As adults, we all remember the stories of our lives – fond recollections, and those we’d rather put behind us. They are all there, and when we hear heart-breaking stories about bullying now, in the present, it brings to mind some of our own memories. I remember. I remember fearing bus time at my little school because that’s when it would happen. If I close my eyes, I can still feel the cool brick wall of the school as I was being pushed into it. I can smell his sour breath on me as this older, big boy told me how much he hated me, how dumb he thought I was….and how he’d hurt me if I told anyone about his advances. And I believed him. The grip he had on me was so tight that it was years before I told my parents about him. I should have asked for their help much, much earlier, when I was that terrified eight year old kid. They and my teachers would have helped me. I just didn’t think I should ask. Those were the days before anti-bullying programs, but bullies have been around forever.
And as it turned out, years later this same person received a prestigious service award at our high school, and while everyone was applauding, I could only feel those bricks of the school against my shoulder. It was all I could do to recognize that this boy had turned his life around, and that I too had changed, becoming strong and independent. I realized that forgiveness was much, much harder than we think it should be. But sometimes it is just the one thing you swear you will never do that is the one thing you have to do.
When I think about bullying, then, I have my story. It is always there, even after all these years, but the one positive thing it does is allow me to measure all my other school stories against it. As I measure my other experiences of friendship, academics, family, sports, arts, and community, I can more easily sift through what experiences served to make me stronger, what helped me achieve greater independence, which were ones that challenged me to be my own person, and which challenged me to advocate for others. Mainly the stories of disappointment taught me as much about myself as the stories of accomplishment. As tough as it may be, these are simply life stories. It’s how we learn.
I would never want any of my students to go through what I did as a kid, and it’s heartbreaking to think of all those children who have stories much worse than mine. Far from the old schoolyard bully with his physical abuse and taunts, it’s catapulted to an anonymous craft of technological expertise. It’s so frightening for parents and therefore tempting to shield our children from all hurts, but we all know every day life is full of ups and downs. In the ‘old days’ there seemed to be a tougher stance parents took on getting involved in their children’s friend issues – or maybe that’s just what it seemed to me. There now exists a real danger of adults becoming so consumed with the pursuit of permanent happiness for our children – making sure their lives are rolling along smoothly, shielding them from inevitable disappointments – that children are denied the opportunity to learn, grow and handle their disappointments with skills they develop within those same very tough times. Independence, grace, strength, compassion, empathy – these are traits that don’t magically appear on demand. They grow from knowledge gained from all life experiences, not just the good ones. It’s the adult job to guide those experiences, not to smooth them over, and in doing so we give our kids both independence and compassion. Maybe then we can see the end to that cold brick wall.