bullying for another time). I’m not looking for sympathy – it’s way too late for that. And I’m not “being brave,” either. I’m venting, and adding my stories to the pile. I do believe, however, that I can illustrate a crucial factor in why bullying remains a major problem.

In grade five, I was attacked by a much stronger boy because I’d kicked his soccer ball. This boy knew karate, and gave me quite a few good licks before deciding that my offense had been properly dealt with. I ran and told the recess monitor, and she assured me that she’d deal with him.

She didn’t. I watched as she walked toward the stronger kid. Then, for no reason I could discern, she turned and walked off in another direction. I stood there, confused and hurt, wondering what she was doing. Wasn’t she going to go get him? Was she going to come back to him later? Maybe she would punish him for hitting me as soon as she’d dealt with something else? Nope. Perhaps she didn’t know for sure which boy had hit me. If so, why hadn’t she come back to me and asked? She could have done that, but she didn’t. For five minutes I watched as she wandered around in what seemed an aimless fashion, and then the bell rang and it was time to go back inside.

That was my first experience with the uselessness of grownups, at least as far as bullying was concerned. Other useless adults would say things like “you’re being a tattle-tale!” and “you have to sort these things out for yourself.” And, of course, “you’ve just got to develop a thicker skin!”

In grade 7 I started attending a private school. They had a very strict policy on fighting – the one who started the fight would be suspended or expelled. Unfortunately, that rule only applied if punches were thrown. All other forms of physical harassment were deemed okay. You could be shoved, picked up from behind by your underwear, grabbed in a headlock or choke hold or wresting move, or even have your arms or fingers twisted or bent almost to the breaking point, all with the blessing of the school. And why not? It was just boys being boys. The headmaster himself once told me, “Timmy, ya gotta toughen up."

That’s why a boy whom I’d thought was a friend was allowed to scrape a sharp rock across my face while his two friends held me in place. He wanted to know if the rock was sharp enough to cut skin, and I was handy. Sadly, from his point of view, the rock wasn’t sharp enough to draw blood. He shrugged, tossed away the rock and walked away, and his two friends released me and followed. None of them spared me a backward glance. I didn’t bother reporting it: no punches had been thrown, so no punishment would be forthcoming. All I could do was try to “toughen up.”

I liked to draw comic book stories back then. I was no artist, but the crude drawings I was capable of by the time I got to Grade 10 were good enough for me. I was (and remain) a big fan of Transformers, so they were the characters I drew the most. So pleased was I with my budding ability that I actually went and drew one of the robots on one of the school’s blackboards. This was five minutes before the start of my French class, so I wasn’t interrupting anything. I took my seat and gazed up proudly at my handiwork.

When my classmates arrived, they laughed and made fun of me. I’d expected that, and didn’t let it bother me. The teasing evolved into horsing around, and when the teacher arrived he wasn’t happy in the least. He saw my drawing, and saw the way the class was acting, and somehow in his mind he put two and two together. His response? He ordered me to write lines. I had to write out ‘I will not draw on the blackboard’ twenty times and bring it in for him the next day. I was so upset by this that I actually developed a tiny bit of backbone. At the end of the class, I approached him and asked why my punishment was necessary.

First, he yelled at me to ”just do it!” Then he calmed, and explained that the students had been acting out at the beginning of the class as a direct result of my blackboard drawing. Therefore, I needed to be punished for causing the behaviour of the other boys.

Looking back on this incident, I’ve been able to put myself in that teacher’s shoes. What, for him, would have been the path of least resistance? Punishing half the boys in the class, or punish the meek little boy who’d ‘started it’?

The last example I wish to share occurred in Grade 11, when I’d left the private school and spent my remaining high school years in a public one. I’m not going to discuss how I was repeatedly picked on in Phys Ed (in front of the teacher), to the point where I had to quit the class. I won’t talk about the group of boys who relentlessly taunted and intimidated me in the hallways. I could talk about the creative bully who drew mocking pictures of me on the classroom blackboard every day for an entire semester, but I won’t. No, this final story tops them all.

I’d been on the private school’s cross country ski team during grades 9 and 10, so I decided to join the public school team. One of the coaches couldn’t walk properly due to a physical disability, and the other coach was a big guy who liked to shout. On many occasions they shouted at me, expressed irritation in my lack of ability, and on one occasion called me stupid to my face. I stuck it out because I believed that quitting – or giving up – was a bad thing.

Training started long before the snow arrived; we did a lot of running and weight lifting. On one occasion, the disabled coach brought in his wife to lead us in an aerobic workout. I wasn’t as strong or as fit as the others, and before long I was exhausted. I was determined to soldier on and give it my best – remember, giving up was bad - but I just couldn’t keep up. My arms flopped and my shoulders sagged and my breath came in gasps – basically, I looked absolutely hilarious to anyone who might have been watching. I know this for a fact, because some people were watching. I looked up at one point and saw two guys pointing in my direction and laughing like they’d seen the funniest thing ever. Did the coaches step in and put a stop to the ridicule? No, they did not.

Because the two guys laughing at me were the coaches. The two people responsible for making the team the best that it could be were openly laughing at me in front of the others. Proof, if any be needed, that my best simply wasn’t good enough.

As I said, one of the coaches was disabled. He couldn’t have done that workout any better than I did. You’d think he’d be more understanding and compassionate, but you’d be wrong.

Want to know how I felt when I saw my coaches laughing at me? I mean, besides humiliation and anger and self-worthlessness? I felt EXPENDABLE. To my mind, school officials are supposed to build students up, make them believe they can achieve great things. That should apply doubly for coaches and phys-ed teachers – their job is to have students leave school in better physical shape than when they went in. When two coaches go so far as to laugh at a student who is having trouble reaching this goal, the message it sends is as follows:
You’re not worth the trouble. You’re hopeless, and deserve to be mocked. We might worry about the self-esteem of your peers, but you? Who the hell cares? You’re a loser, one we’re more than happy to let fall through the cracks. You’re an acceptable loss. You have so little value to the team, your efforts are truly laughable. If you kill yourself, we’ll pop a beer and say, “Finally! What took him so long?”

This post has had many stops and starts, writes and rewrites, over the last year. I was afraid my stories might seem too self-pitying. Perhaps they are. Perhaps I simply need to “get over it,” and “move on” or “stop feeling sorry for yourself!” Nevertheless, I hope the point of these stories has been made clear.

If not, let me spell it out: school officials need to stop being part of the problem. They need to stop enabling the bullies and ignoring/punishing/belittling the victims. When students report bullying, they need to be taken seriously. Schools need to show students, and especially bullies, that something is actually being done. And not just the easy stuff, either. That’s been done. It didn’t work.

No school student should ever feel expendable.

1 comment:

Bill Cokas said...

This was an amazing post, Tim, and I hope more people see it. As bullying, both cyber and real, becomes more openly discussed and dealt with, I hope the fate of today's and tomorrow's kids turns out differently for you (and me). It's long overdue. I was also bullied in school, but, as I'm sure is not an uncommon response, I also bullied--life in the food chain. I've often thought about those I bullied (mockery, nothing physical or violent) and how I wish I could take it back or at the very least apologize. The result is to be very vigilant with my own kids in teaching them empathy and sticking up for those who can't do so for themselves. I think there's another book for you in here somewhere.