When I was in middle school, I was bullied rather relentlessly. People mocked me for how I dressed, how I did my hair, how I smelled, for being ‘smart,’ for what I did, for where I lived, for who I was. My middle school life was a period of endless torment, scurrying between halls, taking refuge in the library. I know that people saw it; I know teachers saw it, I know administrators did, but no one did anything. I was spat on and had my hair pulled and people ‘accidentally’ spilled hot drinks on me and no one did anything.
Eventually, the middle school counselor intervened, and I ended up spending the bulk of my time in the counselor’s office. I basically had a free pass to go there whenever I wanted, which meant that, essentially, I showed up at school, went to the counselor’s office, and stayed there all day. I got bladder infections because I was too afraid to use the bathroom, and then I got sick because I got dehydrated from not drinking any water so I could avoid the bladder infections.
The counselor thought about the possibility of seeing if I could skip two grades and enter the alternative high school. The middle school supported it, the high school didn’t, and that’s when I basically just stopped going to school. For the remainder of my sixth grade year, and most of seventh and eighth grade, I wasn’t in school. I showed up intermittently to take tests and hand in work.
The weird thing about all this was that everyone seemed completely ok with it. The truant officer was never called, to my knowledge no one called my father. I drifted in, took some tests and handed out a flurry of papers, and then left again. For two and a half years. Sometimes I showed up just to visit my girlfriend and she and I would sit in the counselor’s office for a while, and then I would leave again.
This was the school’s response to my bullying; first to sequester me in the counseling office, and then, effectively, to let me voluntarily withdraw from school. People, I stopped going to school. It’s not like I went to school and then hid, or took refuge in classrooms during breaks, I just. Stopped. Going. And somehow managed to get good marks nonetheless. It was like a quiet conspiracy to make as little fuss as possible about the fact that a student felt so unsafe and so unhappy that not going to school became the only choice.
Dealing with bullying in school is a complicated issue. It’s not simple. There is no prescription I can write to say ‘this is how we should deal with bullying.’ But I do know that the way it was dealt with in my case was not appropriate. It was wrong, even. The school did not take the right approach and I suffered for it. As, in turn, did my classmates. Being confronted about their behaviour and being forced to deal with me in a school setting might have changed things not just for me, but for them, too.
Because those same people who bullied me, they grew into abusive people in high school, and some of them became abusive adults. I see them in the police log, the court report now and then; domestic violence. Drunk driving. Any number of other things. Many of them grew up in households with patterns of violence and abuse, they took that to school, and they carried that through the rest of their lives because the school let them do it.
It’s hard for me to take a position of complete empathy for people who are bullies in school, as someone who was bullied, but it’s also hard for me to pretend that there aren’t a lot of factors going on here. Bullying and abuse are cycles and they are hard to break out of. When students in school are bullying, teasing, mocking, abusing other students, that doesn’t mean they are inherently bad people, and it doesn’t mean they are irreparably damaged or innately evil. Often, it means that they need help. Not always. Some people come from perfectly fine young lives and decide to be bullies anyway, and that’s a great shame and a travesty.
Thinking back on why the school didn’t do anything about my bullying, about my decision to leave school, I can’t help but wonder if a small part of that wasn’t rooted in a desire to not confront whatever was going on with the bullies. If the school thought that by pretending that it was isolated to one person, that it was all my fault, that I attracted the abuse, if they thought that thinking that way would give them a pass on not addressing the obviously serious issues in the home lives of the people who were bullying me.
There was a tendency, in Mendo, and there still is, to pretend like this is a supernice community where nothing bad ever happens and people are never mean and everything is just beautiful and fine and dandy. Often, that results in complete erasure of people who are experiencing abuse, because to admit that we exist is to admit that there is a problem, and to admit that the people who are abusing us are also victims of abuse is to admit that there is a systemic issue, that these are not isolated cases.
My school district failed me, but it also failed those kids, and that’s a crying shame.