Bullying: a Response to Steubenville

Last week, I started a series of posts about how the reality of having children compares to our expectations of doing so. My plan for this week was to write about bringing baby home. Instead, I will address something that I planned to get to quite a bit further down the line: bullying. I’m getting to this now, because I cannot let this week go by without reflecting in some way about the Steubenville rape case.

Here’s a photo of me at six years old, the year that I was bullied by my grade one teacher, a woman who was much loved by the other students in my class.

Me as a six-year-old

At the end of every week, this teacher had us vote on who had been the best-behaved student and awarded that student a prize. Maybe the point of this exercise was to make us treat our fellow-classmates with respect, but it was severely misguided, and ultimately became a teacher-sanctioned popularity contest. I never won the prize. Instead, my teacher did her best to humiliate me in front of my classmates. The incident that I remember most clearly began when I asked her if I could go to the washroom, and she would not let me go. When I asked again, knowing that I could not hold it in much longer, she told me to go in the corner of the room. It’s possible that she didn’t think I really had to go, and thought that this would put an end to my requests, but she didn’t stop me as I pulled down my pants and peed in front of an entire class of six year olds.

I relate this personal tale, because I have been thinking of bullying since I was a scared six-year-old who went to bed every night crying and praying that the next day would be different, that the next day I would have a friend, that the next day somebody would stand up for me when I was being made fun of during recess. Slowly, I learned to do a better job of fitting in. I made some friends, but because I was in the same school from age four to seventeen, the stain of my grade one year did not fully leave me until I left high school (if then). Kids continued to mock me for years to come, and to repeat what appeared to them to be my past transgressions. In grade thirteen, another student laughed about the time our teacher had pulled my pants—and underpants—down in front of the entire classroom to remove a splinter I got from the wooden play structure in the schoolyard.

Over the years, I have come up with many reasons as to why my teacher may have singled me out: I was funny looking, I was badly behaved, she could sense my insecurity… In reality, her behaviour probably had more to do with herself than it did with me: it’s a teacher’s job to manage her classroom, to prevent bullying, and to protect her students. And it’s our job as parents to do everything we can to stop bullying. In part, this means letting our children know that they can tell us anything. It means asking them not only what happened at school that day, but how they feel about their day, their classmates, their teachers. At six, I was afraid to tell my parents what had happened to me, because I thought they would side with the teacher and that I would only be punished further. I couldn’t tell them how I felt about my day, my classmates, my teachers, because I thought that not fitting in meant there was something horribly wrong with me. I don’t ever want my son to feel that way. I don’t ever want him to be bullied.

Nor do I want him to be a bully. How, though, do we teach our children that bullying is unacceptable? In my opinion, it begins with teaching them both self-respect and respect for their fellow human beings. In my household, this means zero tolerance for racist or sexist jokes of any kind: no supposedly innocent blonde jokes, no thoughtless Newfie jokes. I think that allowing our children to believe that it’s acceptable to single out any minority for ridicule correlates to them understanding that it’s OK to single out their classmates for bullying.

At eleven-years-old, I was the victim of anonymous bullying on the subway. This time it was physical. On my way home from school, three teenage girls stared me down on the subway in Toronto. When I got off at Bloor station, they got off with me. Their ringleader walked shoulder-to-shoulder with me, pushing me into the wall. I tried to get free, and she punched me in the eye. I ran to the washroom, and the three girls pursued me. I locked myself in a stall, and they surrounded it, taunting me the whole time. They convinced me to open the door, so that they could continue to verbally mock me while flicking their fingers in my face. I was terrified. This took place for about an hour. Many people passed through that washroom and looked the other way, despite the fact that it had to be blatantly obvious what was going on: I was eleven, crying, asking for help, and these girls were mature-looking sixteen-year-olds. Perhaps people were afraid to get involved directly, but what prevented them from contacting TTC security? I’ll never know for sure. Finally, a woman stood up to the girls, asking them: “What do you think you’re doing?” They scattered. It was that simple.

The fear of bystanders is often that if they stand up for someone being bullied, they will become a target themselves. How many of the Steubenville teenagers who watched Jane Doe being raped knew that what it was wrong but were afraid to say something for that very reason? How likely is it that Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond were fuelled by the witnesses who either egged them on or did nothing to prevent their attack? Bullying is so pervasive because it is much easier to join the pack than to separate oneself from it to defend an underdog. This is why teaching children to respect themselves and others is so very important. In order to be brave enough to trust and act on their own sense of right and wrong, they have to believe in themselves, and to understand, fundamentally, that they should never treat anyone else in a way that they would not like to be treated themselves.

I’m not referring to the Paris Hilton variety of self-respect that is all too prevalent today: the type of self-esteem that allows children to believe themselves infallible, invincible, or above the law. The type of self-esteem that Mays and Richmond, as well as those who have since participated in the cyber-bullying of Jane Doe, appear to have. True self-esteem comes from within, not from one’s peers, one’s teachers, or one’s parents. It comes from doing the right thing, not from doing the popular thing. I hope that by acknowledging when my son does behaves according to his own moral compass, I can help him foster that type of self-esteem. I don’t expect him to always be right, but I think that he’s already developing a sense of right and wrong, and I think that—deep down—doing right feels better than doing wrong. I hope I’m right.