[ETA: apologies for the long-ass post. I wrote it over a week and with great care, hoping to get it right. This is an issue I feel strongly about and would love to generate more critical, thoughtful dialogue around. The next few posts will be bite-sized, I promise, to make up for it ;)]
The topic of bullying has come up a lot lately and has taken up much of my mental real estate. The term "bullying" never sat right with me and I had to give it a good sitdown to figure out why. I guess it reminds me a bit of how the AIDS crisis didn't become a CRISIS until Rock Hudson or Magic Johnson came out with it. And then suddenly it had a name and a face that brought it home. Before then, it was countless folks in the gay community, and masses of black and brown people in Africa and India who were dying silently from a disease no one wanted to talk about.
That's how this bullying thing feels to me. Kids have been bullied forever. It's about abuse of power - something children learn is a sanctioned practice in our world. In the world around them, wealthy nations bully those nations with less monetary wealth by bringing them to their knees with debt and impossible-to-repay loans. In the world around our young people, women are bullied into living up to impossible standards of beauty - sometimes carving themselves up, or dying on operating tables to achieve those standards. Working parents are bullied into putting in too many hours for not enough pay while their children are in the hands of inadequate, underfunded childcare. Same-sex couples who've been together for decades are denied basic spousal rights. This is the world we live in with our children, and many are taught it is a right and just world where everything is fine. That nothing needs to be questioned and nothing needs to be challenged.
I think of some of the most recent cases of bullying to have made headlines--all ending in suicide or murder, after relentless abuse by their peers: Reena Virk, murdered; Matthew Shepard, murdered; Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, suicide; Brandon Teena (upon whose story the film Boys Don't Cry was based), murdered; and most recently, Phoebe Prince, suicide. A brown girl, a gay white teen, a black middle-schooler (taunted for being gay), a lesbian reportedly planning sexual reassignment surgery, and an Irish female immigrant, respectively. Children are very astute. They record every detail and reflect it back. They learn early what is considered valuable in their world and what is devalued. They learn early what they can get away with devaluing and what they will be punished for devaluing. They learn, too, how to use their own power in the ways they see power being used and abused around them.
In every case I've read about bullying, and in my own experience, there were those adults and authority figures who were complicit in the bullying by either turning the other way, or tacitly approving the victimization. And then, of course, there are the systemic infrastructures that privilege some with unearned power over others while never requiring the privileged to acknowledge or even recognize their privilege - lulling them into believing that it is not only deserved, but right. And that those who don't have privilege don't deserve it or haven't earned it.
When I was growing up, we were all bullied - only then we called it racism, and our parents dared not name it for fear of any number of repercussions. Today, my eight-year-old gets bullied and there are "This Is A No-Bullying Zone" signs in the halls of her school. And yet, she is still bullied, and she's not the only one. I've talked to other parents as we agonized over how to deal with it. The toughest part is that, like many of her classmates, she often seeks the approval of the girls who treat her the worst. She wants to be liked by the girls who don't like her. Despite all our efforts at home, she looks out into the world and sees no reflection of her fierce little self. And then believes she's less-than. She comes home and wants to be blonde because, until last year, there were no brown princesses. And when I read about cases like Reena Virk's and Brandon Teena's, I wonder whether seeking approval from the very folks who view you as "lesser" is a common dynamic. And I think - why wouldn't it be, especially as children move up into middle and high school where social acceptance is survival?
So I stopped looking at the issue in terms of "how to stop bullying". I thought, instead, of that classic case of bullying - where a woman is married to a man who beats her. Again, here is a woman who wants to be liked - or in this case, loved - by someone who sees her as less-than. And I thought back to my days in shelters and on hotlines and at demonstrations...what did we do? What were the steps we took?
It was a multi-pronged, grassroots, bottom-up approach. We addressed the issue on many levels: personal, social, political, and economic. The first thing was to empower the woman. She had to believe she was valuable and worthy of better relationships. Next was to present her with options, while working to create more options (shelters, childcare, hotlines, etc.). Then, there was becoming a vocal advocate for women's rights and working, in whatever capacity, for systemic change; finding lawyers who would take pro-bono cases; creating childcare co-ops; and finding or creating affordable housing for single mothers. This wasn't about blaming the victim - it was about focusing on the woman who, very often, up until that point, was functioning in a system that considered her voiceless and unimportant--and empowering her. Then, there was lobbying for stricter punishments and laws for offenders. But this was *at the same time* as building the self-esteem of women and girls who were in abusive relationships and helping them to spot red flags before tragedy.
When I put this in the context of bullying or peer-terrorism among teens, I see how a multi-pronged approach could also be effective. So first, we start with empowering the kids who are easy targets - kids who are quiet, seen as different in some way, who don't fit easily into the mainstream. These would most likely be children and teens of colour, children and teens who don't fit into culturally accepted notions of "feminine" and "masculine", working class kids, etc. We help them find their voices. We help them see that even if their own parents don't see the beauty in them, there is great beauty there. Beauty worth defending and fighting for.
Perhaps this is where children's/MG/YA writers come in. Those of us who stir a little bit of activism into our work (whether we call it that or not) have been giving voice to the silenced since we started putting stories out into the world. It's part of what motivates us and the reason our writing is so important to us. It's the reason the Judy Blumes and S.E. Hintons meant so much to me when I was growing up - they created worlds where girls like me were okay, when we weren't okay in our own worlds. And it's the reason getting under-represented and marginalized voices into print, in the media, and in cultural products is so important. More stories means more perspectives means lots of different values out there.
Next, we present options. Maybe we set up a station at school where anyone who feels truly threatened can go with guaranteed privacy to talk to a qualified professional--a bullying expert of sorts. Someone well-versed in the issues, who has been trained to spot red flags and offer real support and solutions. Or maybe there's a hotline set up for teens and pre-teens to call anonymously if they know something is in the works or being planned against a fellow classmate; and for those who are going through bullying to call and talk to a supportive listener who can offer resources and places to turn if the adults around them aren't listening.
Then, becoming a vocal advocate for the rights of those children and teens who fall outside the margins and working toward systemic change. Again, authors, writers, agents, editors, booksellers, librarians, and other gatekeepers in the publishing industry can play a significant role here. In recent years, there have been more books by people of colour, LGBTQ writers, and working class authors than when I was coming up, but we have a long way to go. Part of empowering young people is to show them reflections of themselves as powerful, valuable, important members of their communities - no less deserving of privilege, love, wealth, dignity and respect than their peers. I know from experience that stories do that. Stories heal and mend and expand. Stories in books, stories in the news, stories in film, on television and in magazines. It's part of the reason I started writing to begin with. I read stories that showed me More. Showed me hope and possibility and another way of being. And I still believe there are those in the publishing industry who are in this for more than just the profit motive - those agents (like mine!), editors, booksellers, etc., who are committed to the young people they serve. The young people we all serve.
Carrie Jones and Megan Kelley Hall recently started Young Adult Authors Against Bullying on Facebook. While I haven't joined the group (this deserves a more complicated post on my relationship with Fb), I whole-heartedly support their efforts. Where some of us might have called it "the way things are" at one point, the issue now has a name--a place to begin. And that helps all our children. In a world of power ab/use where we are pitted against one another in complex ways, addressing power inequities has to start somewhere - and with young minds.