Crying out for life: bullying and teen suicide

Girl with gun to head

 

The other night, I took my son to an information session at the Doubletree Hotel in Roswell, Georgia.  We took Georgia 400 up to Holcomb Bridge Road, where we passed the apartments where I’d lived with my parents from 1980 to 1982 or so.  As we turned on to Holcomb Bridge, I looked up the long, long road and remembered walking it every day during the fourth grade.

The reason I walked that route (Google Maps says it was just over 2 miles) every day was because of a girl. Her name was Misha, and she was a year older than me, and she was a bully. Every day for the first month of the fourth grade, Misha and her sidekick Toni would wait until I got off the bus in the afternoon, then proceed to knock me down, punch me, throw my books into the street.

“She’s doing it because she likes you,” adults said.

Never let it be said that adults know or understand anything.

The fact is, at ten years old I was terrified to ride the school bus home. Because I knew what was coming. So, along with my best friend Billy, I finally started walking home from school every day, a two-mile walk down a busy, dangerous thoroughfare and back into our apartments.

It’s unlikely my parents knew this was going on: at the time, both of them were working in downtown Atlanta, and they rarely got home before six or seven pm.  I couldn’t go to my big brother for help, because at the time being around him was just as terrifying.

Fighting Back

A few years later, we’d moved into another apartment complex, this one in Buckhead. It was eight grade, and I was dealing with yet another bully, a troubled, volatile kid named Weston. On the bus coming home, he taunted me for my goofy K-Mart clothes. He taunted me for no reason at all.  And when we got off the bus, he’d push me down, and several times he punched me in the face without warning.

But this time things were different.

One day I got off the bus, and I shouted at him. I told him he wasn’t going to do it anymore, that he’d better put his fists up because I was going to kick his ass. He did, and I threw an ineffective punch, then one of the girls at the bus stop grabbed my arms and once again Weston punched me, hard, in the right eye.

But he never messed with me again. We ended up friends after that, ironically. At that age I didn’t really examine it… how I became friends, all through the rest of high school, with my tormentor. We ended up getting brought home by the cops together twice, for sneaking out in the middle of the night and wandering through downtown Atlanta. Let me tell you, my parents were thrilled.

One fact stands out, however. Defending myself (even if it was ineffective) created a sense of competence, a sense of self-worth, that I desperately needed. But it was a dangerous sense.

Why dangerous? Because a few weeks later, while walking down the stairs in Sutton Middle School, a heard the voices of a couple of kids who had been taunting me for most of the school year.  I don’t remember exactly what they said.  But I do remember turning around and pulling out the pocket-knife I’d been carrying for two weeks.  I threatened to stab one of those kids.  They backed off, and never messed with me again.

Luckily, that was the end of it. They didn’t report it. I didn’t get caught with the knife. I didn’t cut anyone, thank God. I didn’t get arrested, or thrown in juvenile, or thrown out of school.  And those were all distinct possibilities for kids who carried knives to school and threatened harm to their fellow students.

No Way Out

Fast forward twenty years, and my son was in middle school, and he was frequently bullied. And what makes me very angry still is that his school was incredibly ineffective at doing anything to stop it. I had to get involved multiple times. He stopped going into the bathrooms in school, because of the time he got jumped in the bathroom. He’d ask for help, but he’s truly terrible with faces and names, and could not identify his own tormentors by name. The result? More than once he tried to defend himself, and ended up being the kid who got in trouble, suspended or sent home.

Columbine, Suicide and Desperation

Do you remember where you were when you heard about Columbine? I do. I was at work, at the time manager of the data center for a small telecommunications firm that imploded not long after September 11.  Throughout the building there were television monitors, silenced, usually tuned to CNN.  I was walking from the data center back to my desk when I looked up and saw helicopter footage of a school, with children fleeing across a field. As the details started coming out, about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, I felt sick.  I felt sick for the tragedy of the death of children. I felt sick for the violence, the tiny tragedies, and for the perpetrators.

Third Leading Cause of Death in Teenagers

In the United States, suicide is the third leading cause of death—about 8 in every 100,000 each year. Treated as a statistic, it’s impersonal.  More than 5,000 teenagers commit suicide every year.

But every one of those 5,000 children might have had a future. Every one of them had a talent, had an opportunity to live a beautiful life if it hadn’t been cut short. Every one was precious.

A few weeks ago, the Sioux City Journal devoted its entire front page to an anti-bullying editorial, in response to the suicide of 14-year-old Kenneth Weishuhn. Weishun killed himself because he’d come out as gay, and virtually everyone he knew, including his friends, turned on him.

Prevention

Intervention after the fact – punishing the bullies – doesn’t do much good. It satisfies a need for justice, but it doesn’t prevent it from happening again. It doesn’t heal the scars. It doesn’t bring back children who have taken their own lives.  What’s needed isn’t a response,  it is prevention.  It’s an examination of the roots of bullying: why kids do it, what motivates them, and finding ways to stop it before it starts.

I believe it also requires some self-examination. I wrote recently here on this blog about racism and sexism and homophobia; I strongly believe that the behavior of middle and high-schoolers is modeled on the behavior of adults.

How can we possibly expect children to show tolerance and empathy and love for their neighbors when adults don’t do it?  How can we expect them to show kindness for others, when adults in respected positions in our society call for rounding up all the lesbians and queers and homosexuals and putting them in a concentration camp to die?

How can we expect children to respect people for who they are, instead of what they wear, what kind of fashions they have, what clothes they wear, if adults don’t model that behavior? After all, we live in a society where we celebrate greed, where the only measure of success is money, and where poor and sick people are told that if they only stopped being lazy and worked harder, then they too could be rich.

I can think of almost nothing more important than saving those 5,000 kids who die at their own hands each year.  And I believe the only way to do it is to look to ourselves—look to the things we say, the things we do, and change. If you witness it happening, step in. If you see someone in need, help them. Above all, if you find yourself judging others who are different from you, then stop! Look in your own heart, and remember that every life is unique, every life is precious, and none less important than your own. If you find someone different from you, reach out and get to know them. Love may not conquer all, but it’s a damn sight better than the alternative.

 

15 Comments on “Crying out for life: bullying and teen suicide

  1. I too suffered from frequent bullying at school and my teachers just told me to “deal with it”. It’s like they were saying we all have to deal with it and it’s a normal thing for kids to go through.

    I dealt with my tormentors by simply isolating myself from others and becoming “that weirdo” who has no friends and was always sat alone at lunchtime.

    It’s only now, at age 35, that I am beginning to realize the effect this has had on me in that I am finding it incredibly difficult to form friendships and enter into relationships as I have serious trust issues.

    I hope your son can come through his problems a lot better off than I did and if the school refuses to take action, I’d recommend that you move him to a new one if that’s feasible.

    Society needs to take a much firmer stance on bullying as it can have serious and long term post-schooling effects on the victims.

    For my own part, I try to remember how I felt when people mocked me and my beliefs and I try to be as tolerant as possible. This is where positive TV such as Star Trek, which promotes tolerance and a positive and optimistic view of the future can really help and it certainly gave me something positive to hold on to when things got bad at school. 

  2. Luckily we moved on to new schools, and he’s rarely encountered bullying at his current school, although social isolation is still a problem. But yeah… the impact this kind of thing has on our lives in the long term is very real and very problematic.

  3. I learned a lot about bullying when I was a kid, too. But more when I was older. A relative was hospitalised for depression and when I visited her, her best friend on the ward was the girl who hit me, kicked me, abused me and encouraged others to do the same, at primary and secondary school. I didn’t re-introduce myself to her. A few months later she killed herself. Rumours abounded as to why, and if they are true, I can see in retrospect why she was intimidated by a fiesty, independent and clever girl from a nice family.  The impact of the bullying is still with me, but now I don’t see her so muchas a monster but as someone crying out for help.
    I don’t know if all bullies are the same, though, or make other people’s lives a misery because of this idea, that bullies are in pain themselves. When my son was harassed by a local gang, they seemed to be simply bathing in the sense of power they had. Those kids, 13-17 years old, are currently under police investigation for grievous bodily harm of a young man. My own son fought back (we explained he had two options, to hit or to run, and we’d back him either way) and his self-confidence increased, even if he didn’t always win. The police actually took it seriously and we had what’s called restorative Justice, and sat across a table from the gang and their parents – not ideal. We had to stick up for ourselves all over again and parents have a hard time being told their children are behaving horribly.
    As for the video, Charles, sheesh. But I laughed towards the end, albeit queasily. It goes back to the saying, the lady doth protest too much. In this pastor’s case, he should spend less time visualising about what other people like to do in bed. As an example though, it’s spot on. He’s a troubled man, preying on the fears of other troubled people, and this is at the heart of bullying.

  4. Yeah, it’s a relief he couldn’t “get it past the Congress.”

    The scary thing is that there are a LOT of people who believe this sort of thing.

  5. Gah…crying now. It’s impossible for me to remember Columbine and not cry. I remember exactly where I was, standing in the lab I was working in at the time. It was my 29th birthday (right, that makes me 39…no need to do the maths). It was the single most horrible thing that’s happened in this country in my lifetime. And I’m happy to argue that point.

    Watching the police stand there, dumbfounded, having no idea what to do in a situation like this. Watching desperate parents, screaming, fighting to get past the dumbfounded police to save their children. Fucking awful.

    I’m not sure how I escaped being bullied as a kid. I think I always had one guardian-angel friend at any given time willing to look our for me. But I was quite the weirdo.

    My son was not so lucky. He was bullied for years by your typical brute. Finally, we sat down and had a long talk about what to do. We decided he needed to fight back and that I would not punish him if he got caught fighting in school. The next day, when the bully pushed my son against the locker, as was his daily routine, my son punched him as hard as he could. The day after that…the bully brought my son a new comic book and asked if they could be friends. They’re still friends to this day!

    I’m not sure I’ll ever ‘get’ this side of being a boy. And I’m not sure if the standard parental advice should be “hit him back” …but it worked for us. Have we become too passive? Or has social media made it easier for bullies to commit their nasty deeds and stay protected? Tough call.

  6. My impression is that social media has made it more pervasive. After all… To get away from my bullies, I could go home. I didn’t have people spamming my facebook wall or sending me texts telling me how worthless they thought I was. How do you deal with that sort of thing?

  7. One other thought… not just boys. Boys may tend to hit more, but from what I’ve seen watching my daughter and her interactions in school, is that girls can be just as horrible bullies: it’s more often psychological torture than physical, but no less devastating.

  8. You’re spot on there. But the thing is, with girls there doesn’t seem to be any resolution available. Harassing them back or hitting them won’t stop them. But in my observations, a physical fight can often resolve things between boys…and men, for that matter. Or maybe I’m way off base…wouldn’t be the first time lol.

  9. Yes, social media is a massive issue. My son got a graphic death threat by text once, he’s had the FB spam too. Each time, we report it to the police, and our local force takes it seriously.  I’ve found the older he gets the less social media crap happens. The trick is to help them through it while it’s happening, be supportive, all that – I don’t know if there’s a definitive solution, I don’t have one, it feels so lame to say ‘be supportive’, but then bullying has exactly that effect, producing the sense of lameness. Continuing to try and nurture a more loving society. Something the unenlightened will always fight against.

  10. The fundamental problem with many “Christians” is the inability to let go of the Old Testament. They use it to justify homophobia and any other prejudices they personally have. Then in the same breath include Jesus. Blind faith is not faith, It’s fear of freewill.

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