As the parent of two children, I hear the word “bully” more than I want to. The word bully is now defined as someone who is habitually cruel to others weaker than themselves or repeated aggressive behaviour used to hurt or intimidate another.
It wasn’t always so. The “archaic” meaning of the word was sweetheart or a loved one. The phrase bully pulpit meant using a position of influence or public prominence to espouse one’s views – a term popularized by Teddy Roosevelt. In Roosevelt’s day, the term bully meant “excellent”and was used kind of like we use “Awesome!” today.
Oh,how times have changed.
My oldest child was bullied in Grade 4. Notes on the desk saying “you should die.” The school did nothing. Oh yes, they drew back in dismay as we outlined the extent of the abuse. They spouted the canned anti-bullying cry of “Zero tolerance!” The hallways of the schools were lined with anti-bullying propaganda posters. We knew the bullies. I saw their mothers in the grocery store once a week, at the dog park. These were our neighbours, our peers. Parents were called, denials were made. We were forced to put our child in another school; our entire family was infected with frustration and despair.
Interestingly, my child was accused of bullying a child in Grade 7. As is often the case, the bullied at some point feel compelled to spread the joy, as it were. We were horrified but on some level we understood our child’s desire to have the shoe on the other foot. Our child was counseled, had to lead a workshop on bullying and had to give a speech (my child later confessed the sheer terror of public speaking had more effect than any lecture or punishment). The school acted promptly and decisively.
Grade 9: Victim, again. My child is now a strong, outwardly confident young person and yet I watch as years of esteem-building threaten to come crashing down. I am stronger now – more proactive. Not inclined to sit back and let the school handle the situation. The vice-principal wishes she’d never heard of me.
Our youngest is in Grade 7. This child – not big, not especially confident – came home and confessed an act of violence against someone who was repeatedly harassing. The bully has a reputation known to the school but my child will likely be punished because of the inappropriate response. Was our child wrong to fight back? I want to say yes; I want to say no. I feel the frustration and fear mount again.
What I’ve learned: bullying is impossibly complex. It’s not just about bigger kids knocking little ones around. The process is deep and layered, involves every strata of human behaviour. Schools sponsor presentations and put up posters. Principals stand up in assembly and drone on while the majority of the audience is on Facebook or tweeting. Somewhere, another Grade 4 student is reading a nasty note, being cyber-bullied, or getting shoved into a locker.
A powerful documentary has been made – a positive step but it has been given an “R” rating which would prevent it ever being shown in any school. Parents of bullies rise up in indignation and cry, “Not my darling – he/she could never do such a thing!” YouTube videos posted by victims go viral. We gasp in horror and dismay; yet it never stops.
Children are bombarded daily with anti-bullying rhetoric – from adults, other children, pop icons. They hear but do they hear? Do any of us? What are we missing?