Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor
School is for young people what work is for adults. Kids spend six and a half to eight hours for five days a week with the same teachers, administration, friends, and enemies. For millions of these students, it’s a living hell on earth. For them, new clothes and school gear doesn’t erase the fear and dread they feel at the prospect of spending the next nine months of their lives getting pushed or stuffed into lockers, teased and ridiculed, threatened and intimidated, jumped in the bathroom, having books and notebooks damaged or thrown, or socially isolated and ignored. If we really consider all that these kids endure and the fact that they must face it every day, it’s a wonder we tolerate it to the extent we do.
Bullying is a tough and complicated problem. Administrators face the hard task of monitoring behavior of a group that as it gets older becomes increasingly more crafty and skilled at hiding behavior and intent. Cultural and generational differences in views on what constitutes bullying, the right time to intervene in the social goings on between kids, and the appropriate consequences after intervention add difficulty to the issue. But if you’ve ever looked into the eyes of a child whose soul has been picked apart by their peers, or seen a child swinging from a rope or sheet when they couldn’t take it anymore, or called 911 for a kid whose face is unrecognizable because a group kicked and punched him within an inch of his life, then you know that we must do whatever it takes to stop this madness. Whatever it takes.
As a young girl, I loved learning. But I often didn’t like school. Learning was exciting, invigorating, and empowering. School was draining and unpredictable. I felt tense, self-conscious and vulnerable. And even though things didn’t start out that way, they became that way early on. I knew how to read when I started kindergarten so when I entered first grade, it wasn’t long before my mom and the teacher realized I might benefit from more academic challenge. The first intervention was to place me in an accelerated reading group of older students. That’s when my school life changed. The black kids—the ones who I thought had been my friends—became hostile and distant. I became the object of teasing and mean-spirited joking. Looking back I now understand that this was the point at which I started to doubt myself. And here is the most consequential thing about being bullied. It causes a young person to ask the deadliest questions: what’s wrong with me? and what did I do wrong? Instead of feeling powerful and confident, I felt powerless and confused .
Feelings of powerlessness intensify bullying. Every player in the scenario feels trapped in some way. The victim feels isolated from help (what can my parents really do, they’re not here with me all day); parents feel left with unsatisfactory options (we can’t just take X out of school—we work and homeschooling isn’t feasible); teachers and administrators feel hamstrung by time constraints and insufficient resources (we can't address every single negative or hurtful interaction between students, not enough resources to implement solutions that would get to the root of the problem). The result is students and parents who feel trapped and angry. My parents were as involved and engaged as any parents could be but it was difficult for them to completely counteract the damage being done to my psyche and internal sense of security. The ongoing rejection and intentional singling out for uncharitable scrutiny shattered me.
Even though I experienced depression regularly, the love of my parents and the faith imparted to me by my family and church community buffered my negative school experiences. This foundation of support prepared me to help my son when it became evident that he was traveling a similar path at school to the one I endured many years earlier.
The emotional life of a black teenage boy is a hard nut to crack. When he was in middle school he seemed fine at first. By all indications he had friends, and I never saw any signs that he wanted to avoid school or certain people. But honestly I didn’t know how to read those more subtle signs of trouble. One night the levee broke. Our conversation started with one subject but eventually turned in a completely different direction. He admitted through tears that all was not well. He was being teased, left out of most social circles, and one boy in particular was hiding his backpack almost every day after school and then being physically aggressive when he tried to find it. At that point I confess I made a tactical and relational error. By suggesting to him that maybe he came across as “needy” and too eager for friendship, I unintentionally fell into a common trap. I assaulted his already fragile ego and identity by reinforcing his deepest fear: people’s reactions to him were his fault.
That night began a difficult journey through the rest of middle school and then high school. Despite my fervent efforts I still watched my previously fun-loving and emotionally open son become angry, tense, aggressive, and hard. A month or so after his high school graduation he agreed that he was depressed and that the accumulation of things that happened in school were taking their toll. But thankfully the same way that family love and support, and a strong faith upbringing anchored me, they have so anchored him. He still is not quite the same as before but I can see the light in his eyes again most days. We walk, we struggle, we prevail as a family, and I suspect our legacy of fighting for mental and emotional health and wellness will be a stronghold of inspiration for his children and their children to come.
Another school year has begun. Amid the long days of homework and extracurricular activities, take time to look into your child’s/students’ eyes, practice an over abundance of verbal and physical love and affection, establish early and reestablish often your commitment to your kid. No matter what, and no matter who, fight, fight, fight for your sons and daughters. The dangers of under reacting are far greater than those of over reacting. So at the first sign of…something…take action. School must become again a place of true learning and uplift for every student.
If you need help dealing with a bullying situation or just want to be prepared in case you need it, check out resources like The Bully Project which includes an informative guide for parents—The Parent Action Toolkit.