Seeing Violence, (Not) Seeing Bullying

I am lucky to live in one of the few cities that released the documentary Bully a month ago and I rushed to see it. This film could not portray an environment more different from my teaching experiences if it tried. It follows several young men and women in small cities and smaller communities in the Midwest and the South as they struggled with bullying. They were bullied because they are different; they looked different, they acted differently, or their sexual orientation was different. But my teaching life has been in inner city schools, and bullying -- from what I had seen -- looked very different from the bullying in the film.

One conflict that was repeated in the documentary Bully was the lack of reaction from school administrators and the local police because the situation never escalated into one of violence. There was minor pushing and punching, but no blood. There was name calling and taunting, but no full-blown fight. Because there was no violence, there was no response.

Violence was not a stranger to my school. Three years ago we became a scanning school with our own full-time metal detector due to the number of police incidents in the building. With the scanning machine we received one armed policeman in addition to the dozen security guards who already patrolled the halls. Part of my research examined the social groups in my school. The students reported that our school didn't have cliques like those "suburban, white schools" (one student's words) but that we had cliques based on race, gangs, and neighborhood allegiance. These cliques had fierce lines, and if they were crossed there was often a fight. Additionally, it was not uncommon to get into a physical altercation for small transgressions such as bumping someone in the hall, stepping on someone's shoe, or looking wrongly at another person. Add social networking (the nemesis of a peaceful school), and the halls in our building were downright combustible.

After seeing the documentary, I felt there was a strange connection between those schools and my school, but what was it? They seemed so fundamentally different that all I could see was those differences stretching in front of me like lists of contrasting qualities. Where did they overlap?

But then I remembered Gabriel (not his real name), and I suddenly saw what I hadn't seen for years. Gabriel was put into my senior elective English class his junior year because he getting harassed from the kids in his grade due to his silence, the slight stutter he had when he did talk, and his intelligence. Gabriel was an attractive, tall, smart young man whom I knew would grow up to be amazing, but he was suffering in the social hell that high school can be for those who are different. He stayed in that senior elective with me for the entire year, and while he did come out of his shell a little bit, he continued to struggle, suffer, and hope for a better life after high school. I loved that kid.

Of course, being super quiet, he didn't say much of this to me, but he did write it.

I kept his end-of-year essay, and I remembered it upon musing over Bully. It was an assignment for seniors, asking them to reflect on their four years of high school before their graduation. Gabriel's essay reads as follows:

When I first began high school I was very nervous. The thing is that I was looking forward to the interesting experience. I went into school ready to be the best in educational terms, and be recognized. I was always treated like a nobody, or invisible entity whose only purpose was to amuse people, but they only amused themselves because I hated it. For example I would be made fun out of, tripped, had personal belongings stolen, like school textbooks. I had hope for a better future.

The friends thing was interesting because I had barely any. When engaging in the process of making friends, the experience can be agonizing. The kids didn't work with me in a group because they said I was weird, a psycho, retarded, funny looking, annoying and so much more...

My 10th grade year in terms of friends was an improvement over 9th grade. My grades were the same, but the courses changed. My personal life was also the same as it was before according to experiences; I am a funny looking, creepy, weird, psycho. My biggest worry is that would not be able to handle the challenges of life. My biggest fear is that I would end up hating the world completely, and things would remain the same or get worse.

I have five pages of this combination of hurt, frustration, and hope.

And I realized that for years I didn't see the plain old bullying that was right in front of me. In the movie Bully, nothing could be done because there was no violence, but in my school, there was so much violence that issues like Gabriel's seemed so pedestrian compared to the fights and they went ignored. I couldn't see the bullying because I saw too much violence. Without the violence, bullying couldn't get addressed, but because of the violence, bullying didn't get addressed. What a no win situation.

Now I see both, and it is very overwhelming.