Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Bullying

Growing up in Provo, Utah, I found myself the target of bullying for most of my adolescent years. It started when I was eight-years old and the bully was a guy I went to school and church with. (I’m going to call him Guy, which is not his real name. There’s no point in publishing his real name, as you’ll soon see why.)

Guy was a kid who was adopted and who was sandwiched between a picture perfect older sister and a snooty, spoiled younger sister. I suspect Guy might have been physically abused as a kid, but I have no solid evidence for that suspicion other than his behavior toward his peers, which was often abusive.

When we were eight, we were both in the same Primary class in church. (Primary in the Mormon Church would be like Bible Camp/Study in other denominations. It's for kids between the ages of three and 12.) During the summer, we’d go on class outings and try to do fun stuff as a group; things like bowling or trips to a museum or whatever eight-year olds did in those days in Provo. Our Primary teacher, whose name escapes me, asked each of us for suggestions for things we could do that summer. I’d just been to the local dairy coop at Brigham Young University a week or so previously and had learned where milk came from and how it ended up in a bottles on the grocery shelf. Not heady stuff at all, but for an eight-year old, pretty cool nonetheless!

So, when Sister Primary Teacher asked for suggestions, I raised my little hand and said, with all the enthusiasm of my eight years, “Let’s go to the dairy farm!” Those words would follow and haunt me for many, many years, thanks to Guy and his meanness. He teased me about that from third grade all the way up to ninth grade. The only reason he stopped teasing me is because we moved away and I went to a new high school. But every chance he got, he’d tell people, “Janet wants to go the dairy farm” or some variation thereon.

Now, I’ll grant you, it doesn’t seem all that awful, but when you’re eight and you want your friends to like you or when you’re a teenager and you’re just trying to fit in, having someone constantly harassing you for something so innocent is definitely not fun.

Today, I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about a young lady who has been bullied at a number of schools she has attended in Marin County, California, to the point that her mother has had to pull her out of classes and start home schooling her. Most of the harassment Olivia Gardner is experiencing is what is called cyberbullying. But whether it’s online or in your face, the result is still the same. Hurt. Shame. Disenfranchisement. Isolation. Fear. Anxiety. And—bottom line—it’s wrong.

What seems to be missing in society—and has been, it seems, for time immemorial—is the application of The Golden Rule in its various forms—“do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” or “if you won’t say it to their face, don’t say it behind their back.” Well, you get the idea. And sure, none of us are ever 100% good about words of kindness all the time, but bullying is the lowest, vilest form of inconsiderate, malicious, hard-hearted behavior there is.

I’ll stop there and climb off my soapbox, because the point of this piece is to highlight that there are, in fact, kind, considerate young people out there. According to the Chronicle article, it seems a couple of teenagers in Marin read Olivia’s story and were appalled to learn about the bullying Olivia has experienced, so they decided to do something about it. The teens--two sisters named Emily and Sarah Buder--started a letter writing campaign and asked young people in the Bay Area to write letters to Olivia. The results have been, quite simply, amazing.

If you’d like to send a letter to Olivia, here’s where you can direct your words of kindness.

Ms. Olivia Gardner
C/o Janet Buder
775 E Blithedale Avenue #106
Mill Valley, CA 94941

As for Guy, about a year after I graduated high school and right before I moved to D.C. the first time, he came into the store a couple of times where I was working. Each time he came in, he’d come through my line. It was the first time I'd seen him since our freshman year at Timpview High School and life hadn't been kind to him. He’d battled depression, alcohol, and cigarettes, but I’d always greet him warmly and we’d talk about what was up at the moment for both of us.

One evening, Guy came in and came through my line. As usual, we exchanged some pleasantries and then, switching gears, he said, “Janet, I owe you an apology. I said many mean things to you when we were kids and I’m really sorry for that. It wasn’t nice and it wasn’t fair to you, especially because you’ve always been very kind to me.” I was stunned, but touched and managed to muster the words to say, “Thank you, Guy. That means a lot to me.”

To Olivia—hang in there. You’re okay and you’re a good person and, in the end, you’ll come out on top! And to Emily and Sarah Buder, good job, gals! May your peers learn a lesson or two from both of you. And wherever you are, Guy, I hope life has been kind to you.

13 comments:

Sister Mary Lisa said...

And this post is exactly why I like you so much, Janet. You are awesome.

sunchaser said...

Those are both great stories (yours and Olivia's).

Kids can be so mean, and you have to wonder, what those kids in Novato could accomplish if they put their energies towards something positive rather than tearing someone down.

You also have to wonder what the parents of the kids who put up that website are doing to be allowing their kids to behave this way (basically nothing - or worse than nothing)?

ME said...

Great story, Janet. I'm glad you got an apology from Guy and want to help others whose self-esteem suffers at the hands of bullies.

There's someone from my growing up years I'd like to apologize to, but I have no idea where she is. I wasn't one of her overt persecutors, but I didn't treat her like a friend, either. I always feel badly about that when I think about her.

hm-uk said...

I've been both bullied and a bit of a bully when I was younger (and maybe now, too?). Neither is a good place to be. I work with toddlers, and even babies as young as 18 months are displaying so many behaviours that are either aggressive or passive. I could write a whole piece on my day, yesterday, two boys, same age but different families: one a bit dominant and physically agile, non-verbal; the other quite verbally sophisticated, not very physically agile but displaying major avoidance and fearful behaviour. Neither boy has any background of abuse and both come from educated families with a high standard of living. Let's just say I spent a lot of time imposing crowd control on the more dominant boy - he finds it difficult not to display agressive behaviour towards the other boy. I know that by consistently correcting both boys' behaviours and redirecting their attention that they will come to understand that there are better ways than others to deal with aggression. However, I am sure that the 'desire' to dominate will always be there for the one - despite the fact that he actually has a lovely little personality - and I won't always be around to give him 'the look'. I am sure that the 'desire' to run will always be there for the other - despite the fact that he will probably be quite able to talk his way out of trouble, sooner or later - and I won't always be around to give him a pat on the back.

Ugggh, I used to think this issue was quite cut and dry. I can only hope that the children who may have suffered either at my hands, or at the hands of others and whose behaviour I allowed by not standing up for the victim, that they have made it through intact. I would like to find the two or three individuals who were the butt of my scathing remarks and tell them that I'm sorry for being a rude turd when I was a teenager.

Bullying is a complex issue - I hope that my post does not intimate that I condone it as an expression of any human emotion or reaction.

As for the aforementioned two boys...we'll see.

Gunfighter said...

You are a real human being, Janet.

I nearly hospitalised my bully once I had taken all that I could.

I never want to lose it like that again.

you know who, the cranky one said...

That is SO awesome. Love those Buder girls so much.

I was bullied a lot too, or else ignored entirely (sometimes better, sometimes worse). I think I'm reliving a lot of that now, and I'm really hoping I actually process my way through it this time.

Bullies suck. Period.

Janet M Kincaid said...

Just to clarify, the last picture is a painting called "Forgiveness." Some asked today, fwiw.

Now, on to your comments.

SML: Thank you!

Sunchaser: Welcome to Rush Hour! You make an excellent point: what could we accomplish if we chose to be positive and kind? I think we'd live in a more peaceful world for sure!

ME: Thanks! I can think of one group of great women who have meant the world to my self-esteem and who have been wonderful friends. I wonder if you know them? ;-)

HM_UK: You're right that bullying is a complex behavior. No doubt, it's part nature, part nurture. My own feeling is, it's more of the latter. Children mirror the behavior they see in adults and I've known some bullies who were old enough to completely know better. Of course, just as a bully disenfranchises his/her victim, so too does the bully feel disenfranchised as a result of someone else who is abusive toward them. I suppose it's the great irony of bullying. The bullier feels belittled him/herself and in turn belittles others. Complex is right!

Gunfighter: I have to say, Guy actually scared the shit out of me, that's how mean he could be. I have to give my mother kudos, though. One day, she walked with me to Primary and actually confronted Guy. He backed down for a little while, but would still tease. I wish I'd had the gumption to beat the crap out of him, but alas, I was/am a weeny.

Cranky One, Who I Adore: Amen! Bullies do suck!

Liz said...

Amazing how so many of those things that in retrospect "don't seem so awful" still manage to stick with us for years.

Very neat that you got an apology.

Terri said...

This was an awesome post...
my poor son was teased and picked on during all his school years...
and I'll NEVER ever understand it..
he was sooo cute and sweet.
He has always been such a good looking kid... but he was always sensitive... and his feelings would get hurt...

Even though he's 24 years old ...
he's been haunted by the teasing and his self esteem is kind of low.. he is painfully shy and doesn't feel comfortable around people he doesn't know...

IT BREAKS MY HEART ... everyone loves him.. but I can't get that into his head... if you know what I mean...

I did the very best I could as a single mom...

I wish he could look as his accomplishments and focus on all of that ... he's a college graduate.. and he just bought his first home in Las Vegas...
he's doing well.. but he does have those old demons...

Kids are soo mean... they don't realize how their meaness affect people...
it reminds me of a bumper stick I saw once...

"Mean people suck"...

Terri said...

Oh.. and I think that is soo great that Guy apologized for the way he treated you.

janeannechovy said...

I was just talking about bullying last night with my sister and mom. I think we can all remember instances when we've bullied and been bullied. My victim was Colleen O'Keefe, who was "special," suffered occasional grand mal seizures in class, and who desperately wanted to be my friend. And I was a victim of Linda Wechter, a girl a grade ahead of me who called me "Miss Priss" (?!) and once accused me, in front of her friends, of scratching my crotch on the stairs (she had seen my reflection in the window on the landing--and I was actually scratching my thigh).

Wonder whatever happened to those two?

Kathleen Gardner said...

I am the mother of Olivia who was bullied in Novato, Ca. She was bullied mostly at school not on MySpace. The press got it wrong. She was threatened, stalked, beat up, had her new backpack drug through the mud, had rocks thrown at her and plastic bracelets made that the group of bullies wore with hateful words and threats towards Olivia. The 3 schools did nothing except beg me not get their name in the media. There was a MySpace "Olivia Haters Club" with threats to beat her up if she came to school, profanities directed towards her and obscene pictures. She didn't even know a lot of the kids. Her doctor had her put on Home/Hospital schooling because it became to unsafe and Olivia was displaying extreme physical symptoms of stress(panic attacks. nightmares,depression and thoughts of suicide). Two girls started a letter writing campaign with words os encouragement and it is helping her a lot. You can send her a letter at Olivia Gardner
P.O. Box 31, Novato, Ca. 94948. Thank-you for your kindness and support. It has let some light in on a dark situation. By the way; not one of the bully's or their parents have apologized.

Merujo said...

It was hard for me to read what Olivia's mother wrote here. I was bullied from second grade through high school by a kid a grade below mine. He started as a first grader, can you imagine? He would follow me home from school virtually every day I went to my house alone, taunting me, throwing rocks at me, and sometimes chasing me with a bat and striking me because I could not run as fast as he could.

My mother complained to the schools - they did nothing. She complained to the police, since I was being assalted, and they did nothing. The bully's parents hung up on my mom whenever she tried to talk to them about this. They wouldn't answer the door when she came by to talk to them. Mom followed me home with her car as often as she was able to stop this.

This kid brought a friend into this when I was in fifth grade. When I was in seventh grade, I managed to catch his friend on one of the bat days and punched him in the mouth. The next time I saw him, he had braces on. I always wonder if me smacking him in the mouth had been one of the reasons for the braces.

The other bully? I never caught him. I'm 41 and I still feel shame and fear and anger about it all. I doubt he has had a very good life, though I don't know for certain. He was ignorant and a poor student.