Have you watched this video clip yet? In it, Ellen Degeneres speaks out against the epidemic of bullying that is on the rise in our country. She is specifically speaking about Rutger's student Tyler Clemente's recent suicide, carried out because a roommate and friend filmed him being intimate with another man and then streamed the video over the internet. Earlier in the week I was shocked and pained to hear about Asher Brown, an eighth-grader in Texas who shot himself after enduring over a year of constant teasing and bullying. Brown was a victim of bullying primarily because of his small size, his religious views (he apparently converted from Buddhism to Christianity this past summer, in the hopes that kids would stop picking on him), his refusal to wear designer clothes and because other kids suspected he was gay; in other words, he was an individual, interesting and unique from all angles.
When I hear the combination "suicide" and "bullying" my heart freezes, my stomach flip-flops, and my mind goes spinning out of control. Bullying has, of course, been going on for hundreds of years (ever read Tom Brown's School Days?), and schools have always been the breeding ground for most of it. And while I am certain that not every child out there has been bullied, it happens often enough that most certainly your child has been--once or twice, or too often. When you're the parent of a child who has been the victim of bullying, over and over again, you can't help but feel the pain of it more intensely when you read about children like Asher, or about the loss to the world of a young man like Clemente--or about the loss of anyone, regardless of who they are and what they can do--because bullying has driven them to suicide.
This year, something has changed in the fifth graders at L.'s school. Perhaps now, as they're on the threshold of puberty, and facing a sea change in their own lives as they leave the safety of elementary school and move on into middle school, they are acting out their own insecurities. But some of them have been teasing L., picking on him over and over again--little comments here and there that erode away his sense of self-worth; comments about how small he is, how his clothes don't look "right", how he doesn't fit in. While some may argue that this isn't bullying in the classic physical sense of the word (as one of L.'s school administrators tried to imply), constant, almost-daily teasing is bullying, make no mistake about it. In fact, this type of bullying is the most insidious, I think, and the most dangerous. Teachers and school administrators are often blind to it, since it happens quickly--a word whispered in line at recess, or while changing classrooms. We've been on top of it every step of the way, but even a school like L.'s, with a family-feel to it and a zero tolerance policy for bullying, has not always been quick to step up on their own and address the issues; we can easily see how a school could drop the ball, in huge and devastating ways, when in comes to addressing constant teasing and bullying. Imagine, then, if we didn't know about what's been going on at L.'s school lately? Or if we couldn't be the "squeaky wheels" that constantly keep tabs on this, constantly advocating for L. to make sure the school continues to be a safe and positive place for him, and for other kids who might stand out.
Bullying is not a gay issue, nor is it a religious issue; it's not a special needs issue, nor an issue only for parents of unpopular, quirky, square-peg-in-a-round-hole types of kids; it's not an issue for any group to lay claim to--in fact splashy headlines declaring that young Asher killed himself "because he is gay" only serve to draw attention away from the fact that he was picked on because he was different and unique, an individual who tried to assert his individuality in a world that finds individuality and nonconformity increasingly threatening.
Bullying is an issue for all of us, regardless of who we are and what we believe in, politically and/or religiously; regardless of whether or not we have children, or plan to one day. It's an issue we all need to take a stand on. And you out there--you with the kids who fit right in, those popular kids, the ones who might play sports, or wear all the right clothes, or listen to the right music; the ones with lots of friends whose social calendars are more booked than the calendars of most adults, I think the changes need to start with you. It's not enough to sit back and feel good that your child would never, ever be a bully. You need to teach your kids to stand up for those who are the victims, because there is always unity and strength in numbers, and no one ever feels as alone or without hope as the child or young teen who has been laid open, exposed and stripped bare, in front of others.