On NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” this morning I caught a little bit of an interview about bullying. The interviewee said that it was hard to collect information from adults who’d been bullied as children because, even after all these years, they were so ashamed that they often didn’t talk about it even to their spouses.

So I realized I ought to come out of the closet: I was bullied all through elementary and junior high school. It never got physical, except for the time that bitch Lisa Ogden knocked me down at the bus stop. Her taunting on the bus was worse than the damage to my knees, though. I dreaded coming into school many days. In 7th grade I got such bad headaches I wept from the pain, and my parents took me to the doctor, who diagnosed stress. That made sense to me. The stress had little to do with schoolwork, and everything to do with having to spend five days a week, week in, week out, in a place where people who hated me were permitted to harass me.

May I state the obvious? Bullies thrive where adults allow them to. Teachers and administrators can’t control everything that happens in a school, but they have a lot of power; if they declare a behavior unacceptable, that behavior will occur less often. This may be easier to do with physical bullying than with taunts, which are so easily muttered as kids pass in a hallway, but it works for everything. Look, we have rules in our classrooms against chewing gum and showing up late; I don’t think it’s too much of a challenge to add a rule against abusive speech. The teacher, dictator of the classroom, decides what constitutes abuse. I would enthusiastically support any teacher who did this, whether my child were the victim, a bystander, or the bully.

When I was a teacher at a boarding school, I knew of some kids who persistently bullied the others, extorting their boom boxes and the money they got from home, hitting them whenever they could get away with it, and generally setting up their own little kingdoms. What was worse was that their dorm parents knew about it and looked the other way–one even said he thought it helped keep kids in line. Never mind that the kids being kept in line were often really good kids and the one who needed reining in was being allowed to do whatever his sadistic imagination invented. My own suspicion was that that dorm parent got some kind of kicks from these power dynamics, but he was pretty rule-happy so it might just have been that he couldn’t deal with any behavior not explicitly outlawed by the school rules. That same dorm parent earned an immortal spot in my memory when he was supervising a trip to a football game and a sweet kid, an advisee of mine, was kicked viciously by another kid (about whom I’m sorry to even report this, because I generally liked him– but he had some Anger Management Issues). Another teacher saw it and brought the kids over to the dorm parent, who literally began looking through his manual and said, “It doesn’t say anything here about kicking . . .

The same thing happens in prisons. There are punishments the guards aren’t allowed to use, so they let the prisoners inflict them on each other. It’s not substantially different than inflicting them themselves, though if the courts actually declared it a violation of the clause against cruel and unusual punishment, they would have to put a moratorium on imprisonment.

I have a lot of remorse that I never brought this issue to the headmaster, my only consolation being that I don’t think he would have been any more effectual than I was.

I saw a less extreme case in the next school I taught in, a Catholic school in California. I apparently made an impression on the students when I told them I would treat putdowns between them as a disciplinary matter, just like talking back to a teacher or failing to turn in homework. One of my brightest students, ‘Jonathan,’ came in for a lot of bullying. I don’t know whether my rule made his life outside the classroom easier, maybe harder; I know that he didn’t get put down in my hearing. When I talked to another teacher of the same grade about the bullying problem, though, she said, “You have to admit that Jonathan asks for it.” Wow, blaming the victim, in a religious school! She was even Catholic, which I was not (come to think of it, the dorm parent who thought bullies were a useful part of the boarding school’s discipline system had hankerings to be a chaplain). Privately, I diagnosed her as a former bully herself, but I never actually asked.

Grownups need to be grownups if kids are to be safe. If they have unresolved issues that make them despise the kids who get bullied, they need to get over them or recuse themselves from teaching. If, like most teachers, they hate the bullying but just don’t know how to help–I encountered well-meaning teachers like this when I was a girl–there are good resources nowadays. They can start in the earliest years with You Can’t Say You Can’t Play, by Vivian Paley.

ETA that Doug Stowe at Wisdom of the Hands also posted on this topic yesterday: adult bullying in schools

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