When the Bullied Win
Published in ChicagoNow, October 30, 2013
Many years ago, a boy in middle school shared his anguish with me over being bullied. He was subjected to the usual: taunting, teasing, shoves into lockers, prank phone calls, and even some cyber-bullying (which was in its infancy back then). His life was an episode of Glee minus the slushies. I’ll never forget what he told me.
He shared that he didn’t expect to be friends with his tormentors. He knew they had nothing in common, and he didn’t aspire to be socially included or have many friends. All he hoped for was to be invisible to them. And he also wished the teachers at his school would occasionally step in to curb the abuse. Such meager wishes. It angered and saddened me.
As I reflect back on my years as the parent of three middle school students, I remember many cruel episodes of bullying and intimidation. The boys tended to be physical and overt. The queen bee girls (see Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees & Wannabes) were even crueler, pressuring girls who knew better into excluding and psychologically wounding arbitrary targets to maintain their status with the socially desirable group. I often thought my kids spent more time worrying about where to sit at lunch than learning anything.
Why some girls were targeted was always a mystery to me. Yes, some were “different” but many seemed like typical young teens to my naïve eyes. They were attractive, dressed well, were smart enough (but not too smart), and seemed socially competent, but they somehow became girls who were excluded and tormented.
One of my daughters told me about a classmate who had stopped coming to school. She said the girl was being bullied and threatened. She felt badly but feared she would receive the same treatment if she said anything. The Queen Bee proclaimed that if this girl came to school on her birthday, it would end up being the unhappiest day of her life, and she would wish she were dead. Horrified, I tried to talk to my daughter’s English teacher who had this girl in her class. The teacher admitted she had seen this behavior but there was nothing she could do. Her job was to teach English. The social worker knew about it and was “taking care of it.” The girl ultimately transferred to a private school and eventually moved to another state. Hopefully, she was not singled out for abuse in these new settings.
For parents of children who are bullied, it can feel like a nightmare that will never end. With my 20/20 hindsight, I can assure them that kids whose popularity peeks in middle school never ends up at the top of the heap. The “brawn and beauty” of a thirteen year old often fade before the end of high school. The guys will not play professional sports. The girls will not end up on a reality show. Some of these bullies have underlying psychological problems that will surface later in life. At some point in high school, they may be disappointed to learn that their bullying targets have surpassed them in every way. In my highly unscientific survey of those middle school bullies, I have yet to see one who ended up being a successful adult.
Back to my bullied boy who wished he could be invisible. Life did get better. In high school he had a couple of good friends who also liked math and science. He went to a good college where he had an even larger circle of friends. Then he attended graduate school, earned a Ph.D., and found a girlfriend. Life is looking pretty good for him now.
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, "Out of life's school of war: what does not destroy me, makes me stronger." While I do not think anyone deserves to be bullied for any reason, this young man not only survived, he thrived. He became a compassionate, kind, empathic adult who no longer wishes he were invisible.