Crying out for life: bullying and teen suicide
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.
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.
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.