Bullies, Victims and Bystanders
Her height and her voice made her different. Karen* was the tallest girl in her high school class, even towering over most of the boys, and had a deep baritone voice that stood out from the cacophony of other teenage girls’ high-pitched blabber. These qualities that set her apart also made her a target of bullying. Her classmates called her a horse. Some of the mean boys made a game of tugging at her bra straps or raising her skirt to expose her underwear. Most people in her class just laughed. A few others cast disapproving looks but did nothing.
In their fifth grade class, Danny and John were also different. They were openly gay and in very audacious ways. One day, Danny brought his mother’s shoes to school and the two of them walked around in high heels during lunch break. Other 11-year-olds saw this as an open invite for derision and nastiness. There was no shortage of insults and name-calling thrown at them.
A common advice given to those who experience bullying is to tell the teacher about it. This was not an option for the two boys. Their fifth-grade adviser was known as a terror teacher whose idea of discipline was to humiliate misbehaving students by making them take their pants off in front of the class. Other teachers knew about this but merely credited it as an unorthodox disciplinary tactic.
Their adviser was also their Math teacher. Danny and John were bad at Math but so were half of the class. Somehow, they often ended up on the receiving end of his insults. One time, he brought a chart with a third-grade level lesson, ordered the two of them to stand and made them answer the questions on the chart. They were nervous and made a lot of mistakes. The entire class was snickering the whole time, seeing this as a teacher-sponsored entertainment at the expense of their gay classmates.
At the time, I was one of those who were snickering. Danny and John were my classmates in grade school. Karen was my classmate in high school. I didn’t think of myself as a bully back then. But I did laugh when other people made fun of them or they were put in embarrassing situations. I didn’t bother to intervene or stand up for the victim. I didn’t think bullying was a form of abuse or harassment. It was just something that kids do; it was part of growing up. After all, I was also bullied from first to fourth grade and I managed to live through it. I was just happy that I was no longer the target as we got older.
There are studies that say bullying is a factor in psychotic behavior and increases risks of depression and suicide. Bullying erodes your self-esteem, makes you feel worthless and can even make you hate yourself. How many times could’ve Grace wished that she were not so tall or her voice were not so deep. Could Danny and John, despite their flamboyance in displaying their sexuality, have also wanted to be “manly” just so their classmates and teacher won’t treat them like crap? I know I wished I didn’t have such a huge forehead, squinty eyes and a funny-sounding surname. My childhood best friend was also once teased for having curly hair. She couldn’t wait to be old enough to get a hair straightening treatment.
My notion then that bullying was “just part of growing up” was the norm in our school and probably in a lot of public schools, where more obvious problems like overcrowding and dilapidated classrooms had to be dealt with. Anti-bullying programs were unheard of and reports of bullying incidents were not given much attention. UNICEF commissioned a study last year on violence against children in public schools which also tackled bullying. Hopefully, this raised awareness on the issue and spurred appropriate interventions.
Physical, verbal and emotional abuse is never acceptable even if it’s kids who do it. There is nothing normal about bullying and harassment. Teachers and school administrators should know this and should take steps to fight against it. In the first place, the teachers themselves shouldn’t be bullies and should never tolerate colleagues who humiliate students for the sake of so-called discipline. Even educators need to be educated on these issues. Instituting a zero-tolerance policy will encourage victims of bullying to report such incidents to the school authorities, knowing that they would have a safe haven to turn to and their complaints would be addressed.
An atmosphere of tolerance, acceptance and empathy should be fostered in schools, enabling students to understand that people shouldn’t be picked on for being different. We should also strive to understand why bullies do what they do. Maybe they were also abused or they have their own issues and insecurities that they can’t deal with so they take it out on others. Addressing these concerns will go a long way in solving the problem on the longer term.
Gender equity and sensitivity should be promoted as well. Why not integrate lessons on LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) and women’s rights as part of the school curriculum? At the very least, children can learn early on that it’s not okay to expose a girl’s underwear or taunt someone for being gay. Admittedly it would be a controversial issue since in countries with a religious population, homosexuality is still considered a sin. We can all agree though that it is wrong to abuse and humiliate people because of their sexual orientation so let’s start from there.
I haven’t seen Danny or John again since grade school. I hope they’re alright and still just as proud of who they are. Looking back, they were the bravest 11-year-olds I’ve known. They dared to stand up for their identity even if it meant facing taunts and cruel name-calling. Grace went on to take up Chemistry in college and found a great group of friends. I wish I was more empathetic back then since I knew what it was like to be on the receiving end of bullying. I wish I was also brave enough to say no to bullying and stand up for what is right instead of just cowering in the background and even joining in on the laughter.
*not their real names
Photo: © UNICEF/NYHQ2009-1771/Susan Markisz. Colombia, 2009. A boy (in blue shirt) walks away holding the yoyo he has just bullied the boy behind him into releasing, as the second boy holds his throat and cries, during recess at the Robert Owen Educational Institute in Moravia, a poor neighbourhood in Medellín.