When the Bully Wins

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The bully won. He got 2.5 million less votes but still has established himself in the position of power. Despite attempts to change the outcome, he and his growing and insidious team still retain this power. We feel our basic rights are under siege, from the right to choose what to do with our bodies to the right to walk down the street with our own skin color or religion. This is a fear I have never had before. (although I am sure many have already lived with this fear daily, and that is something I naively overlooked.)

And now everyone (at least in the United States) is talking about how they have never seen anything like this

Except that is not true. We have all witnessed times when the wrong person was in charge and the damage it caused. Just like 99.9% of my friend circle and social network, I have been devastated by this election. It is not only unjust, but terrifying. And I can sum up my reaction with a Facebook post I wrote on election night.

“OMG what do we do?” and my friends liked it and extended their commiseration. But then I clarified: “No, I’m not being rhetorical. I mean literally what do we do?”

And we have come up with what to do. We are protesting in rallies and posting online. We are making calls and tweets and talking about it constantly. Half of my friends are shocked at the sexism and racism growing in our country while the other half of my friends are shocked at how blind so many of us have been to it until now. (I will somewhat embarrassedly admit I am part of the former group). But we want to do things that are actually effective, not just cathartic.

I think one of the first things we can do is stop feeling like this is completely unprecedented and look back on the times in our lives when we saw this on a much smaller scale. We have all lived through times when the bully won, whether on the playground or in the office. We can see what worked and what did not and apply that to the seemingly overwhelming situation we are in now. Because the laws of the universe (and human nature) apply both on small scales as well as larger scales.

I will share my experience and what I learned from my past in the hopes we can all look on our own pasts and get some insight on what to do next.

I witnessed the school I went to as a child from ages 5 - 12, a small private in NYC, transform from a place built on the ideals of being a creative and nurturing place into the exact opposite. It was originally built as an alternative to the brutally competitive non-nurturing schools often found in New York. I can say it did not happen overnight. It took me many years after I left in 8th grade to piece together exactly what happened, and the parallels to what is going on now are really disturbing.

When I entered in kindergarten the school had been recently taken over by a new board and administration determined to ironically, “Make the School Great.” They decided the focus was on getting kindergartners prepped for Harvard - at least that is what was sold to the parents.

From there the school slowly devolved from a place of creative learning to a place with authoritarian values and a shaming approach to the molding of children into an obedient ideal. Obedience and deference are not usually the qualities of the top successful people, let alone happy children, but obedient people are needed to keep those in power in power.

The board (and investors) put a headmistress, I’ll call Mrs. N, in charge who would do their bidding. I do not have proof of this, but I believe their main goal was to appeal to wealthier families and raise the tuition and make more money for themselves.

The main thing was it did not all happen overnight. First grade was not bad at all. I had a wonderful teacher and a lot of fun with the other kids. The same held true in second grade. What was not so great about second grade was half of my classmates did not have such a great year. There was a new teacher who ran the next door classroom and you could hear her screaming at the children daily through the walls. She was let go at the end of the year, but the damage to the children (a year of your life when you are only 7 is a lot of time) was done. And this was a hint of what was to come.

By 3rd grade both my first grade and second grade teachers had left the school. Many of the better teachers were leaving, some by choice and some not by choice. Many teachers were now new, some very young and eager to please the established. Many of the remaining established were very drawn to the new mentality, which was the oddest combination of an authoritarian obsession with control, rules, and shaming while at the same time a complete lack of rules and standards.

My homeroom teacher was a kindly grandmother from the midwest who had just moved to New York who lasted one year. To quote what she once told my mother, “I have never seen so much meanness in a school in my life.”

The other third grade teacher, who I will refer to as Mrs K, I unfortunately had for English. I had knots in my stomach all day dreading that class. She was a powerful and established teacher at the school, now beloved by the new administration. She idealized never being absent and once went into a screaming rage at me letting me know how she “was fed up to here with me and my behavior”, incited by the fact I accidentally grabbed two pieces of paper. At other times she loved me and another kid was the subject of her rage.

No one was safe and being frightened eight year olds we did not support one another. I stayed home a lot that year since I was so terrified of her, which apparently engendered more rages about my being absent which she would vent in front of the other kids. This was a classic divide and conquer which gave her a lot of power. Not too hard to do with eight year olds, but a technique used by bullies to again and maintain power. One kid was always bad and another was wonderful. Us terrified eight year olds began to turn on one another more and more.

The sudden scapegoating of one and idealization of another by the individual in power who all eyes are on is certainly a tactic to rile up people and create an excitement, fear and certain kind of loyalty. It was done in my 3rd grade classroom and was done in Trump rallies across the country. Sometimes it was a cry of lock her up, or the suggestion that certain people protesting in his audience should be punched with the promise of legal fees paid. Another time it was a loving hug to an awed fan.

Third grade was the turning point and from there the school grew worse and worse. They idealized small and petty accomplishments and punished little details. The reasons behind the many obsessive rules was never explained. There were rules for the sake of rules. “Punctuality” was admired over creativity or intelligent thought. To clarify, I definitely believe in being on time and think that is very important to teach that to children, but in the real world there is a reason to being on time. In this school classes started at 8:50am. We were expected to be in the door by 8:20am. To sit there. And do nothing until class began. If we came in at 8:21am we were written up.

The kids who were never late were rewarded. This was one example where obedience solely for the sake of obedience was idealized. Other areas were making sure all of our shirts were tucked into our uniform skirts(girls) pants (boys), no makeup or jewelry or anything expressing our individuality was to be worn. We were supposed to look the same as representation of what I’ll call it the “T” School, and being proper was more important than being original or smart. These constant rules, repression of individuality and mini punishments kept us frightened, worried to please and distracted from the real issues of cruelty going on amongst the kids and the teachers.

(Lest you think I was a spoiled or rebellious kid who did not want to follow any rules, I was an A/B student who went to a tutor and after school activities by choice and always did my homework on time and without being told to. I was respectful of authority, but do believe authority is earned through character.)

While us kids were kept distracted and anxious by a slew of petty rules, the administration and leaders were out of control. This was expressed in teachers exploding over minor things - a math teacher in the 7th grade (not Mr G who was one of my favorite teachers - just in case he happens to be reading this and realizes what school this is about) stating to the class she hated stupid questions and publicly getting the rest of the students to laugh when anyone asked what she deemed a stupid question. Or a certain teacher who spent way too much time talking to an 8th grade girl who was incredibly pretty and looked a little bit older than 13. When one girl in my grade made a comment about that he exploded with what I can only call now an incredibly defensive reaction. And he had many other out of control explosions. We were supposed to follow a set of obsessively petty rules being dictated by an out of control group of adults.

There were false accusations. My history teacher who I will refer to as Mrs H, decided to accuse approximately half the class of cheating on their midterm paper. Because of the divide and conquer and shame culture that now permeated the school, none of us talked about it. When I was called into the head of the uppers school’s office and grilled on the paper I had worked so hard on, I had no idea that approximately 10 other students were called in separately as well. I was much too ashamed to let anyone know I had been accused of cheating. Luckily the head of the upper school ran the accusation ceremony and he was one of the good ones who was very aware of what was going on. He kept it in control and I think saved me and many others from having problems of a black mark on our record which would have harmed our acceptance to our high schools of choice.

What was interesting about this rampage of accusations Mrs. H went on, was earlier in the year she boastfully read us a poem her brilliant son, about our age, had written for his class. It did not take us that long to stumble across that same poem, written about 10 years earlier and published in a book of children’s poems. I can imagine that poor boy desperate to please his hyper-critical English teacher Mom, and how happy he must have felt at her short lived pride before (I am sure) she discovered the truth. In her shame of her son (she was definitely the kind of person who would have been deeply shamed by a cheating child instead of lovingly concerned about the issue), she had to make all children cheaters. We are definitely seeing this now in the accusations that were constantly thrown at Hillary, such as dishonesty and corruption from the most dishonest political team to ever exist (a new thing unfolds on Rachel Maddow daily).

One thing the obsession with rules such as not being 30 seconds late or assuring we did not have on long earrings did was to distract from confronting the important rules that students (and teachers) were breaking. Serious ethical rules. Enforcing these piles of little rules took a LOT of time and energy on the part of the administration. While one kid was being scolded and written up for entering the door at 8:21am, there was another whose parents had informed him his job at school was to get A’s. All A’s by any means necessary. His parents meaning was known to all the children and I am sure to the school.

One of course had to wonder how those parents earned the money to pay for the luxury car service and private chauffeur that dropped this boy off daily. Another boy’s parents hired people to do his papers for him. While not every parent was so blunt, the main goal among the majority of people now attracted to this new direction the school was taking had one goal for their child - A’s and success. A’s to get into the right high school to get into the right college to make a lot of money and have a lot of power. Learning or ethics were not important. The school knew this. They looked the other way and cracked down harder on the small rules. I am not sure if they looked the other way because a cheating scandal would harm their reputation or if some parents were making some fairly hefty donations. Or both. (And guess who some of those New York Upper east side parents socialized with and did some business with? A certain orange New Yorker who was heavily involved in hotels and real-estate.)

One of the biggest distractions and saddest aspects of all of this was that it brought out the absolute worst among us kids. Yes, all 11-12 year old girls tend to be bitchy and cliquey. But this went to another level. I remember trading stories in high school about how horrible everyone was in 7th grade and I got to my stories. There was suddenly total silence until one girl burst out “OMG. That is worse than anything I have ever heard.”

Among the masses (us students) when leadership is bad, the worst among us gain power. Many (but not all) of the kinder children had left the school by this point, their parents disgusted by all of the above. My parents were under the wrong belief that this was just what private schools were like and my education was too important. Plus, they just didn’t get how bad it was. This allowed for the meanest kid to gain power. I am not sure if she turned into a kind adult. I know most of the kids from that class did turn out to be perfectly nice people and some great people by the time we were in high school. I think it was a combination of misery, fear and a toxic environment making everyone their worst selves and creating an environment where the worst people thrive. We can see this now in the level of racist and sexist comments that are publicly being expressed. When the leaders are out of control, people’s worst sides come out or the worst people thrive.

I could be wrong about this (maybe still stuck in my 12 year old bias - it is SUCH a formative age!), but I can’t help thinking the worst girl who incited the worst in the other kids is truly a bad hearted person. She came alive more and more every year as the school got crueler and crueler. I don’t know anything about her anymore so I can’t answer this. This goes to the whole nature vs nurture debate. But this type of leadership of cruelty from the top permeated down. I don’t remember very much about her day to day aside from the fact she was very mean, but this is one story I will never forget as long as I live. I wasn’t there to see it, but was told about it by a few other kids who laughed but seemed uncomfortable. That way kids do when they laugh along but also sense how wrong it was, but don’t really know what to do about it and don’t know how to express weird they really feel about it.

I will call the bully Mara Robertson. (Obviously not her real name). A few of the girls were going to another one’s country house for the weekend. I’ll call that girl Lauren. Lauren’s parents went to pick up Mara to drive them out to the country. When Mara came down into the car she was angry. Lauren’s Mom asked her what was wrong. To quote as best as I remember “You would not believe what just happened! My doorman just said to me bye Mara. I hope you have a good weekend Mara! Can you believe that! I turned to him and I said ‘You don’t call me Mara. You work for ME. YOU call ME Ms. Robertson.’” I assume there was discomfort in the car. I don’t know how it was handled. The sad thing is I wasn’t even that surprised when I learned of this. It was another level, but not that much of a level up from what I had seen.

I am sure there were things going on in Mara’s home too and not just the school that made her act that way. I had heard a few stories from some of the other kids. Or maybe it was all a chemical imbalance in the brain. The root of cruelty is still unknown. Either way, the school created an environment where someone that cruel thrived. If the school had been ethical and kind I am not saying she would have been a loving and giving human, but she might not have had it within her range of possibility to go that far. The way misery and cruelty is spread when those in power are cruel and corrupt is awful. Now this man just doing his job (and not in a position to properly defend himself without risking losing his job) was made to feel horrible and was demeaned, by a child.

People in our country are now feeling free to say things that last year would have been unheard of. I am not saying they hadn’t felt this way, but now they feel justified and supported in expressing it. A certain level of cruelty is becoming normalized. It is absolutely eye opening and horrifying how much of what I watched happen on such a small scale is happening now in our country.

Most of the teachers were not bad, but the cruel ones stood out while the kind ones did their best to keep their jobs and ride through the changes. Many of the good ones left or were fired. Many of the kids who behaved horribly were decent people who had some cruel part of themselves stirred up and they were also frightened. They aren’t truly mean people.

So how could we have triumphed against this?

1 - Not divide. If we had bonded together, Mara would not have had the power to bully and incite others to bully. When that teacher accused me (and multiple other kids) of cheating, we could have told one another and supported one another. That would have taken Mrs. H’s power away.

2 - Fake News. Is the information you are getting actual information or just there to rile you up. Typical of junior high bullies, Mara spread rumors to incite kids to turn on one another. When you read news pay attention to the sources. Pay attention to if it seems exaggerated to get you riled up (to share and get the sites ratings up)

3 - Idealization and Devaluing. This was what my 3rd grade English teacher did. Be aware that it is a power tactic. I am sure anyone reading this would not be able to take enough showers in the world if they got a hug from President Von Clownstick, as that one member of his rally did, but that guy was moved to tears. He then talked about the awful protestors who deserved to be punched. There are the good and the awful in his eyes. And it changes. It is a tactic he is attempting to use on the press and if they fell for it, we would be in more danger than we are now.

4 - Making huge accusations against others without careful evidence. In T school Mrs H went on a mass accusation of 7th graders cheating for which she had no valid evidence. When you make an accustaion or believe one, make sure it is carefully verified. Rachel Maddow for example, carefully builds a case about the corruption in the current administration stating facts. She does not throw around words without backup. That is very different from Agent Orange and his massive tweet storm of unbacked accusations. Be careful what accusations you pay attention to. Speak up against accusations that do not have careful and evidential backup.

5 - Distractions. The school was so busy constantly checking and punishing the small infractions of their multiple rules. This served as a distraction from the big rules being broken right under their nose. Don’t get distracted by things such as KellyAnn Conway not wearing shoes. Or certain sexual preferences that popped up in an unsubstantiated Buzzfeed dossier. Or someone not saying the perfect PC line. I am not saying never have a laugh or an eye-roll, but those violations do not really matter that much. Make sure to talk, tweet write about the serious stuff. That innocent people are being deported, planned parenthood is being defunded, and our environment is in serious danger is much more important than someone having orange skin or ridiculous hair.

6 - Obedience and Punishment. Having lots of small rules to keep people frightened and obedient, with shame as the punishment for not following them. I was terrified of getting in trouble for who knows what. I spent most of my time doing my best to get good grades and do what I was supposed to do, while I stayed as emotionally detached and unengaged as possible. I did not thrive or have creative ideas in school (although I had plenty in my after school activities and at home). Looking back the punishments were so irrelevant. Now the threats to those who disobey involve everything from public shaming for women (with President Von Clownstick publicly commenting on their bodies), raging tweet storms against those who cross him and even threats to businesses that don’t obey him. Disobeying can involve everything from writing articles that are not pleasing to him to mocking him on TV. Don’t be intimidated by those threats. I don’t think most of us would be too upset by a criticism from Mr. Von Clownstick and team, but I look back at my school and if none of us had cared about having our name in written into a book for being 30 seconds late or minded being screamed at by an erratic teacher for asking the “wrong” question, those teachers would have lost their power.

7 - Don’t get sucked into cruelty. I know it is hard! These people voted for him and we are now all stuck with him. But be above it. Let them be the ones to post deplorable comments about Obama and us liberals and sensible moderate conservatives. We do not need to laugh if someone who barely makes ends meet and has a chronic disease is going to die from loss of the ACA. Cruelty just gives strength to more cruelty. Lets do our best to practice Michelle Obama’s advice on Going High. (Even if it is not always the most fun approach). I imagine what would have happened if when one of those teachers went into a rage storm if I just looked at them calmly and waited then said, “Are you done? May we get back to learning please?” I know no child can be that strong, but I do wish.

8- When people are being mistreated speak up. If we had done that Mara would have lost her power. If no one had laughed when the math teacher shamed a student for asking “dumb questions” or when Mrs. K made nasty comments about students being frequently absent, the teacher who was supposed to be the adult would have come across as very foolish. If you see someone being bullied now for being who they are - their own race, gender, sexual identity - speak up.

9 - Don’t normalize. What went on in my school was not normal nor okay. What is going on now is not normal or okay either. Protest, talk support one another and speak up. It would have worked back then in my school. It will work now on a much larger scale, but it will take more time and a lot of dedication. From what I have been witnessing we are on it and up for the fight!

So what finally happened with this school? I have a friend who has a much younger brother who graduated from 8th grade at “T” school about 4 years ago. It is apparently not as rigorous academically, but it is now very kind. So things go in cycles and waves. I would have given up the academic rigor for a kinder environment I think, but then again what I learned about human nature and cruelty was something I could never have learned in books. I hope to use this knowledge and experience to make the world better in some way.

I know some of the “good person” teachers are still there and that none of the worst four are still there. The headmistress Mrs N, put in place by the board, has sadly passed away. I believe Mrs. K and Mrs. H are teachers at different schools. In a less mature moment I did look them up on rate my teacher. Mrs. K now works in administration and tutoring at a boys boarding school. There were no ratings on her. While some of the teachers received loving ratings, the headmaster was accused of being greedy and arrogant (and possibly even embezzlement) with a one star rating. Like attracts like I suppose. Mrs H was teaching at a different private middle school outside of New York. She had low ratings and reviews that described her as rough and judgmental.

Mara - I have no idea. I never bothered to look. I can’t hold someones childhood behavior against them and I have no idea if she grew up to be a good person or not.

It does seem that there are a lot of wonderful people in the world and a lot of terrible people. Once in awhile the terrible people all come together at a perfect time and gain a level of power and destruction that they normally wouldn’t. When this happens it is best to remember that it is temporary and to minimize the level of damage they cause by doing all in your power to pull together, support one another, and resist.

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.

- W. B. Yeats: The Second Coming