Mamarama: Taking the Tweens to Bully
Over this past spring break, I decided to haul four middle-schoolers to the Angelika in New York for a viewing of Bully on opening day. The kids were a mix of sixth and seventh graders – one boy and three girls – who were eager to see what this documentary was all about. Just before its release, the Motion Picture Association revised the original “R” rating to a more sensible “PG-13” for language and situations; now the movie could do what it set out to do – raise awareness about this disturbing topic.
Over the past year or so the topic of bullying has been at the forefront of our school’s educational awareness programs. Anti-bullying strategies were strongly emphasized in our early-year curriculum meetings and the students were acutely aware of anything that even hinted at bullying – calling one another out for minor infractions. I wanted to see how these preteens would react to the extreme bullying situations captured in this documentary.
The film, by Lee Hirsch, tracks the story of a few teenagers scattered across the south to Midwest and includes the parents of two bullied teens whose children committed suicide. One of the lead characters, Alex, has it particularly hard. Born prematurely with features that still evoke an embryonic visage, he also has Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, which makes it difficult for him to navigate normal social interactions. He is bullied ruthlessly, taunted, and randomly punched just for “being annoying.”
When the filmmaker decides to reveal footage of one particular physical assault on the bus, his parents are appalled. His mother’s plea to the assistant principal of Alex’s school is about the administration’s responsibility to keep students safe. The principal responds, with a fixed smile, that the kids on that bus are “as good as gold.” In an earlier scene she is also seen mishandling a bullying attack during recess. Without awareness or training on the subject she unwittingly “blames the victim” and completely misses the sadistic strategies of the bully himself.
For parental viewers, the mishandling by administration in these cases is extremely disturbing—especially since we trust them to make sound judgments about our children’s care. Their actions remind me of the days when folks in offices could freely sexual harass co-workers or make racist jokes around the water-cooler with complete disregard for their colleagues who might not see the humor (satirized perfectly by The Office). Before we had “diversity training” and lawsuits about sexual harassment this was an American way of life. And much of the school faculty in this film have a similar “kids will be kids” attitude about the ubiquity of bullying.
What did the middle-schoolers from our Jersey City public school think? They unanimously agreed that no such behavior goes on in their hallways. The kids were appalled by the violence and downright “meanness” against kids who were nothing more than unfortunate as far as appearance and social graces go.
The kids were particular intrigued by the case of a transgender girl from Oklahoma. Kelby presents herself so convincingly as a boy, my group believed her to be such until she began to talk about her gender and coming out as “gay.” For preteens this is a particularly tricky area to feel unbiased about, as they are establishing their own gender roles and learning about sexuality.
When we learn that Kelby and her family has been thoroughly ostracized by their community the story becomes unbearable; and it’s in these “Bible Belt” regions where bullying gains some justification under the aegis of “scripture.” In a sense, the girl’s entire family is “bullied” by an intolerant public who believe that “gays will burn in hell.” Kelby is actually told this by her teacher and is similarly mocked by administrators for being so confident and brazen about her sexuality choice. This reminded me of the tragic outcome of Teena Brandon’s story (dramatized in Boys Don’t Cry), also set in neighboring Nebraska. Being openly gay or transgender in the Midwest does not yield good outcomes, it seems.
In any case, the intolerance toward homosexuality brought up a critical point for the preteens in attendance. In a typical Jersey City public school they are exposed to every culture, religion, belief and background possible. Their friends are half this culture, half that race, have only one parent, have two same-gender parents, have moms with pink hair and dads who skateboard. If anything, they are probably not exposed to enough white Republicans. When we talk about the benefits of diversity in our environment, this is exactly what it does: it breeds tolerance. And with tolerance you have less of a fertile bullying environment.
I’m not going to pretend that our school is free from bullying, simply because our kids are exposed to alternative lifestyles – or that “shunning” someone isn’t a more passive form of bullying. These things go on all the time and are part of the middle-school terrain. But the more school administrators and parents can do to build empathy skills and tolerance, the more ethical and kind our children will become.
There is a bullying awareness exercise where kids in a classroom are given a clean sheet of white paper. They are asked to squash, crumple and stomp upon it. Afterwards, they try to smooth out the page and observe what they see. No matter how much they try to iron out the damage, it’s still there – visible in the creases and splotchy dirt marks; and that’s the visible analogy of bullying. The damage it reaps on the tender psyche of a child has a long-lasting impact. Teens and preteens who reflexively insult and ridicule have little awareness of the long-term ramifications of their actions; this exercise helps them understand what damage looks like.
For my group of preteens the film impacted them superficially. True to form for the age, they were unable to see themselves depicted in the movie scenarios. Though they may have been on either side of the bullying coin themselves, they were still struck by how “THAT does NOT go on in OUR school!” Whether this is a testament to our school’s vigilant anti-bullying campaigns or a product of a truly diverse community I’m willing to believe that tolerance, above all else, will prevail.
Photo by Jayne Freeman