Today is my birthday, but more importantly October is Bullying Prevention/Awareness Month. Today is also the only day of the year I will ever deviate from my book discussion/reviewing mandate. I feel strongly about many issues, but the only time I will take a stance on any non book-related issue is now. You have been warned.
I was bullied in school.
There, I’ve said it and for the first time in many years, I am not ashamed nor am I looking for a pity party. For five years of my life, as I transitioned from child to teenager, I was socially ostracized, verbally assaulted, sexually harassed and was the subject of many, many vicious rumours. The reasons for my bullying were my appearance, my grades, my religious beliefs and the fact I stood up for my best friend, who received the worst of our classmates’ cruelty.
Now, I know that there are those of you out there that say bullying is just kids being too sensitive. This is true in very few cases. What my best friend (let’s call her Jane) went through was enough to put most people in therapy for a decade. Nearly every single person in her class and mine (I was a year younger than her) actively joined in the bullying. The teachers and school administrators did not do a damn thing, even when it happened in front of them. After five years of every sort of horror imaginable, Jane transferred to a private school two provinces away, where she was happy. I won’t go into many details because it is not my story to tell, but know that she suffered more in those five years than anyone deserves to in a lifetime.
Unfortunately, stories like this are far too common for my liking. It seems like every other week we hear on the news about children and teens committing suicide to escape their tormenters. To a normal, happy person, suicide may seem unthinkable, but to people in that situation, death seems like relief compared to the living nightmare they face every day. The only reason I am alive today is a mixture of pride and cowardice.
Some people have not been as lucky as I. Here in Canada in 2005 (and I assume the numbers are the same in 2012) suicide was the second leading cause of death in individuals aged 15-34. Of course not all these deaths are suicides due to bullying, but even one death because of bullying should be one death too many.
Although people tend to forget this, there are real people behind these statistics. In these statistics, I see Amanda Todd, age 15, who committed suicide recently because of vicious cyberbullying. I see Seth Walsh, age 13, who committed suicide after enduring years of bullying for being homosexual. I see Phoebe Prince, age 15, a landed immigrant who hanged herself after being tormented for months for dating a senior football player. All of these deaths have a common thread: nothing was done and no one was sorry for what was happening until it was too late. Since when did apathy become acceptable in our schools and communities?
Most victims of bullying do not commit suicide, even though they contemplate it. To many victims, this torment becomes normal, but it should not. It is not normal for a nine-year-old to go home and cry herself to sleep every single day. It is not normal for a twelve-year-old to be shouted at and told she is going to Hell by 20 people at once because she belongs to a different religion. It is not normal for a thirteen-year-old to be asked for sexual favours then called a slut when she refuses. Teenagers and children should not be contemplating suicide. Yes, all of these abnormal things (and many more) happened to Jane and I.
Bullying is not just temporary suffering either; its victims can have emotional and psychological damage for many years afterward. In severe cases, it can even lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In my own case, it has led to a mistrust of most people (men more so than women because it was men who tormented me the most), general cynicism about the world and a mistrust bordering on hatred of nearly all authority figures. Objectively speaking, I know that most people are good and not all authority figures are apathetic slime. However, I still have those lingering ‘triggers’ that crop up when I least expect it. As much as I have moved on from my past in recent years, I still have problems forming normal relationships because of trust issues.
My experiences do not even begin to compare to the teens I listed above, nor the stories of so many children worldwide that are bullied every day. However, things should not have to be like this. If you are a student and you see someone being bullied, stand up for them. If you are a teacher and you see one of your students being bullied, do your job by stopping it. And if you are a parent, teach your kids some basic human decency. Remember: kids are influenced by their parents, so part of the solution for bullying starts at home. If my tormentors had been taught basic human decency at home, I would not be writing this article right now. That’s what it boils down to: basic human decency.
Bullies will never completely go away. Some people just do not care about others and nothing anyone says or does will change them. But we can minimize the emotional, psychological and physical damage they inflict on their peers. I am absolutely not advocating for zero-tolerance policies because they never work, nor am I advocating for people to cry “bully” every single time someone says something hurtful. Bullying is a repeated behavior toward an individual or group with the intent to cause harm. Accidentally kicking someone in soccer is not bullying. Playfully teasing someone and accidentally taking it too far once is not bullying.
What I do want is for administrators to stop being lazy and grow a spine. Yes, you will be unpopular if you punish a popular student for bullying. Deal with it. Your unpopularity is nothing compared to the suffering of their victim(s). I want teachers to intervene when they see or hear a student being bullied. Their job is to help provide a safe learning environment for all students. Lastly, I want students to ask themselves “How would I feel if I was this person?” This applies to both bullies and bystanders. If everyone would take a moment and think of someone other than themselves, bullying wouldn’t happen.
We’re all human beings and bullying is never justified, especially when it occurs because someone is different from the majority. Religion, appearance, interests, sexual identity and personality differences should be cherished, not mocked. No one should ever have to suffer for their differences. No child should ever go through what I and so many others have gone through.
Please, take a stand against bullying every day, not just during Wear Pink Week or Bullying Awareness/Prevention Month. It is too late for me, but there are millions of children out there that can be spared the emotional, psychological and physical scars that are caused by bullying.
Stand up for what is right. You may just save a life.