I don’t remember getting bullied that much as a kid. I can think of a few instances, but nothing that scarred me or really resonates today. Unfortunately, I don’t have to think very hard to remember the one time I was part of a bullying group.
My experience as a bully
The details are lost to me, but I know I was in elementary school. I know that a few of my friends at the time had decided another student deserved our unwanted attentions. I could say that I hadn’t yet established my own identity and therefore wanted to follow the crowd. That might be true, but it would be disingenuous. I honestly don’t know why I felt the need to add to this boy’s misery.
I remember the boy was a bit smaller than most and was thought of as being a bit weirder than his peers. One of my friends once caught him picking his nose and christened him “Booger,” a name/word nearly all 10 year olds find hilarious. I won’t use that label again, so instead I’ll call him Steve.
Steve wasn’t in my class, and in the insular world of late 80s elementary school that meant I hardly saw him. I know I called him that cringe-inducing nickname a few times, but other than that I can’t recall much else about him.
What I do remember haunts me to this day, and that’s not a phrase I use lightly.
We were riding our bikes around the neighborhood one afternoon when we saw Steve, also on his bike, crossing the street. One of the more aggressive kids saw him and took off in his direction, taunting Steve with that horrible name. We followed, and all of us joined the chorus. Steve didn’t look our way, but he turned on all the speed he could muster and made a beeline to his house. We chased him the whole way, another two or three blocks, never getting within 30 feet of the surprisingly fast smaller boy.
Steve’s mother was in their front yard, so she heard and saw everything he son had just gone through. I remember the pain on her face, even though I didn’t know what I was seeing at the time. I remember that pain turning to anger and frustration. I remember that anger and frustration giving way to pleading. I remember her asking all of us to please stop tormenting her son, to please stop calling him a name that I’m sure made him cry when no one was around, and to please let him have some peace.
This incident came to mind when I read a recent article about the case against Phoebe Prince’s bullies. Prince, you probably know, moved to South Hadley, Mass., from Ireland last year. The 15-year-old high school student killed herself this past January as a result of constant physical- and cyberbullying. According to one of her friends, Prince was targeted because “she was pretty and people were jealous.” This supposed jealousy manifested in vicious taunting, abusive text messages and threatening Facebook posts. She was called an “Irish whore” and a “slut,” far cries from “Booger” and infinitely more hurtful.
Several of her classmates are now being charged with crimes, including statutory rape, violation of civil rights with bodily injury, criminal harassment and stalking. The article I read implied that little was done by her school’s administration to ease her suffering, despite reports that authority figures were aware of her situation. After months of abuse, Prince hanged herself in her family’s home. Even this didn’t end her persecution; her tormentors posted cruel, venomous comments on the memorial Facebook page created for Phoebe.
It seems obvious to point out that bullying of any kind can lead to mental illness. The victims are much more likely to suffer from depression, conduct disorders and a variety of other illnesses. Of course, whether it’s from the shame that comes with “letting” someone else bully them or the stigma associated with these mental illnesses, those victims often don’t want to talk about any of this.
Stories like Phoebe’s, or like 11-year-old Carl Walker’s, who hanged himself in April of 2009 after enduring similar bullying, have made it so that we can no longer accept that silence. As cyberbullying continues to rise, the work being done by Menninger clinicians like Stuart Twemlow, MD, and Tom Ellis, PsyD, ABPP, is now more important than ever. We need to listen and understand how to handle the bullying we see, and prevent it from escalating to the point where victims feel like suicide is the only way to get it to stop.
I think back to my 9- or 10-year-old self and try to understand why I took part in bullying Steve. I try to remember why I thought it was OK. Mostly, though, I remember Steve’s mom, standing alone on her lawn, sticking up for one of the people she loved most in her world. I remember her eyes, desperately searching for a reason to hope this would all end, that her son would be able to enjoy a normal life. And I remember the defeat in her slumped shoulders as we rode off, laughing at how clever we were.