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A long time ago we used to be friends

October 10, 2010

I went outside this morning to dump the contents of AJ’s water bottle from yesterday’s football game onto the broccoli plants I’m growing in containers on the deck, and discovered there were more holes than leaf. I crouched down to get a closer look and then did what I always do when I make a scientific discovery: I called AJ.

AJ came out and helped me find all the tiny green caterpillars I started pulling off the leaves with caterpillars on them, but AJ protested. He thinks we should leave the caterpillar nursery. I was charmed by his concern until I started to wonder how his feelings about broccoli might have come into play.

* * * * *

I am holed up in bed today. I am trying to shake this flu that has been plaguing me since I got my flu shot early last week. I’ve been trying to ignore it. But after spending several hours running around the perimeter of a football field with a video camera in the heat, I collapsed in bed where I made the mistake of discovering that the entire series of Veronica Mars is on hulu. I hope to be back among the living shortly.

In between naps and episodes of Veronica Mars, I’ve been thinking about this article on the rise in mean girl bullying. The article implies that this kind of behavior is starting younger than it used to, but I’m not sure I agree. This was certainly around when I was a kid — I was a target of such bullying in first and second grade. I remember being really excited when a new girl moved into the school and I wasn’t the new kid anymore. We were friends for a couple of days until the alpha girls took her in and she turned on me too. But I don’t recall thinking of it as bullying. I thought of it as…school. I had friends among the other outcasts of the alpha group. And I had a strong enough sense of myself not to take it too personally.

In fourth grade, when I moved to a different school in a different country, I was amazed to find that school didn’t have to be like that. At the American School in London, I found myself among other kids who moved just as much — often more — as I did. We were all strangers in a strange land. Kids moved in and out all the time. You never knew when your best friend was going to be gone. So everyone was on the same side. Sure, you had good friends, but the exclusiveness wasn’t there. It was a charmed time. I had many good friends who came and went. There was one girl, though, with whom I didn’t get along at all. We fought, she did mean things, I probably did some back. She reminded me of some of the bullies back home. But without the exclusivity of cliques, it wasn’t bullying. It was just two people who didn’t get along.

A few years later, when I was middle school age, I moved back to the same town where I’d spent my first years of elementary school. But by then, I just didn’t give a damn what the other kids thought of me. I had a best friend — still a good friend to this day — and a circle of smart, interesting girls to talk to. The others just didn’t matter anymore. They were easier to ignore. In some freakish coincidence, the girl I fought with in London moved to the same town and the same school just a few weeks after I did. But this time, we were the ones who had things in common with each other — we were both new, both coming from another country, both trying to make friends. So we started to talk. And we never fought again. Over time, we even became friends.

In light of the recent headlines of teen suicides, I’m not sure I want to come down on the side of bullying. There is bullying and then there is BULLYING. These stories are awful. But the response has been “we must eliminate bullying among teens!” And I’m not sure that’s the way to go for two reasons: 1) bullying will happen anyway and 2) dare I say it? it may not always a terrible thing. I’m not talking about the kind of bullying that makes headlines — putting illicit videos of sexual encounters on the internet, vicious beatings or even certain kinds of rumor-spreading. I’m talking about mean girls. The spreading of relatively tame rumors, the exclusion from groups or events. These are not nice behaviors and I absolutely think we should be teaching our children that these things are wrong. But I also think being on the receiving end of such behaviors was ultimately character defining for me. It gave me a stronger sense of myself and of who I am. It taught me resilience and resourcefulness. And it taught me that underdogs are worth fighting for. Don’t get me wrong, the exclusion and rumors hurt. But I learned to get by, to get through, to trust myself. Maybe we need to be focusing more on teaching children how to survive bullying, how to respond and on helping them to feel more comfortable in their own skins. It benefits both bullies and victims to learn to think of each other as people with strengths and weaknesses and the ability to change.

I think some of this is why the character of Veronica Mars has always appealed to me. Mars, too, finds her sense of self when she is cast out of the in crowd. She gains a social conscience and the ability to make friends across a wide swath of her community, something others seem unable to accomplish. And while she certainly misses some of what she’s lost, she seems to have gained something she values even more — herself.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. freshhell permalink
    October 10, 2010 12:19 pm

    I hope you feel better soon. Maybe the shot will at least shorten the duration and severity of it.

    The elementary school here has a whole anti-bullying program with multiple steps that was thoroughly explained at Back to School night. I don’t think there is a big problem with bullies, though there’s always a couple in any crowd of kids, but to nip it in the bud. Neither of my kids are victims (can you imagine someone trying to bully Red?) as far as I’m aware but it’s nice to know grown ups are paying serious attention to the problem. There wasn’t anything like that when I was young. You were on your own.

  2. October 10, 2010 12:39 pm

    Not only were you on your own but I think a lot kids didn’t even consider telling an adult. I’m guessing that’s still the case. But for there to be conversation about it is a very good thing.

  3. October 10, 2010 12:53 pm

    Character forming, yes. I would not be who I am now if it hadn’t been for the bullies in grade school, middle school and, yes, college. High school was actually a charmed time for me. I have made my choice of friends, choice of men- choice of politics even -based on my attitudes formed via bullying. And yes, some of it was bullying in the old fashioned really cruel way-more than the exclusion and rumors. So yes, maybe some of it I am better off for having experienced. Was it good for me though? I can’t go that far. I still wear the scars from too much of it.

    All we can do is teach our children to respect the inherent worth and dignity of everyone and everything. Even the broccoli caterpillars. Compromise by making a nursery… in a jar.

  4. October 10, 2010 7:06 pm

    I have no experience with bullying, and my kids haven’t either so far. I wonder if a certain level of obliviousness helps to deflect a lot of that kind of behavior. You have to care to be effectively bullied.

  5. Elizabeth permalink
    October 11, 2010 7:10 am

    Watching my children get picked on in elementary school was far harder for me than me getting picked on at the same age. But I do think if our children never experience any difficulties at home then they are not at all equipped to handle those difficulties once they leave and we aren’t there to hold their hands. So I mostly listened and tried to comfort my boys.

    Jill, I would never characterize someone going through an awful situation as good for that person. Valuable lessons may be learned, sure, but that doesn’t make the experience good for you.

  6. October 11, 2010 10:05 am

    On rereading this, I think I still sound more like I’m condoning bullying than I meant to. To clarify: we need to do whatever we can to eliminate bullying. But I do object to what I feel like is a culture of victimization. What may help even more than trying to eliminate bullies — because I don’t believe that is possible; there will always be bullies — is to empower kids to respond. To give them information and support that allows them to count on themselves. We can’t predict if/when/how our kids will be affected by bullies. But we can anticipate and teach them how to take action, how to gain strength rather than weakness from the situation. What Jeanne says is correct, I think. Within the range of more pedestrian bullying (I’m not talking about hate crimes, physical violence, etc) whether or not a kid is bullied is partly about that kid’s attitude and sense of self-worth. If you have a strong sense of self, things roll off you more easily. And if you care less, you are less likely to be a repeat target. I wouldn’t wish my experiences with bullying on my son. But neither do I wish them away. They are an important part of who I am. Is that clearer?

  7. readersguide permalink
    October 11, 2010 1:57 pm

    Hmmm. I read that article, too. One thing that struck me was that the parents of the bullies were described as awful themselves. They thought it was great that their kids were popular. And that the kids likely to be picked on were ones whose parents encouraged age-appropriate behavior. That all is exactly the way it seemed to me watching N and M’s social encounters over the years. I also agree that once you don’t care about the bullies, you are no longer their target. But moving to a new school is likely to make you a target, since you sort of have to be friends with someone — you have to eat lunch with someone. So you sort of do care, whether you want to or not. This I remember from my own childhood, and it’s why I did not want to move the kids when they were growing up, I think. I remember liking high school a lot, because by then I somehow didn’t care, and I had found a community of smart interesting kids, to quote Harriet, and there was the prospect of getting out and going to college, which was also sure to be populated by smart interesting kids. For some reason, though, my kids’ high school days were not as happy. They weren’t bullied, but the cliques and kids with awful parents were pretty much everywhere, and there wasn’t that same community of not-caring smart interesting kids. I don’t really know why this is. Maybe it’s the times, or maybe it’s just the town I live in. Maybe a more mainstream town would have fewer pushy awful parents? A mystery. Anyway, for both of them college seems to be a much happier experience.

  8. October 11, 2010 2:08 pm

    Well said. Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace. Thanks for sharing!

  9. October 11, 2010 3:00 pm

    I’m back to read this post again, and to read the comments on it. Thought-provoking: thanks.

  10. crankygirl permalink
    October 12, 2010 9:56 am

    I glanced through the article and cringed. I’ve been reading a lot about small children who try to bully other children AND their parents. I said to my mom, “I guess I’m not allowed to say ‘get out of my face you effing brat’ ” sigh.

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