I will fight bullying forever because my son will be eleven forever.
– Kirk Smalley, father of Ty Smalley, spokesperson for Stand for the Silent, an educational platform on anti-bullying
The documentary Bully was released in the U.S. in late March 2012. When it came out, David and I talked about going to see the film. As usual, many of the films that we wanted to watch came to theaters and went to DVD, including this film, and we forgot about it. I had an opportunity to see it after Jacob’s middle school PTSA screened it following our monthly meeting last night. I did not realize that October is Anti-Bullying Month. All kids at Jacob’s school will be seeing the film in one of their classes this month and will participate in a discussion about recognizing and standing up to bullying. It’s a good start to educating and making kids aware of this terrible behavior.
The few negative reviews of the documentary focused on the fact that director Lee Hirsch did not interview either the bullies or their parents. Perhaps this was due to the bullies and their parents not wanting to be filmed. At any rate, such an angle would certainly fill up a sequel, and maybe that’s not a bad thing. I didn’t realize that Jacob would be seeing the documentary in school; I brought both Jacob and Isabella to watch it. Given that we are dealing with bullying in Isabella’s school, albeit a different kind of bullying, I wanted them to see what other kids – the victims – were facing.
On the way home, we talked about not being a bully, seeking family and friends out when being bullied, and also standing up to bullies and not look the other way. I couldn’t help but tell them two stories from my childhood. In my farming hometown of Terra Bella, in the Central Valley of California, there was a girl in my class named Rosie B. She lived around the block from us. Her older parents were poor and reminded me, years later, of the Joads and the Okies from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Rosie was slow, so people took her to be stupid. Her face looked disfigured, her mouth was pronounced with a big set of buck teeth. As you can guess, she was picked on, and as I look back, I can’t think of anyone with whom she hung out.
After lunchtime one day, our class was excused from the cafeteria to have recess on the playground, Rosie fell down the small flight of stairs. The kids never stopped pouring out of the cafeteria. It was a stampede. When she finally got up, she was scarred with a permanent limp. This was 1972. No lawsuit was filed; her parents had no voice. Teachers came upon the scene and I’m sure the principal was notified, but nothing ever happened. I don’t recall if our grade level was lectured or not. I was not part of the stampede, but I was the guilty silent who looked the other way. I ran into Rosie as an adult, when I was home from college, and she eagerly talked to me about how everything was okay now, as if seeing me, a childhood classmate, had compelled her to tell me she had survived. I remembered feeling relieved that she seemed to have turned out okay despite the bullying, but I failed to apologize to her face.
The other story was about Ross M. I met him at a church youth group when I was in either fifth or sixth grade. He was a pudgy boy who giggled a lot, chattered nonstop, and exhibited effeminate mannerisms, which at the time I did not associate with possibly being gay because I didn’t know what gay was back then in our rural community. We tolerated him, but nobody was ever mean to him. I didn’t stay in the youth group and so lost touch with Ross because he went to a different school in the next town over of Porterville. When I was a freshman at one of the high schools in Porterville, I was surprised to see Ross – only I didn’t recognize him at first. He had slimmed down. He had also stopped laughing and smiling. He didn’t talk much, if at all, and I don’t know if he even had any friends. He was like a ghost, showing up for class and slipping out, unnoticed. I never reached out to him because he seemed like a stranger to me and he never gave any indication of recognition when he was near me. I never saw him again after graduation. It was only when I attended my 25th high school reunion that I noticed his picture among other pictures on a table with candles, memorializing classmates who were no longer with us. When I asked a good friend of mine from high school what had happened, she confirmed what I suspected: He had committed suicide. I don’t know when this happened, after high school, later in life. But one thing I suspect: He was likely bullied in elementary and middle schools.
My kids were quiet in the car as I concluded my stories. Of course, there is always a moral to an Enrado mom story for my kids. I told them not to look away when they know something is wrong, when they know someone is being bullied. They needed to stand up. I reminded them of the damage that bullying does. One of the kids in the documentary, Alex Libby, told his mother, when she found out about the extent of his being bullied, that if these kids who stabbed him with their pencils, pushed and punched him around, choked him, and smacked his head weren’t his “friends,” then what friends did he have? A heartbreaking thing for a mother to hear. Jacob piped up, “I would have been his friend.” And Isabella seconded the sentiment. Hearing them defend him made my heart sing. Nevertheless, I was worried about whatever happened to Alex because his path seemed destined to resemble Ty Smalley’s very sad ending, which was shown in the documentary. Thankfully, the documentary itself was, as Alex’s mother said in an interview months after it came out, a “gift.” The family took a financial hit moving from Sioux City, Iowa, to Edmond, Oklahoma. But now he has real friends and is a spokesman for anti-bullying. A much-needed happy epilogue!
After the screening, our middle school principal and parents talked about this complex social issue, ill, if you will. We talked about what we as parents could do. Here is my list: Raise empathetic children who understand justice and injustice. Teach them how to stand up for others. Be engaged in their daily lives and know what’s going on in their daily lives. Love them by the boatloads and let them know that you have their back.
As I was walking our dog Rex one morning several weeks ago, I had posed this question to myself: What would be the one thing I could give to my children so that they are successful in life? A fully paid for college education? An appreciation for higher learning? I shook my head. I was equating success with a profession, a college degree, doors opening, financial security. No. I would give my children self-confidence. A child who believes in him or herself will blossom into an adult who stands up for him or herself. Hurtful words will, as I told Isabella on our walk to school yesterday morning, “roll off her back like water on a duck.” He won’t allow himself to stay stuck in a job that he doesn’t like. She won’t allow herself to be in an abusive relationship. Neither will waste away their time in a coma in a dead-end life. A person with a healthy self-esteem will seek the light and surround themselves with similar people. And they will be empathetic. When they see someone bullied, they will feel bullied themselves and know it is not right – and then make it right.