Growing up without bullying

This article was originally published on The Huffington Post*:

There’s been a rash of suicides recently. Gay teenagers killing themselves after being bullied, often for years, by their peers. Dan Savage spearheaded the “It Gets Better Project.” President Obama joined the campaign, making a PSA in which he urges gay kids not to give in to despair. He says, “We’ve got to dispel the myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage — that it’s some inevitable part of growing up. It’s not. We have an obligation to ensure that our schools are safe for all of our kids.”

How did that myth find roots? How did the idea that bullying is somehow justifiable gain purchase?

Maybe there’s just too much of it. Maybe it feels unstoppable. That’s just what kids do, and when you put so many of them together, day after day, then that’s what will happen. In their twenties, some my friends still recall the horrors of middle school with a quiet solemnity, in voices better suited for telling ghost stories. Some of my friends shrug it off. “Yeah, I got picked on. Who didn’t?”

Of course, it depends on where you went to school, to some extent. The private schools were able to be more protective of their students. People weren’t getting beaten up, but they weren’t comfortable, either. They weren’t really safe. I knew a girl who cried out of frustration because her family wasn’t rich enough. She would never have the right clothes, and she’d never really be included. God forbid, she said, she keep putting on weight. She was fourteen. A boy I knew who went to a poor, public school found himself in physical fights constantly because of the color of his skin. The things he was routinely called are things I can’t write here. I can’t say them aloud. I can hardly let myself think them. He was diagnosed with anger problems, for fighting back when a group of bigger boys surrounded him, knocked him down, and kicked him.

(But it doesn’t look dangerous! Except for those curly red metal things….image source)

We’re not sure where the line between teasing and bullying lies. Is it when the teasing is constant? Is it when it becomes physically threatening? Teasing sounds manageable. It doesn’t sound like such a big deal. Bullying, as we have seen before and see again with this most recent string of suicides, can be a matter of life or death.

I was homeschooled in part because my mother studied child psychology, and she didn’t want her kids to be exposed to some of the things that she knew happened in schools. She had been one of the lucky ones: pretty, popular, white, smart. But she saw what happened to the girls who didn’t look like her. And the awkward ones. And the kids who were too different in whatever way. She didn’t want to take a chance on me. Which was probably a good idea, because I inherited a lot of my dad’s quirky Jewish genes and ended up looking pretty awkward, especially during the middle school years.

But when people asked me why I was homeschooled (which they did incessantly), and I said I was trying to avoid all that peer pressure and teasing and bullying (which I didn’t always say, but sometimes), many people told me that all that stuff was good for me. It was the “real world.” It was important to “get through it.” Why? So you could prove that you could survive long enough to reproduce? So you could go on to be tormented in the workplace without complaint? There seemed to be some unshakable consensus that suffering was good for you, and that kids needed to suffer at the hands of their peers, so that they could learn that the world was a tough, damaging, emotionally devastating place where you would probably never be able to relax. Maybe that’s true, to an extent. But it isn’t my reality.

The truth is, there are challenges everywhere you look, and everywhere you go in life. You don’t need them manufactured for you when you’re ten. You have to learn to deal with people no matter what. But hopefully everyone ends up, as adults, in a better environment than middle school — by most reports, it seems to be. And I really don’t see why being tormented from such a young age in any way (whether it be the kind of teasing that makes you cry, or the kind of bullying that finds you on your back on the playground, being kicked) is even close to acceptable, let alone necessary.

Even now, I feel incredibly lucky to have avoided the experience of feeling like I was worthless, ugly and horribly out of place as a kid. And while I, of course, recognize that homeschooling is not a viable or perfect solution for everyone to the problem of bullying in school, I’m tired of people imagining that it isn’t a very real, supportable reason for the decision to try alternative education.

One of the boys in my group of homeschooled friends was gay. But to be perfectly honest, it was never discussed. Not even once. Good luck standing out as “too different” in a group of random secular home-schoolers. Although I do remember that he dyed his hair red at some point, and I did tease him about that.

*  *  *

Wild fun list: Pick up a leaf. Drop it into moving water (the Hudson moves a little). Watch it float away. I don’t know why, but this is really enjoyable.

P.S. Thank you to The Innovative Educator for the amazing shout-out! I’m thrilled to be mentioned on the blog of someone whose work I respect so much.

*It sounds weird to say “on” here, but it is a website. Online journalism….So complicated for old-fashioned grammar!

27 comments to Growing up without bullying

  • shevrae

    I really never understood the “a little bullying is good for you” idea. Maybe the bullies say that to relieve their own guilt. My bullying experience was the worst in a private Christian school where I was bullied by my own cousins: eating my lunch on the way to school, cutting my hair, pushing me around in the bathroom, shoving me in trash cans, and stealing my crutches after they PUT me on crutches. All the adults seemed uninterested in stopping it. My parents, school administrators, my aunts and uncles, everyone told me to ignore it and they would stop. It did – when the school closed down and I transferred to public school. Going to public school was a bit of a relief – at least there they just called me horrible names and made fun of everything about me, but nobody beat me up.

    As you can imagine, it’s a big reason why I’ve chosen to homeschool. Great blog, BTW. Now off to check out Eat the Damn Cake – any excuse to eat cake is good for me!

  • So true. I can’t stand people who say it’s just a normal part of growing up. Not too long ago, being sexually harassed in the workplace was a “normal part of the job” for female employees, but now there are laws against it! If women deserve a safe and respectful workplace, don’t we owe children at least as much? After all, it’s not like they can choose to quit and go work someplace else if it gets intolerable. They’re stuck in that cinder-block prison eight hours a day, everyday, for their whole childhoods. It molds their perception of the world around them in a way that, unlike some adults, they don’t yet have the perspective to simply shrug off.

    If anyone today said “sexual harassment in the workplace is normal and a healthy part of the job for female employees”, that person would be ridiculed. Yet we still subject children to years of harassment (verbal, physical and yes, even sexual) and make the excuse that it “toughens them up” and tell them to suck it up? How callous and insulting is that? It’s not too much for a child to expect a safe, respectful environment to learn in. After all, it’s easier to raise healthy children than to repair broken adults.

  • gosh…so true isn’t it!

    I love the notion that my son can let life be his education …not out of a classroom (gosh I don’t think he sits still ever) and learning out of a book, when he could touch and smell and see and taste and feel his education seems so much more ALIVE and meaning ful to me.

    I was lucky to not really ever get bullied (except for the year that I was good friend with a girl who had cerebal palsy) I actually took a shot at a 4th grader who was picking on her)..grrr.

    dumb boys
    but I got teased a lot and a lot of was from my own brothers.

    funny world.

    I couldn’t fathom knowing my kids were being so horribly treated and we are no strangers to “it’s just kids…and it’s good for them” metality.


  • High School Student

    I’m a high school freshman in a rural area of the Midwest. Bullying is hard to pin down, just what it is, I mean. I’ve had lots of different things happened to me. I’ve been spat on, taunted mercilessly for being vegan, sexually harassed, talked to; I’ve had leaves thrown over my head, I’ve been hit, I’ve been silenced, I’ve been ignored; it’s been insinuated that I’m a lesbian because I identify as a feminist and I don’t have a boyfriend. I can’t say for sure if this has really impacted me negatively. Wait — yes, I can: it definitely has. I’ve always been a shy person, and I would say that this has definitely made me even MORE reserved. Conversely, being so inside myself has really helped me grow as a person — not that that’s any justification, of course. And I get that many kids aren’t as lucky as I am, as is exemplified by the suicide rates. I don’t really confide anything in my family, but I have a thirst for knowledge that gives me strenght and a couple of good friends on the Internet. That’s how I get by. Those kids that don’t have that… I’m so sad for them. Those kids who’ve had it beat into their heads that they’re worthless, that the world would be a better place without them. They’re so vulnerable that they don’t realize how awesome they are; they’re just convinced that nobody would even care if they died. But the whole world mourns.

    The thing is, most of the bullies — lots of times they genuinely don’t seem to understand that they’re being, well, giant bullies. “She is such a dirty whore,” or, “God, you’re a faggot”, or even shit like, “She never talks — it is BEYOND annoying; honestly I think the bitch thinks she’s better than everyone” (I hear the last one too much — what, I don’t have EARS now?) — nobody even considers the possibility that those might be hurtful.

    We absolutely can make government-mandated reforms until we’re blue in the face, but nothing will change unless we have a societal overhaul about we perceive bullying. Kids who are just too “sissy” to take being beaten up and torn down are “sissy”; they’re responding in a perfectly human way. Learning to deal with being pissed on every day of your fucking life isn’t something anyone should have to do, because no one should be hurt like that, ever. As for the kids who can [deal with it], well, we end up cynical and jaded and bitter and suspicious and pissed as hell. Or at least I have. And I still have three and a half years of high school left! Joy!

    But with programs like “Love Our Children USA”, “Stomp Out Bullying”, and “It Gets Better”, I have a small glimmer of hope for the future.

    In the same vein, I was just flipping through the current issue of Seventeen Magazine (mocking it for the patriarchy-promoting, esteem-crushing bullshit that it is) and was about to submit this comment, when I saw an article about this girl who was teased so mercilessly about her nose (and told to ignore it; that it’d go away) that, after three years, she decided to get a nose job. At which point, she was bagged on with renewed vigor for getting the nose job. Don’t even know how to articulate my thoughts on this.

    I’m enjoying this new blog, Kate!

  • High School Student

    Um… the “talked to” was supposed to be, “talked DOWN to,” haha.

    • Reading this comment from a fellow high school student’s perspective just makes me so mad at some of the people in our generation – and, well, in other generations too. I’m older than you (I’m a sophomore) and I’m in the GSA at my school. It hasn’t really taken off; the concepts and activities that we introduce to our classmates aren’t taken seriously and nobody really thinks about the beliefs behind it. Prejudices exist and it makes me angry.

      • Claire Allison

        High School student: In a way, bullying does make you stronger, but it also scars you in unexpected ways. I got bullied until I learned to fight back, but every now and then I freak out because I perceive antagonism from another person. Today I came home and found myself in tears because a woman in my graduate class was giving me dirty looks all day. It scared me because where I grew up dirty looks meant you were going to get your ass kicked after class. It triggers my fear of the bullying- which is not going to happen but still makes me feel like I’m 13 again. I never reached out to my family and it took me until I was 23 to seek professional help when I was in a dangerous work place bullying situation. You need to tell your family, if for no other reason than to have them to help you cope with the feelings. Those feelings will fester for years if you let them. Don’t let yourself be terrified of dirty looks nine years from now.

        • High School Student

          Claire Allison — I’m sorry that you were bullied so severely in high school and that it contines to affect you as an adult; however, not only do my mother and I not get along (to say the least, haha), I also don’t think that what has happened to me is severe enough to tell anyone about it. I know that I cited instances of sexual harassment and being spat on, but those things happened… a while ago. I fully realize that I may sound as though I’m in denial. I just don’t personally believe that I need help. There are many children who are bullied who DO need help, though, and I would never dream of discouraging them or telling them to suck it up. I guess I’m often more isolated than I am bullied, people don’t know me, they have preconceived notions of me, and therefore aren’t interested in being my friend. Which is fine. I have a small group of friends, most of whom are older, that I enjoy being around. And that’s good enough for me. I just don’t have deep connections with many of them, and this is due to the fact that I’m a little socially awkward and just generally we don’t share the same interests. I am hoping very much that once I go to college I will meet real friends. But for now, I’m fine. Thank you for your advice though. :) Best, Josie

      • High School Student

        We have two openly gay students at our high school. No GSA. The thought of a GSA group even being allowed to FORM here makes me laugh (bitterly). I’m sorry that your group has not taken off. There are definitely ridiculous prejudices about, well, pretty much EVERY minority group, but I think that gay students have it especially hard, just because there’s that general fear-mongered hatred of them just because people can’t get it. I’ve honestly never understood why gay is considered gross. So many students gag when they hear the word gay, or get all freaked out because they’re (genuinely?) concerned that the person in question wants to rape them. Um, no, I’m pretty sure that when you’re that conceited, nobody of either sex wants to have sex with you. Really.

        There are so many double standards here at Heights. The most recent example I can think of is this: I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the anti-choice group Abort73, but there’s a group of Abort73 “pro-life” students here. A month or so ago, they had an event at which they passed out cupcakes at lunch to celebrate (mourn?) the “birtdays of all the babies who were never born because their promiscuous mothers made the selfish choice to murder them (sic).” Which I personally found highly offensive, being that I am adamantly pro-abortion. But I’m like, “Okay, fine, constitutional rights, chill out, just ignore them.” But then I made the mistake of asking our principal if a pro-choice group would be allowed here, and oh, but it was an enlightening talk! She goes, “No.” That’s all she says. Me: But why not? Her: Because the idea that it’s morally accept to murder children might be offensive to some staff and students here, and overall, it’s just not a positive message. Me: *dumbfounded crickets* Nobody ever stops to consider that maybe, just MAYBE, there is someone in the whole of this godforsaken school that finds the notion that women DON’T have full human rights and bodily autonomy offensive. Maybe. But I don’t matter. My beliefs don’t count, ’cause I’m a heartless feminazi vegan atheist freak, right? It’s the reason that PEP (Peers Educating Peers, aka anti-women, Christian-centric, slut-shaming, “pro-life” “sex education” program) members are glorified (mind you, most of whom are total hypocrites, as in they spend their weekends at parties having sex and getting high and then they turn around and preach to our impressionable youth that all men can’t control themselves and that the sole value of a woman lies in the purity of her vagina) while those of us who vie for REAL, comprehensive, EFFECTIVE sex education are ignored. Abstinence-only education. And my school wonders why we have the highest pregnancy rate of any school in the district? Jeez. My point, I think, is that discrimination is so arbitrary and pointless. Hispanic students get a lot of shit here,too. It’ hard to combat.

        Sorry for the length; I’m procrastinating baking cookies, haha! :)

        • Wow. Just wow. I’m HIGHLY impressed by you. As a former homeschooler and yes, kind of a snob about it, I have to admit that I’m amazed to see a “school kid” write as well as you do and communicate so passionately. Here’s the weird thing about frustration and adversity: I think they CAN make us more passionate about being good people and doing what we believe in, if only just to spite everyone who wants to tear us down for it, but it takes a special kind of person to take all the potatoes life gives them and make potato salad (or take all the shit and make shit salad, if you prefer — a la “Death to Smoochy”). Maybe that’s what people mean when they say “A little bullying is good for you,” but most people who experience bullying and ostracism (including most of the people who say it’s good for you) never “rise above” — they just become bitter, small-minded turds who turn around and identify with the aggressor by passing it on to others. So it’s rather disingenuous for them to claim it’s good for you, when in their minds, that just means it’ll make you like THEY are!

          Dealing with some of the hypocrisies and double-standards in our society is absolutely maddening, and I wish I could tell you it gets easier, but I don’t want to lie to you! But don’t let them beat you down. I could bore you to death with a long rant about the psychology of the “mediocretins” and how they NEED to tear down and/or cast out anyone who is different and exceptional, because such people are constant reminders to them of their own hopeless mediocrity! And how about the way they pat themselves on the backs for being such “unique individuals” while they hide behind the same Abercrombie hoodies and Nike shoes as all their friends and put down the kid who’s REALLY different — and not different because he/she has to WORK at it the way THEY do, or because he/she thinks it’s “cool” to be different. Being truly different and your own person is a hard, lonely road to walk, and most people just don’t have the guts to be anything more than Disney Different™! But I have a feeling you’ve been over and over all that in your head already. All I can say is this: when you find yourself being hassled by small-minded hypocrites, just remember, it could be worse. You could be one of them.

  • Jo

    Super excited for this blog. Love your other one too!

    I was homeschooled, and went to public school during high school. I was straight-out bullied in public school, but I could make other friends. With the homeschool kids who bullied there wasn’t any way around it. But I still totally get the advantages (I think I’m slightly more confident and more well educated than my peers because of the individual attention and self sufficiency).

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  • Corny

    It’s not good for you in the slightest.

    Go to middle school. It’s a private K-8 school; you’ve known these people since kindergarten, which sounds nice, but in reality is a recipe for cliques. Cut your hair short–above-the-ears short–and dress like a tomboy. Suddenly you’re gay.
    You go to a religious school; no 6th graders know anything about “being gay.” It is a horrible crime. You hear about guys being gay–in books, the edgier ones that aren’t technically in the middle school section, and on the radio sometimes–but never girls.
    You don’t think you’re gay. Who cares? It doesn’t make a difference.
    You are mocked every day. You have three friends, all awkward, but much more popular than you could ever be. Everything you do is weird. Some days you can’t walk down the hall without getting shoved. Some days people keep kicking your chair in class.
    Some days it’s worse than that.

    Fortunately you go to a different high school than most of these people, but you still see them. They go on to become starting-line football players on a team that wins a state title.

    You hear their names frequently, always subjects of praise. Nobody bullies you anymore, but you hear the names. And you see them. And this is the shadow you live under for four years.

    Nobody bullies you anymore, and your hair is how you like it, and your orientation is now irrelevant. You know who you are. But you’ve lived under this shadow for so long that you don’t know who you are without it. Sometimes–too many times–you had to shut yourself off from feeling in order to survive, literally to survive, and now, even though you’re safe, you still are shut off too many times.

    And that’s the middle school experience.

  • Excellent post. I was bullied in middle school. My stepsons who go to public school were severely bullied in middle school. My bio kids homeschool and their experiences have been much different. It is so sad that bullying happens but seems to be the way of the world – make other people feel like crap so you can feel better about yourself. Sad and glad that my kids are not going to have to go through those experiences.

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