I found the case of a young girl’s suicide in the wake of being relentlessly bullied, to be just heartbreaking (see New York Times: 9 Teenagers Are Charged After Classmate’s Suicide).
While there are many different questions raised by this tragedy, my aim in blogging about it here is to challenge us to consider our own place in the group—our own inner bullies as well as inner victims.
When it comes to bullying, I tend to believe that the fish rots from the head down. When I have been involved in organizations where the leaders were bullies (not to mention mentally and emotionally volatile, narcissistic, etc.) I have seen this trickle down to staff behavior and to the behavior of the kids being educated and supposedly helped by those organizations.
A comment to this article by someone named “Marty” seemed to echo my own sentiments and was recommended by 215 readers—more than any other comment (and there were well over 500 before they closed them):
“I might be completely offbase here, but how many teachers and school employees out there were either bullied or at least desperately sought to be part of the “popular crowd” when they were younger? I’d venture to say it is quite a few. How much does some desire to regain or obtain some measure of popularity all into their turning a blind eye to the antics of bullies and mean girls?
I’m not that far out of high school and I remember my teachers always trying to be buddies with the “cool kids”, giving them special privileges, never giving them any kind of trouble about their treatment of others. It was ALWAYS the in-crowd, the most pretty, popular, wealthy and most athletic, that would be the ones bullying the nerds and the poor kids. The teachers were too busy being their friends to care.”
Although I’m long out of high school, I can all too well recall the bullies threatening to put your head in the toilet for a “freshman swirly,” or being pelted with a tennis ball and some big brute shouting to his mate, “You’re the Jew!” It took me awhile to even realize that their game was called “Jew tag” and if they were “a Jew” they needed to pelt an actual Jewish kid with a tennis ball and then throw that ball at one their jocular pals and turn him into “the Jew.”
I recall a kid mouthing off in class and the tough old teacher literally challenging that kid to step into the hall with him to slug it out. The kid backed down, but the teacher was far from kidding. This is not to say that I was always an angel, as bullying and cruelty does not immediately turn kids toward compassion… although maturation does seems to do an awful lot to make people re-think the impact of past cruelty on others.
Another trenchant comment read:
“My four years of high school were years I would gladly forget. Yet, what is it that drives one tormented teenager to suicide while another – subject to similar taunts and cruelty – grits his or her teeth and bears it? Surely the behavior of this girl’s tormentors is not to be condoned, but I don’t believe they set out to cause her death. How many respondents would honestly have been the first person to resist peer pressure, to turn against friends and be labeled a pariah themselves (especially after seeing the “rewards” of such status) by saying “Stop. This is wrong.” I understand full well the desperation to be accepted; it is the desperation that drove this girl to her death, and it is the same desperation that somehow made it “ok” in the minds of her peers to treat her like garbage. The complexities of high school interactions cannot be minimized. In the end, the cruelty that preceded Phoebe’s death did not put the noose around her neck, just as the taunts that followed me in high school were not responsible for the cuts I drew on my arms with razor blades. It may seem callous to refer to personal responsibility, especially when Phoebe’s tormentors displayed such a lack of it, but her actions were ultimately, sadly and finally her own.”
While only 27 readers recommended this comment, it cuts closer to the issue of the Shadow, and in turn raises the question of how we might better support kids across the spectrum of social-relatedness to feel good about themselves and gain a sense of belonging without having to reject and torment some “other.” (And Phoebe was ripe to be the other, moving to the US from a small town in Ireland and attracting the attention of a popular older boy that may have sparked the ire of the threatened locals and their established order.)
Since I strongly suspect that virtually none of the readers who make their way to this blog are bullying or raising bullies, I ask myself, “what can I say here that could possibly make a difference? What do I do with the feelings of sorrow and heartbreak for this situation, but particularly as it reflects countless situations around our world, countless kids miserable in their beds right now dreading their next school day?”
And so what I propose is non-logical— simply that we send love and good wishes to the spirit of Phoebe Prince and to her family and to the 9 kids who are in trouble (without judging them) and their families (and to the guilty community that, if it didn’t cause this death, certainly didn’t prevent it… isn’t this community “Our Town?”). Perhaps if we can do a small bit to mentally help metabolize a micro-hair’s breadth of this complex tragedy, we at least place ourselves in the midst of the very group that hurts others and is hurt by others… awakening to the notion that we truly are this group, and that this pain is none but our own.
Just as Piggy in Lord of the Flies becomes the scapegoat for the group’s insecurities, we grown-ups just might make the world a kinder place by owning our insecurities and fessing up, not just to our needs for acceptance, but also to our universal needs for love.
Just in case it actually might be the projection of the archetypal pariah that collectively piles on and leads to bullying, perhaps if we can own up to both our beauty but also to our less-than-wonderfulness we somehow serve all our collective children with our expanded, containing and compassionate consciousness (and meanwhile form a more authentic and resilient community amongst our growing-up selves).