I think one of the most frightening stories to hear as a parent are the ones about bullying. Everyone is aware of the rash of recent suicides among teens, and If you’re of the mind to lay fault entirely with the victim and think that the victim was weak and stupid and selfish to take their own life, then your world must be more black and white than mine. The internet is a wild place with so much easy access to send and spread hateful messages. Even for us adults who have endured bullying as kids, this is new ground. We didn’t have to deal with this back then. Cyber bullying is real. Anonymous hate mail is real. Unnecessarily mean and negative comments left on blogs, twitter and websites are real (even if I can let it bounce off, it’s still annoying as hell). It’s the coward’s way to make yourself feel better by cutting other people down and it’s so easy to do anonymously on the internet. The internet can’t continue to be a place without consequences.
As a parent of newly school aged children, stories of bullying scare me. I read the news, think about the uphill battles of normal childhood that the girls will face and It makes me really nervous and afraid for the future and of the inevitable that’s to come. Because it doesn’t matter if you’re straight, gay, white, black, asian, hispanic, skinny, fat, poor…I think every kid gets bullied and teased at least once in their life. I think most people can relate to some degree and remember what it feels like. And for those who have lived charmed lives and have managed to escape it, you need to read this first hand account. Everyone should read Bradford’s story. Then maybe we can all begin to understand just how serious bullying can be.
I can’t relate to the kind of bullying that Bradford endured during his childhood and early adult years at all, but I think maybe my brother can. I don’t know if my brother had suicidal thoughts then because I was already out of the house and in college back when all this was going on. It seemed like I’d hear stories all the time of him getting picked on at the bus stop, at the basketball courts, going and coming home from school at Stuyvesant – a grueling 1.5 hour commute on bus and subway each way – just because of his race. And it wasn’t always the African American kids who would physically attack him and call him names, he’d get beaten up by his own race too. I remember being told by my mom that the doctor pulled her aside after a physical one day because he wanted to know if he was being abused at home. Apparently he had long marks on his back, scars from being whipped by a Korean gang. The heartbreaking thing is that he never told anyone until that day. Racial tensions between African Americans and Asians were pretty high when we were kids in NYC, but I think I escaped the brunt of it because I was a girl and I went to a Catholic high school closer to home.
My experience with teasing and bullying was more typical. My bully was a girl named April, a tall girl who was pretty tough and wore flared jeans and baseball jerseys, who followed and taunted me every day walking home from school because I was the new kid when we moved when I was 9. I mean it’s funny…we were only 9 or 10 which seems so young to be so bad ass, but yeah…she was super intimidating. At some point, the bullying stopped after I wasn’t so new to the school anymore and I found myself socially entrenched with a group of girls who turned against this one girl in 4th grade. We had a class-wide hate club for her. It was mean. I know it was, and the only thing that absolved us from being total douche bags was that the class eventually forgot what the club was for and she later joined her own hate club. Ironically, she later became my best friend in high school.
Other than the shout outs of “chink” and other racially insensitive jokes and stupid name calling that seemed to be the norm back then if you were Asian in the 70s and 80s, I managed to avoid the worst of childhood bullying, but I have a slightly different story. I lived in constant fear of it. The fear of being taunted for me, was almost as emotionally debilitating as being picked on itself. I had a secret that I desperately guarded from the time I was 12 to about the first half of my junior year in high school. I had scoliosis and wore this ugly back brace for 5 years. 5 years, 23 hours a day, every single day. I slept in this thing, this painful, plastic straight jacket thing, and I went to school in it. I even had to change for gym class with it on, a class period that filled me with much stress and dread. Somehow, through the miracle of strategic dressing and lots of layers, I think I managed to fool everyone. Or at least I managed to fool myself into thinking that nobody noticed that I was wearing a weird, hard plastic brace underneath my clothes. I don’t really know if anyone knew or not, but I lived in constant fear of being touched, of being brushed against, or pushed accidentally to discover that if you were to touch me, you wouldn’t feel soft flesh, but you’d feel cold hard plastic. I was constantly afraid of being exposed in front of all my classmates for being a freak. When you’re a kid you don’t want to be a freak (I mean, there is goth freak, but not this kind of frankenstein freak). It was really stressful to be always on guard, to grow eyes in the back of your head to make sure that the kid sitting behind you in class didn’t reach out to pat you in the back, discover the plastic brace, start rumors and humiliate you in front of the whole class.
I think about all these things as a parent now, about how this most likely contributed to depression and eating disorders in my teenage years and I wonder what I can do to spare this for my girls. I see the mean girl thing happening in school already. It starts early, as early as kindergarten as we found out last year, and it makes me wish the girls had Wonder Twins type super powers to deflect all the bad stuff. But they don’t and they are just kids, so I’m left wondering what we as parents can do to build a solid foundation of confidence and good self esteem to help our kids when they are out in the world to defend themselves without us. This is the part of parenting that I’m not sure how to do yet. I don’t want them to be teased by bullies and mean girls, but I don’t want to raise mean girls either. I know that the news and all these celebrity PSAs are bringing more awareness to the issue, but are they really helping? What more can we do? How will I know that the girls will come to me when they need help?