By Linda Stein, cross-posted from On The Issues Magazine.
In eighth grade, I was a bully.
We were five girls picking grass straws in the playground of my junior high school. I won. I was suddenly the president of the "I Hate Carole Club." I was thrilled. I'd never been president of anything before, and I thought these four other girls were the most popular kids at school. My job as head of this organization was to lead the others in ridiculing Carole. She had a funny last name, red hair and freckles. I didn't associate what we did with the term "bullying;" we were just playing around.
©Linda Stein, Justice for All, 2010
I don't remember anything we did or said to Carole but I feel shame about it still. During the past year I tried to find Carole so I could apologize. I cringed every time I thought about her, knowing we must have made her life miserable.
I couldn't find her. And then all of a sudden I did.
It was a remarkable conversation.
“I don't remember any club or that you were president,” she told me. “But it was the first thing I talked about with my shrink when I was older and went into therapy.
He asked me 'what did you do to make them so angry at you?' I guessed that I talked too much about how I was president of my youth club after school. I shouldn't have done that.”
“It was not your fault, Carole,” I said emphatically. Please don't blame yourself for this. The fault is mine and ours and the fault of a society that only recently began to pay attention to this issue.”
Bullying has always been a part of life. But these days it is in the news far more often. In fact, October is National Bullying Prevention Month. Making people aware of the consequences of bullying could save lives.
A 16-year-old Long Island boy, believed to be the target of bullies, recently committed suicide and statistics indicate that the problem of bullying, is getting worse, particularly in American schools. At least half of young people interviewed say that they have been bullied, especially online.
People everywhere are becoming more aware of lives made miserable by thoughtless harassment, sometimes leading to permanent damage and death. When Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi jumped to his death after being filmed kissing another man, New Jersey strengthened its anti-bullying legislation and President Obama spoke out saying it's time for Americans to dispel the myth that bullying is "just a normal rite of passage."
Beginning with Georgia in 1999, forty-nine states have now passed school anti-bullying legislation. Only Montana has not. Typically, though, this legislation is an unfunded mandate requiring schools to have anti-bullying policies but providing no financial resources to improve school climate and security, according to the National Safety and Securities Services.
Here's the story about how I finally found Carole:
After many attempts, another junior high school buddy, Anita, came to mind. I emailed her and she said she was in touch with Carole!
(Coincidentally, Anita had taken a workshop the previous week in which people were asked if they ever had been bullied). “I could think of no one,” Anita said to me, “until I thought of Carole. I had been the perpetrator of her bullying.”
As Anita remembered it, it was her idea to bully Carole. “The I-Hate-Carole-Club probably stemmed from my idea to shun her because she was different,” Anita said.
After I spoke to Carole, I thought about how sad it was that we had no one in our lives--no parent, teacher, coach or clergy--who discussed this subject with us in a meaningful way. If I had received some proper guidance before I badgered Carole, I may well have reversed roles and stuck up for her.
I could have been Carole's defender, that is, the bystander who came to her aid. Today, I wish that I had done that. After all, as I told Carole in the exchange of life-stories that became a part of our phone reminiscences, my art work is about protection and accepting diversity.
In the lectures and performances that accompany my traveling exhibitions I address bullying and harassment and mention my experiences both as Carole's bully and as one who was also bullied as a child. To symbolize how bullying can be combated, I use my favorite childhood superhero, Wonder Woman.
To my regret, I failed, as a kid, to emulate her.
If only I had been like one of my gender fluid sculptural knights of protection for Carole.
Now, though, with the subject of bullying as a significant theme for me in my life and work, I knew that what I wanted to do most in that phone conversation was to profoundly apologize to Carole.
And to my relief, Carole accepted my apology.
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