Last month I had the great pleasure of being invited to St. Louis to take part in (Auntie) Heather Brewer’s (The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod series) Less Than Three (<3) Anti-Bullying Conference. It was one of those experiences so profound that I found it impossible to blog about. In the words of the conference’s eloquent spokesperson: “Less Than Three will not just focus on bullying and why it’s a problem, but will work to offer solutions for the teens who are experiencing this torment. We plan to reach out to all facets of bullied teens: GLBT, multicultural, outcasts, everyone. Because bullying affects everyone.”
I was amongst such authorial luminaries as Susane Colasanti, David Levithan, Andrew Smith, Lisa McMann, Carrie Ryan, A.S. King (oh…I get it: asking), Rachel Caine, Jennifer Brown, Alethea Kontis, Jody Feldman, Cheryl Rainfield, T.M. Goeglein, Ellen Hopkins,Cole Gibsen, Carrie Jones, Mari Mancusi, Shannon Messenger, Sarah Bromley and Antony John.
The Less Than Three conference brought teens, tweens, booksellers, teachers, administrators, parents, librarians, and authors together to rally against bullying. It featured panels focusing on the various effects of bullying and positive approaches to tackling the issue. But, more than anything, it got a refreshing dialogue going about bullying and how it affects everyone. In fact, I feel I got far more out of the experience (especially from the affecting appearance of teen Jordan Brooks who, in a way, inspired the whole event) than the attendees!
I appeared on the BULLYING IN SCHOOL: When a safe haven turns into a waking nightmare panel. So, rather than try to wrestle this emotional experience in to words, I’ll simply paraphrase some of the questions posed, and my answers.
I know that everyone on the panel has been bullied, so to start off, I’d like you to talk about that. If you were to write one representative scene in a book that would illustrate your personal experiences with being bullied in school, how would that go?
Well, there is a bully—actually THE bully in my book, Damian Ruffino—who is actually named after a really bully I encountered in middle school. I forget what his first name was, but his last name was definitely Ruffino. He was one of those kids that was twice as big as the other kids, probably had facial hair as a baby…I remember he had the name RUFFINO on the back of the football jersey he’d always wear. He was just one of many. He never really did anything but make fun of me or threaten me. Anyway, in the first chapter of the first Heck book, Milton—the main character—has these horrible memories of his encounters with Damian flash into his mind just before his—SPOILER—death! While these scenes weren’t anything that happened to me, per se, they captured the feeling I would have of basically being “hunted” at school. Avoiding someone as if they carried the bully-bonic plague!
Feel free to include any instances when you were the bully. Or where bullying came from an unexpected source. And if you’d like, also touch on your thoughts about this, about where words and actions cross the line from meanness/rudeness/inappropriateness to bullying.
A bully is really only beating him or herself up……only you’re the one doubled over in agony, scrambling for your broken glasses and your shattered dignity. No joke (In fact, you should never joke with a bully, as they always finish up with a strong punch-line). Bullies are always on the prowl for a quick and dirty fight. It’s best to leave them to simmer solo in their own beastly juices. Trying to win is the surest way to lose. The battle they’re fighting isn’t with you. It’s with themselves. You’d just get in the way…
One of the great perks of being an author, at least I think so, is the contact with our readers, including going into schools to speak. Have any of you ever been approached by students who conveyed their own bully-related experiences or maybe asked your help? Or have you received letters that speak to that? How did you respond? How do you help a person when you’ll only have such limited contact?
I hated middle school. Hated it. So I find it supremely ironic that, after writing a bunch of books for middle-readers, I find myself having to go to schools for appearances. It’s like if I wrote a book about terrible prison experiences, then had to do a tour of maximum security penitentiaries. Yay. Maybe my next series should be about tropical spa vacations. Anyway, I don’t have a wide audience. My books are kind of cult-y. Niche. But the fan-base are really devoted. Half of the letters or messages I get are from adults, which is interesting. Also a lot of “spooky” teen girls, which I didn’t bargain for. I thought Heck would appeal mostly the pre-teen boys, but girls have really latched on to Marlo. Anyway, while I haven’t gotten any letters specifically about bullying, I can tell that my books are savored by outcasts: those that feel different. And that my stories, humor, outlook and way of writing appeal to them. They really enjoy the obscure references that make them feel part of an exclusive club. And I know that, when I was growing up, sci-fi and punk music really helped me through. It was very different then: media wasn’t so omnipresent. You had to actively seek out the things that you liked and, with the effort and intention that required, it made you feel like part of a club. Just knowing that there were other freaks out there that liked what I liked made school much more bearable.
There is a common opinion that many kids who get bullied bring it on themselves. They come to class dressed weirdly or raise their hands and ask strange questions or otherwise present themselves like wounded animals exposing their vulnerabilities. Or that when they react and show emotion to some sort of jab or insult, they make themselves a target. Even those who hang around on the fringes of the popular kids are setting themselves up for disaster. How does bullying begin, in your opinion? Why are some kids targeted over others? Do you see a stereotypical set of victim characteristics? Are some kids just asking for it? And is that common opinion at all true?
I have actually never ever heard that or even considered that. I think it is a sort of gross stereotype, rather like blaming women who dress provocatively of their own sexual assault. Sure, in retrospect, maybe my bright yellow C-3PO T-shirt or tie-dyed Navy jacket adorned with pins and badges or pajama tops and leather jackets weren’t exactly the right thing to wear to school to avoid getting picked on, but it was who I was. For the most part, I didn’t think how I brought bullying on…although, wait, scratch that. I remember one time some kid making fun of my eyelashes. They were really long, like Bambi-long. So I went home and cut them. They mostly grew back, but my mom never really forgave me. To this day, she’ll bring up how long my lashes used to be before I cut them. I was also incredibly pale as a kid, mainly because everything interesting to me involved being inside. So there was a summer where I just laid out in the sun—no sun protection—and baked until golden brown. While it prevented me from being called “albino,” now in my late-forties I have to contend with the sun damage!
So there you are being brutally bullied in school. The adults who should call a halt to it or at least acknowledge it with some sympathy either turn the other cheek or adopt a “kids will be kids” attitude. If pressed they might argue that it’s the way society has always been and always will be; that it’s part of the normal process of maturing; that you learn more when you deal with your problems yourselves; that the kids will work it out. Besides, if they were to step in and stand up for that student, it could, they’ve been known to say:
A). Add more fuel to the fire, with the aggressor seeing that kid as a poor, little teacher’s pet.
B). Be even more disruptive to the classroom-learning environment.
C). Have the teacher open him/herself to attack from the bully or from the bully’s parents.
Is there any validity to any of those arguments for school personnel to stay out of it? What do you see as the roles of teachers and administrators when it comes to bullying? How can school faculty overcome their own concerns about intervening? Is there a way that those who are being bullied can persuade a skeptical faculty member to step in?
In the moment, sometimes it might make a victim uncomfortable to have a teacher intervene (though there is immediate relief), but I think we have to look at the bigger picture. If teachers become involved, that is sending a message that the school—and therefore society—do not condone bullying. That it is unacceptable. Nothing is worse than being victimized and knowing that adults know what is going on but choose to do nothing. That makes you feel like you deserve the abuse, somehow. While it is true that it is really up to the bully and the bullied to alter the dynamic—outside interference does little to really attack the root of the problem—I think it is vital that everyone involved know that it is not okay to bully. I remember in middle school we had a PE coach for a while, his name was—get this—Tiny. And, of course, he wasn’t. One of those nicknames that bullies adopt to basically dare you to say something, I’m sure. Anyway, my friend Guy Himber and I were trying our best to play football despite our utter non-interest and complete lack of skill, and the boys who basically lived to play football as an excuse to hit each other would always plow into us with undisguised glee. So, I had headgear—of course—and after one particularly vicious play, Guy and I were pretty banged up and were either crying or were on the verge of crying, and I recall vividly Tiny, surrounded by a pack of snickering boys, just laughing at us. An adult not only thinking that it was fine for some boys to physically abuse others, but openly condoning, even celebrating it. That really pissed me off. I mean, what an awful, awful person. I’m sure there is an open position in Heck just waiting for Coach Tiny!
If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem – extrapolated from an Eldridge Cleaver quote. I know I’ve been guilty of being part of the problem. In first grade, for example, someone started calling a kid in our class, Clod. Gary was a nice enough kid, but he was already taller than everyone except the teacher. And his awkwardness seemed to be born from his early size. It got to be a nickname so much so that he even wrote it on his school papers. And yet, even at six, I knew it wasn’t right. Still, what could I do about it? And that’s a long way to ask you to speak to this. Talk about the very common practice of otherwise good, kind kids who get swept up in the gang mentality. Why do you see that happening? How can a 6- or 10- or 16-year-old intervene without making themselves the victim? Or how can they simply not feed into it?
That’s a really interesting question. Yes, there was one kid in particular—Greg McCaffey—that I feel really bad about. It’s an interesting phenomenon, when you have been bullied and then there comes a situation where you find yourself joining in the pack against another kid. I’m sure it was really about fear: fear that if you didn’t join in, they would attack you. Or just the misguided feeling that, by bullying someone else you yourself wouldn’t be bullied. Greg was, I believe, the principal’s son. And he rather resembled Stephen Hawking, only without need of a wheelchair. Everyone would just call him freak. He was way skinny, had a slight speech impediment…man, I feel awful. I never called him names myself, but I was guilty of snickering when others did. It was so strange how he became someone that even the bullied would pick on. Yuck.
Anger is like the zombie apocalypse. When you are squaring off against the undead you’re facing a no-win situation. You can’t kill them. And with one savage, infecting bite, suddenly you’re biting for the other team. Anger is also—like laughter and whooping cough—highly contagious. It spreads mercilessly from person to person, feeding off human frailty like a toddler to a juice box, until there’s no right or wrong, my way or the highway, only raging rage and full-on fury. Fighting fire with fire is only a win for fire…
I read an article last May about a mom who, upon hearing her daughter had been relentlessly teasing kids at school about their ugly clothes, removed her daughter’s clothes and left her only with two unstylish thrift store outfits. The girl was forced to wear those ugly clothes to school and feel the ridicule. The reaction to this story was divided into two camps:
1). The mother was (successful in) teaching her daughter empathy;
2). The mother was (successful in) displaying/modeling bullying actions herself.
Where do you fall on this? And how can we encourage and teach empathy and/or how it feels to be on the other end of the cruelty?
Even though I feel a little embarrassed to say this, my first reaction is: yeah…way to go, weird mother! I don’t if this type of public shaming is always the right thing to do—or even if it is at ANY time—but, as a parent, I know how hard to is to accept when your kid has done something awful to another kid, and to force them to make it right. Perhaps that’s the key. Ideally, it would be best if you didn’t have to force them but, instead, convinced them what they were doing was wrong and brainstorm ways of rectifying the situation. That would be ideal. But I think one thing we are losing in our modern society is the concept of empathy. As a writer, I really think that one of the main strengths of reading, especially novels, is that they put you into the perspective of another person. And that ability, to see life through someone else’s eyes, is crucial to becoming a fully-realized human being. That’s why I get so worried when I read about kids not picking up novels like they used to. And, I don’t know if anyone has seen that Conan O’Brien show with Louis CK where he talks about cellphones, but there was one bit where he was talking about how technology makes it so much easier to be a bully because you don’t have to see the reaction: how awful someone feels when they are being bullied. You can just send something awful into the ether and not have to deal with it. Like being in a bomber and dropping bombs on some city, where you don’t have to see all the people you’ve killed. So I worry about the death of empathy. Anyway, I don’t know if forcing empathy upon a bully works—I can imagine it fueling a lot of animosity—but I would think that at least in some cases, a bully might actually “get it.” And I’m all for engaged parents who want to help their kids be better citizens, short of beating them which would only perpetuate the cycle of abuse.
If you could have a conversation with or write a letter to your younger self, what would you tell that kid? What advice would you give to deal with school bullies? Or with faculty who stood around and did nothing? What can you say to take your younger self from that feeling of powerlessness to empowerment? And what about the timetable? What sort of realistic progress should you expect to see? How and when can you hope to wake up without the sense of heaviness and clouds and impending doom every school morning? What would you tell your younger self about the future?
Being an adolescent is hard. Harder now than ever, actually. Especially with all of the adult tools nowadays that only kids have the disposable time to completely utilize for evil. The key to it all is perspective. Now, in retrospect, I know that that time was fleeting. Transitory. But a blip. Sure, it was awful at times, but now I know that it was just a patch of bad road. At the time, though, it seemed impossibly deep and impassably terrible. And it’s really hard to convince someone with no perspective to have perspective.
A bully is basically no different than their victim, only he or she tends to keep their bruises on the inside. That anger makes you feel like you just at a hive of molten-hot bees. And that’s why most bullies, quite understandably, try their best to uncork that bottled rage and pour it all over anyone and everyone at hand.”
Anyway, Auntie Heather’s Less Than Three Conference was a life changer. And, while I would love to attend again, here’s hoping there’s no need for an anti-bullying conference in the future! Oh…and here are some blogs that covered the wonderful Less Than Three conference far better than I…be sure to check them out!