When my parents moved us out of Philadelphia to the wealthy suburbs of New Jersey (though we were not wealthy ourselves), I knew they did it for two reasons: safety and schooling. My parents grew up in South Philadelphia and, therefore, understood from their own experiences that my leisure time would most likely be spent on a street corner or in an alleyway and that my educational experience would either be sub-par if I went to public school or expensive if I went to Catholic school, as they had done. Like so many other city folk who have children and realize that the concrete jungle is no place for a family, we made the trek across the bridge.
At the very least, my parents were right about the school system. In the 80’s and 90’s (maybe not so much now), the Cherry Hill public education school system could accurately boast about its academic reputation. While I have no love for Cherry Hill itself or the schools that I attended, I can say with absolute confidence that despite my mediocre grades and my overall ambivalence toward school in general at that time, when I went to college, I was certainly more prepared, especially in the areas of math and writing, than my freshman compatriots at Temple University.
Where my parents were wrong, however, was their belief in the illusion of safety in the suburbs. It’s true that my parents would have had to work a little harder to soften the rough edges that I may have acquired if we had remained in the city. They may have had to provide me with potentially costly alternatives to street corners, like club sports or sleep-away camp. They may have had to keep a more watchful eye when I said I was playing out front because “out front” was in the middle of 8th Street, where SEPTA busses came barreling through every fifteen minutes.
In the suburbs, these issues would seemingly take care of themselves. In the suburbs, my parents wouldn’t have to watch me playing out front because I had an actual boundary – the lawn – to keep me from the street; and here in the ‘burbs, the cars – not busses – would drive the mandated 25mph. My parents wouldn’t have to worry about me hanging out on street corners because we wouldn’t really have street corners, per se; we would just have streets within developments that are strategically separated – mainly with signs connoting some idyllic fantasy of country life or yesteryear (i.e. Old Orchard, Downs Farms, Wilderness Acres) – from the other streets in the other developments. Plus, we would have Wawa and The Mall.
However, when safety is measured simply by school districts, strip malls, green grass, and gated communities, we often miss the real danger: the suburban kids themselves.
For the first eight years of living in Cherry Hill, I hated going school. Not because of homework or gym class or whatever other reasons kids have for hating school. I hated school because my parents, my teachers, my administrators, and Mr. Rogers himself, told me school was supposed to be safe. And they were right: school was supposed to be safe. The problem was that it wasn’t.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that I went to school with some of the nastiest kids on the planet. I look back at my fourth grade class picture, and it’s incredibly deceiving. We all look like little angels, the girls donned in pink, white, or lime green stretch pants with tee-shirts to match, hair pulled back in half pony-tails to the side, neon scrunchy socks scrunched just right atop a pair of brand new, stark white Keds. The boys, looking equally as angelic, wore their stripped Polo shirts, Khaki Dockers and Nikes. All of us, missing at least two of our front teeth at the time, were smiling our biggest smiles. A picture, though, is worth a thousand lies. Behind the pinks and the whites and the stripes and the name brands hid twenty four little devils, just waiting for that final picture to snap so that they could return to making each other’s lives a living nightmare.
These children mainly came from upper-middle class families – the sons and daughters of lawyers, doctors, and brokers. Someone’s parent always owned something in South Jersey. The R—-’s owned the Shoprite. The F—-’s owned Ponzios, Diane’s Water Ice, and Stefani’s Water Ice, and the R—-’s owned a few McDonald’s chains. They were all rich, and they made sure that we all knew it. The kids were products of families that had too much money, too many housekeepers, and not enough respect for general humanity.
My family wasn’t necessarily hard up, but we certainly never fit in with this crowd. Lower-middle class, Italian Catholics from South Philadelphia just didn’t mesh with the Cherry Hill elite. Point of fact, my mother, who would come to all of my softballs games, could be found sitting all alone on the bleachers during the games, none of the other mothers even bothering to talk to her because she did not go their salon; go to their synagogue; belong to their swim club or country club; or gossip about the other mothers and their children. Even motherhood was a clique in Cherry Hill.
I think we get where this is going… Being “poor,” being “fat,” and being “different” from the other richer, more girlie-girls in my grade, I was a human punching bag for almost a decade. The kids in my class made fun of my clothes from J.C. Penny’s (one snob even going as far to say of JCP, “I thought they only sold towels there.”), my body (it was probably wrong of me to have a crush on the boy who called me “wooly mammoth” every day for all of 8th grade, but what can you do?) , my tom-boyishness (once mockingly asked if I ever “got to third base,” I, of course, said yes, having played baseball and softball for a number of years and obviously not understanding at the time what “third base” meant in sex terms. The rumor that followed that exchange took a while to squash.), and, most disturbingly, my mom (one jerk saying, “Now I know why you’re so ugly; just look at your mom.”).
Not only did these douchebags make fun of me daily, but they also stole from me. Some of the RICHEST kids in all of New Jersey – who wanted for nothing – stole clothes and jewelry out of my locker while in gym class. I later saw two of my classmates – both from well-off families – sporting the stolen goods. One was wearing my shirt (from J.C. Penny’s – oh, the irony) and the other was wearing my brand new Charlotte Hornets windbreaker. My mom and I informed my principal of these incidents happening on his watch, but he did nothing. And, in case anyone cares, I did get the jacket back, but only after my mom took matters into her own hands and went “Goretti Gorilla” on that one girl’s mom (you’ll get that reference if you’re from South Philly; if not, Google it).
From these experiences, it’s no surprise to me that kids commit suicide, go on murderous rampages, or shut themselves off from society in general. Childhood and adolescence is The Hunger Games.
Last weekend I saw the documentary Bully, and there is a scene in which one of the victims is being interviewed after a particularly rough experience on the school bus. In response to being asked how being bullied makes him feel, he says, “It makes me feel like I want to be the bully.” He doesn’t talk about his feelings being hurt or how sad he is. No, being bullied has made him want to be one. Never has a more honest answer been given, and, boy, can I indentify with that feeling. In fact, when I got to the ninth grade, I picked my shattered self-esteem up off the ground, gained some confidence, found my big, loud voice, and started bullying a lot of girls who I thought were weaker or different than I was. Instead of having compassion for people who had fewer friends or unique interests, I became the exact evil that had haunted me for the previous eight years. It’s basically the equivalent of abused children growing up to become abusers themselves.
Bully raises a lot of concerns about the ways that teachers, administrators and parents handle bullying. Almost every adult in the film is impotent. Parents can’t get answers from teachers or administrators, administrators deny the problem exists because it makes them look bad, and law enforcement is ambivalent because, really, is name-calling a crime? The fact that most bullying happens under the cloak of darkness, away from the eyes and ears of most adults, makes it really hard to prove and to stop. Though the administrators in Bully are shown to be completely ineffective, in a lot of ways, their hands are tied. The conversations with students and parents involve a lot of “he-said, she-said,” and what is the correct punishment for something that can’t necessarily be proven?
The documentary also highlights a problem that we see all too often: how much easier it is to blame victims than condemn perpetrators for crimes of power and abuse. This has been the case for victims of domestic violence and rape, and bullying is no different. Throughout the film, school administrators and even parents consistently ask the victims what they’ve done to provoke the incident or what they could do or should have done to prevent it. In one scene in particular, a school principal tries to force two boys to shake hands after a fight; one boy is willing to shake hands, and the other is not. At first, it looks like the boy who will not shake hands is being a jerk – that is, until he explains that he’s not willing to shake hands with the boy who beats him up and calls him names every day. The principal then accuses the victimized boy of not being a good sport, while the bully himself gets to look like a charming schmoozer who can do no wrong. Come on…
The documentary, while powerful, fell short in certain ways, too, and I think the underdeveloped and absent parts of this film are great detriments to the outcome of the film itself. Bully mainly focuses on “middle America,” poor, rural places like Oklahoma and Georgia. Not that bullying doesn’t occur in these places, too, but to focus only on them could lead people to conclude that bullying is a problem in areas where kids are poor and uneducated. To be blunt, Bully makes it look like bullying is a “redneck” problem. As shown in my own story, bullying is an issue everywhere, even in rich, cosmopolitan, mid-Atlantic, “blue states.” The film would have benefited from showing a wider range of experiences from across the country so that everyone could see a little bit of themselves in these kids.
The movie also neglects the actual bullies’ perspectives at all. Maybe the documentarian tried and failed to get that angle. Maybe the audience doesn’t really want to know why abusers do what they do because it might actually humanize them in some way, so that point of view is intentionally left out. In any case, the lack of a counterpoint hurt the objectivity of the film, though I don’t believe that objectivity was the goal.
Along the same lines, the movie does not address peer pressure, which I can say from experience is certainly one driving force, among many, behind bullying. When I was in the seventh grade, there was a group of girls who picked on me horribly. One of the girls in the group, who had – until this point in time – been one of my closest childhood friends, called me one night to explain that while she did not like how the group was treating me, she wasn’t going to stand up for me (or hang out with me anymore) because, as she put it, “there’s more of them…and they’re popular.” I told my parents about the phone call, somewhat relieved that my “friend” had, at the very least, acknowledged that we had at one point been friends and that I really didn’t deserve this treatment. My parents were not relieved; in fact, they called that girl a coward. Maybe they were right, but, to this day, I understand exactly why she did what she did. Peer pressure is a motherfucker.
I just finished reading the novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, which is a story of a boy – Kevin – who commits a Columbine-like massacre at his high school, not because he is picked on, but because he’s simply deranged. The story is a first-person narrative told from his mother’s perspective, which certainly provides an emotional distance between the reader and Kevin, but, in turn, gives us what I believe to be the more important point of view since it is Kevin’s mother Eva who will live and die with the torment of her offspring’s sin on her soul. As the mother of a killer, she will bear the brunt of the society’s scorn and resentment more than her son ever will. She is the responsible party; she is him. For better or worse, this is a mother’s duty.
Now that I’m an adult (and a fairly well-adjusted one, I’d like to think), I look back on that painful time in my childhood, and all I can think about is my mother. Though she rarely cracked in front me then, I know now that deep down she wanted to take a baseball bat to everyone one of those kids who picked on me and to everyone one of their parents who stood by and did nothing. I know now that in the privacy of her bedroom at night, she cried because I had come home crying yet again that day. I know now that she knew I wasn’t always sick when I said I was, but she let me stay home anyway because she knew that I couldn’t take another day of listening to those little shits call me a beached whale. I know now that I never would have made it out of those years alive if she hadn’t told me every day that she loved me, that I was smart and beautiful, and that (it sounds cliché now, but my mom definitely pre-dates Dan Savage) it would get better. And, thanks to her, it did.