I took a swing at Liz* and didn’t miss. I had all I could take of her abusive verbal taunts, whispers behind my back and generally making my life at a Queens, New York junior high school miserable. It was the ’70s. Adults treated bullying as some sort of rite of passage, clueless to its serious short and long term effects. Not only wasn’t I in the “in-group” and never going to be, I had to “pay” for it too. Once my fist landed on her face I knew there was no turning back. We were in an all-out fight. In gym class. Wearing those regulation baggy cobalt one-piece gym uniforms that made you look like a blueberry. For all to see. If smart phones existed back then, we’d never live it down.
Loud gasps were heard around me as Liz and I punched, slapped and pulled each other’s hair. No one ever thought I’d be the one to initiate such a brawl. Least of all, me. I had been an insecure, timid child probably marking me as an easy target. Adults–my parents and teachers–didn’t seem to understand the gravity of what I was going through. Back then, kids seemed to be forced to handle it on their own without much adult intervention, if any. Alone to figure out how to deal with this Queen Bee, I decided the best thing to do was to speak to the guidance counselor. She did not seem surprised by my distress. Had she been aware? Nor did she seem surprised when I told her that Liz’s next torment was going to earn her a wallop from me. I was simply informing her of my plan, needing her sanction, because I didn’t want to get into trouble for starting a fight. She didn’t flinch. I took that as a “yes.”
My childhood experiences have had repercussions. As an adult, I’m particularly sensitive to unfriendly, selfish behaviors perhaps taking them too personally at times. On the other hand, compassion and effort to include others has been stamped onto my psyche. I consciously work to maintain that standard for myself.
There is an abundance of articles, media attention and school programs to address bullying by children and other young adolescents but not much on adults who act in the same manner (A recent column by Leslie Crawford, is a rare voice in the discussion on unkind adult behavior). We are only looking at a symptom. Not the source.
Adult bullying–exclusion, snubs and malicious gossip for example–is insidious and difficult to substantiate. It exists among adults and affects many of us but no one wants to say it out loud–like the “Emperor’s new clothes.” Perhaps we are not sure what to do. While children are generally ready audiences at schools and camps, it’s more difficult with adults to find effective ways to address similar issues.
Liz did not bother me again after our confrontation. However, I ought not to have had to resort to physical violence to stop being bullied. I desperately needed grown ups on my side to help me. Today, with the advent of the Internet, bullying isn’t limited to the schoolyard. As a result of online bullying, many young people feel a despondency and humiliation so severe that they end up hurting themselves and others.
The adults in children’s lives need to be included in anti-bullying programs as facilitators and as students themselves where they too have the opportunity for reflection and self-examination. This would be an important step toward sensitizing adults to the painful effects of their own behaviors and helping them become the mature presence and role models our children so profoundly need.