Monday, October 15, 2012

On Bullying

Like many middle school kids, my son is wearing pink today. He's wearing it in support of Amanda Todd, the BC teen who committed suicide last week after a relentless campaign by bullies and after her own cries for help went unheeded.

I heard someone on the radio this morning say she wondered what would have happened if dozens and hundreds of kids had worn pink last Monday instead. Would Amanda still be alive and have hope?

The answer may be Whitney Kropp. The Michigan teen was elected to the homecoming court of her high school -- but it was a prank, done by bullies who thought it would be hilarious. Like Amanda, Whitney felt crushed by the mockery -- but then local businesses supported her by providing a dress, shoes, flowers. Her parents and siblings stood alongside her, literally and figuratively. 145,000 people have joined a Facebook group called Support Whitney. She stood proud and beautiful at her school's homecoming, surrounded by friends, family, media and some confused and hopefully chagrined bullies.

Standing up against bullies and for the bullied is hard. I know this because I failed to do it last week.

Last week, I was at the dog park in the evening, as usual. One dog owner called out a teenaged dog owner for not watching and scooping after his dog. The teenager cleaned up after the dog and then went back to playing with his friends, ignoring the dog, who left behind another steaming pile.

This happens sometimes at the dog park. The general protocol is that you call to the owner -- "Hey! I think Lucky left you a present." The kindest of dog owners clean up after other dogs.

But when the dog in question had left a second pile behind, the dog owner who had observed both offerings chewed out the teenager. And I mean chewed out. Shamed. There was no literal nose-rubbing -- but I'm sure it felt like it.

I stood there with my daughter and let it happen. I felt sick. I felt confused. What the dog owner was saying was actually true but the way it was said was horrible. I had no idea what to say. Anything I could think to say sounded aggressive and nasty. I watched the teen clean up the poop and then sink to the ground, slouched, no longer playing.

My kids were so angry with me for not saying anything -- and I had no defense. They were right -- I should have stood up for the teen. My one child suggested I say, "Back off," to the dog owner, but I couldn't imagine myself saying that. Finally, days later, someone suggested I could have said, "I think he gets the point." That would have worked.

I saw an encounter on The Big Bang Theory where someone insulted Sheldon. He replied something like this, "I'm not saying anything right now, but you'd better watch your inbox carefully for the next few weeks, because eventually I will send you a scathing rebuttal." That's kind of how I felt. And the thing is that I'm pretty good with words and I'm an adult.

What about kids who lack language to speak up? who feel powerless against powerful kids? And here I mean both the victims and the bystanders.

The teen's mom spoke up a few days ago -- when she figured out who the other dog owner was. The other dog owner protested that the teen must be overly sensitive. The mom firmly and quietly held her ground.

The best I could do was to talk to the mom afterwards, to tell her that I had seen the incident, that the teen's account had been correct. To apologize for not speaking up.

But that isn't true. The best I can do is to speak to the teen and to apologize, to name what happened to him --by the bully and me, the bystander -- as wrong. I could wear pink today but instead I think I will try to do more what was done for Whitney and what, sadly, was not done for Amanda.

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