I used to think I was bullied in middle school.
In sixth grade, an eighth-grade boy on my bus used to threaten to rape me, and the bus driver would just laugh and shake his head. But that boy never touched me. Was it funny? No. Was it bullying? No. It was intimidation and stupid and harassment and even criminal today. But it wasn’t bullying. It wasn’t so persistent and relentless that I couldn’t eat or sleep or function or get through my day without biting my nails to nothing, imagining ways I could hurt him—or myself. I hated him, but I was never afraid of him.
In seventh grade, one group of eighth-grade girls hassled me on an almost daily basis, threatening to beat me up, leaving notes in the locker room about what they were going to do to me. But I never felt alone or ostracized. They never laid a hand on me, never cornered me in the halls. They hated me because the ex-boyfriend of one of their friends liked me. They were taking part in solidarity. I wasn’t a victim so much as a temporary target. It all ended when another eighth-grade girl who was only slightly more intimidating told them to lay off me. They did. The leader of that band sent me a friend request on Facebook last year. I accepted it. She seems to be a perfectly lovely person today, someone I might want to hug if we ever saw each other again. I mean that sincerely.
By eighth grade, I was pretty clear on who my friends were, who my enemies were, and all the girls in between who had no feeling about me one way or another. High school was more of the same. JG was my arch enemy, though I couldn’t tell you why today. She said hateful things about me, but honestly, I didn’t treat her any better. I could say she started it—and she probably did. But it’s irrelevant now. I simply learned you can’t be friends with everyone. You’ll always rub someone the wrong way, tick them off, make them clench their jaws when you walk into a room. Them letting you and everyone else know exactly how they feel about you doesn’t make them bullies. It just makes them adolescents.
This last point is one I’ve been trying to make clear to my kids recently, particularly my 12-year-old son, who is definitely an on-the-outskirts kind of kid and always has been. I suspect he always will be. He’s been bullied in the past, and the popular kids won’t be inviting him to hang out any time soon. But he has friends—really good, loyal, I’ve-got-your-back friends. He may not always like school, but he’s not afraid to be there.
I read Dear Bully this weekend. It’s a compilation of 70 YA authors’ personal stories about bullying—when they were either the target/victim or the one doing the bullying. Some of the stories were quite poignant (Laurie Faria Stolarz; I’ve never read her before, but I will now--plus, look at those covers!), but most were instances of authors calling apples oranges.
Having your best friend decide she isn’t your friend anymore? That sucks, but it’s not bullying.
Having the popular kids ostracize and ignore you when you were once part of their crowd? Again: not bullying.
Having a manipulative friend? Not bullying.
Being the subject of rumors? Not bullying.
Lauren Oliver (whom I have read, and I love) addresses this last issue in her chapter, in which she is speaking more to kids than to adult readers like me. She talks briefly about how she wasn’t bullied in high school, but she was the victim of rumors. She goes on to talk about the importance of embracing ambiguity and differentness not just in others, but in ourselves. I agree completely that if a child can accept himself, he won’t seek acceptance from others. How to get from A to B is the difficulty.
I think it’s vital that we not call every hardship between peers bullying, so I appreciate Oliver for making this disclaimer. Because once we do slap one label on all of it, we trivialize what so many children go through on a daily basis—the kids who are afraid to go to school, not just the ones who are uncomfortable there. No amount of self-acceptance can erase fear. No amount of saying, “I like who I am and I won’t change” will stop someone from shoving you against a locker or from kicking you when you’re on the ground after being tripped. And I know bullying extends beyond the physical. The name-calling and the well-planned and well-executed daily attacks can erode what thin wall of protection you’ve managed to build up around your fragile adolescent psyche.
Bullying is the strong preying on the weak and the weakened. So it’s those two groups—the weak and the weakened—that we need to focus on, because they’re the ones who lack the support necessary to get them through the hell years.
Sure, middle school was rough for me. It’s not much better than rough for most people. But to tell a child who feels painfully alone and vulnerable every single day that I understand what she’s going through is the equivalent of me telling someone with lung cancer that I know what they’re going through because I had bronchitis when I was younger.
Is this book worth a read? Some of the chapters are. But others are just reminders of how difficult empathy can be when our experiences provide no basis for comparison with others’.