When I was in 4th grade, something disturbing happened on the playground. It wasn’t until we got back inside the classroom that I figured out what it was. Two girls in my class, a curvier-than-most-kids-that-age Uyanga and tiny little Greta, were pale and on the verge of tears. Uyanga was furious. “The boys were trying to pull our skirts down!” she said. According to her, the three boys had grabbed them, brought them to the corner of the playground, and wouldn’t let them go, then tried to pull down their skirts. If everyone hadn’t been called in from recess just then, they don’t know what those guys would have done. Mrs. Collin, our teacher, looked extremely uncomfortable. She didn’t even ask who the boys were. “I wasn’t on playground duty, so I can’t help you,” she said point-blank. “You’ll have to go talk to whoever was.”
I was furious now, too. One of the boys in question was in this very class, and yet Mrs. Collin wouldn’t even talk about it. Despite our teacher’s nonchalance, Uyanga and Greta looked violated, completely humiliated. The advice given to them from teachers went along the lines of, “Don’t wear skirts” or “Just leave the boys alone.”
I had seen my fair share of crime shows depicting grown men charged of sexually harassing women, but I was suddenly wary of the boys my own age. All I could think was, they’re ten years old. Barely even hit puberty yet, and they’re already holding girls down, pulling their skirts off.
When people think of bullies, the stereotypical variety often comes to mind. The mom’s a drinker, they live in a trailer park, the kids are all burly and abuse-hardened. Maybe their daddy ran off. Maybe their mamas never spanked them, or maybe spanked them too much. Drugs might be involved. All our preconceived notions of poverty lead to the assumption that poor equals violent. Poor equals social issues, parental failing. Poor equals negligence. Poor equals scumbags who pull down girls’ skirts on the playground.
The reality is much different. The school I went to in 4th grade was wealthy, a highly-rated school where only the preppiest polo-wearing good-doers were permitted. The kind of school where orange-tanned teachers would drawl “make good choices” in their West County accents and a boy wearing pink was not called “feminine”, but “popular”. The boys who pulled down Uyanga’s and Greta’s skirts were not the poorly-raised trailer trash we might expect them to be, but the clean-cut, Hollister-wearing boys whose mothers took them to soccer practice, went to all the school events as religiously as they went to synagogue on Saturdays. And when bullying like this occurred, every adult would turn a blind eye and pretend it didn’t happen. “Not my child,” they frequently say. “My Dominic would never do anything like that.” And everyone believes them, because they drive a Prius and contribute so much to their child’s school.
Bullying is more insidious than many parents would like to believe.
People will blame all kinds of things. They’ll lament the lack of “ass-whooping” kids are getting nowadays. They’ll blame violent video games, they’ll blame the parents. Others will blame potential mental illness, and suggest kids need to be more medicated. And still others will claim that “kids need to be kids”, as if boys sexually harassing girls is justified, and girls who spread rumors are just “at that age”. The last one in particular is just a lazy attempt to cover up the problem, which is what I feel my school did.
People will come up with all kinds of theories, point fingers at all different things. But no one has pointed a finger at the public school system as a whole. Think about it: Your child, during his most influential years during the development of his brain, is being raised at school more often than he is at home. He is being raised by other kids, by the social attitudes of the teachers, by trends and whatever will make him “popular”. Yes, go ahead and point your finger at Billy’s mom, who obviously isn’t paying attention to her child. Because Billy’s mom is there with him at school 8 hours a day, every day. Do you see how ridiculous that is?
Now, I will say that it is a parent’s job to instill moral values into their kids. In fact, they should be doing it more when their kid is in school, because they aren’t there for their kid. Parents have a tendency to let the school “raise” their kids, because it’s easier and more convenient that way. Especially if both parents are working full-time, it’s hard to sit down with your kids and show them how to behave nicely to other human beings. MOST parents leave everything they can to the school: sex ed, social skills, leadership skills. That’s all the school’s job. But that brings up another important point. Teachers are not nearly as confrontational as they used to be. Because they’re scared of receiving abuse from angry parents, or lawsuits, teachers refuse to get in the middle of bullying, confrontation, or anything that has to do with social interaction. Very few teachers will do more than read out of a textbook for fear of ruffling the feathers of a bitchy mom. It’s the sad reality that, in this country, teachers are treated like shit. When you put it all together, you have teachers who are treated so badly that they do the bare minimum of their job to avoid the wrath of parents, parents who are trying to let the school raise their own kids for the sake of convenience, and a public school system that is so hyper-focused on SATs anyway that kids are being pressured and stressed WAY more than they used to be. The result is a school where kids raise kids, kids discipline kids, kids take out their mounting stress on other kids, and kids have the power to do whatever they want. In this environment, of course bullying will be prevalent. Teachers won’t stop these kids, and neither will parents. Our society has grown to treat kids like perfect little angels who will get whatever they want, for fear of inciting their displeasure. We have an unhealthy belief that, to make our kids happy, we need to let them do whatever they want. We like to believe that public school is teaching our kids to be leaders, to be innovative thinkers. But public school is much more money-minded and political, and its main concern is to prep kids for the SAT. In reality, we’re putting our kids in an impersonal place that doesn’t give a shit whether they succeed or not as long as they pass their SAT. Coupled with the whole “let’s make our kids happy by letting them do whatever they want” mindset, we’re raising our kids to be self-centered and solely focused on their own happiness. If a kid is only focused on their own happiness, they are not only unaware of the happiness of others, but they are subtly raised to discount it. You are smarter. You are more special. Your happiness comes first. Don’t worry about other people. Focus on yourself.
This hyper-humanization of the self gives rise to a more insidious form of dehumanization, in which kids are so wrapped up in themselves that other people become objects, tools for their own self-inflation. If your happiness is more important than other people’s, then whatever you do for the sake of your own happiness becomes justified. You’re suddenly allowed to make fun of the fat girl in your class, because that makes you appear skinnier. You’re allowed to laugh at the guy who isn’t athletic in PE, because that makes you appear more athletic. You can make a Facebook page about how “everyone hates so-and-so” to target one person in particular, because it’s so clever and funny and no one likes that girl anyway. You’re free to be as condescending as you’d like to everyone, because it only shows how “intelligent” you are. It’s all an ego boost. And ego is too often confused for happiness.
I believe that it’s this dehumanization that gives rise to the vast amounts of bullying nowadays. The belief that your happiness outweighs the well-being or even safety of another human being, plus the constant need to inflate your ego by any means necessary, creates a hostile environment in which kids are either trampling or being trampled. Other kids are no longer seen as human beings with feelings and goals. We’re not raising leaders or innovative thinkers. We’re raising the assholes and broken human beings of tomorrow.
Parents shouldn’t naively let school “raise” their kids for them. Neither should they instill in their kids the belief that ego equals happiness, and their success matters so much more than another person’s. Teachers shouldn’t let bullying continue under their noses for fear of complicating things. Kids shouldn’t be given free reign to do whatever they want. Suicide rates in kids are disturbingly high, there’s an estimated 1 school shooting per week, and bullying has gotten much more violent and frequent. These things aren’t coincidences. Instead of turning to possible mental health issues and political issues like gun laws, we should be looking at schools themselves.
I don’t think that Dominic, or any of the other boys who attacked Uyanga and Greta, was trying to inflate his ego or anything. But the way the situation was handled certainly sent the message that it was an acceptable thing to do. The fact that it happened at all wasn’t nearly as disturbing as the fact that nothing was done about it. More disturbing still, the fact that my teacher laughed it off even in the face of two crying, obviously violated girls who never wore skirts to school after that incident. Something needs to change there. The way kids are raised, particularly at school, has to change.