“We need to start a movement”: My brother and I talk about middle-school bullying

[Trigger Warning for bullying, violence, homophobia, harassment, suicide]

I usually apologize for long blog posts. I have a short attention span; I’m sure my readers do too. But I’m not apologizing this time.

This post is different.

As most of my regular readers know, quite a few of my blog posts are inspired by my younger brother, R. Mostly because R. is awesome, and has great ideas.

This post is different.

Two years ago, during our winter break, R. and I went on a long walk through the streets of Madison. It was night, it was cold, I had heavy bags, but we were enjoying ourselves. We were talking about important things – books, our parents, movies, school etc.

At some point, I asked R. if he liked having an iPod.

Yes, he said. I listen to it on the bus back from school. After the day is over, I often feel frustrated and upset. So I turn on my iPod and listen to Adele or Coldplay, and it helps get rid of the stress.

Now usually, my brother likes school. I mean, obviously, there are good days and bad days and good teachers and bad teachers, but for the most part, he really enjoys it. He loves learning; he has lots of friends… school is good.

So hearing that R. was often frustrated or upset after a day at school was a huge red flag for me – and I asked him why.

That’s when he told me about bullying.

***

Discussions of teen bullying have been everywhere recently, from Lady Gaga’s anti-bullying campaign and Dan Savage’s It Gets Better movement, to worries about cyberbullying and the surge of teen suicide attempts. The most recent government survey indicates that 28% of kids in grades 6-12 have experienced bullying. I wouldn’t be shocked if it were more.

I knew bullying existed. It was still a punch in the gut when R. told me it was happening in his school.

I had a very mature reaction to the situation. My brother was going to drop out of school and never, ever go there again. And if that wasn’t feasible, I was going to drop out of college and follow him around with a baseball bat.

…yeah, that was a pretty terrible plan.

Eventually, I realized there wasn’t anything I could do except listen and offer advice. My brother, after all, isn’t getting physically bullied. He isn’t even getting harassed that much – at least in comparison to other students. He just goes to a school where bullying is constant and ubiquitous. He sees it happen every day. Sometimes it happens to him. Often it happens to his friends.

Over the past two years, I’ve listened with increasing horror to my brother’s stories. The kid whose facebook and email was spammed with “accusations” that he was gay. The guy who pushes other kids into lockers. The insults students yell at each other. The teasing. The shunning. The ubiquitous, constant, malicious gossip.

“You’re gay.” “You’re stupid.” “You’re fat.”

It never ends.

No wonder R. needs his music to calm down every day. It’s impossible not to be affected by it.

I can tell. My brother doesn’t enjoy school as much as he used to. He’s more stressed, and it’s not just because of homework or teachers. He often comes home angry and frustrated, needing to talk about the latest catastrophe.

I remember telling R. that Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, bullied a closeted gay student when he was in prep school. I’ve rarely seen my brother that outraged.

Worse was when R. saw the Rolling Stones article about the Anoka-Hennepin school district, where students who appear to be LGBTQ are constantly harassed, teachers are forbidden to offer them help and nine students committed suicide within two years. Reading the article, he went dead silent. After a few minutes, he turned to me and asked, in a tone I’ll never forget:

“How can people let this happen?”

[Although I highly recommend the article, it is extraordinarily difficult to read. Warning for homophobia, bullying, suicide, violence]

Bullying poisons children’s lives. It destroys their safety. Sometimes, it even kills them.

Not to mention that it’s ruining their education. No matter how good a teacher or a school is, kids aren’t going to learn well if they’re constantly scared.

I think the anti-bullying campaigns are good, I do.  I’m glad bullying is finally getting discussed in the media. I’m glad people are starting to see it as a valid issue. I’m glad they’re trying to find solutions.

But sometimes, I look at the pundits talking and the teachers worrying and the celebrities campaigning, and I worry that the kids voices are getting lost. Adults have found a problem, and adults will impose solutions.

One of the most important things we can do is to listen to students. To provide a space for them to tell us their stories, their experiences, their ideas. After all, it’s their fight. We’re not going to end bullying without them.

So before my brother left for France, I interviewed him about bullying at his school. I used my computer to record our discussion. With his permission – and his help – I’ve now transcribed the recording, with a few minor edits for length and for clarity.

We need to hear more of these stories.

A few important notes: My brother is entering the eighth grade and goes to school in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s male, cisgendered, white, and currently identifies as straight (I say “currently” because he’s twelve – any conclusion about his sexual orientation is premature at best). I’m a college student now, but I went to the same middle school he now attends, and he’ll be going to my former high school.

Also important: no real names were used in the interview – I swapped out any names my brother mentioned with pseudonymns.

***

CD:  Testing one – two – three. Okay, so… We’re recording as of now.

R: Wait, how does that thing work?

CD: It’s just recording our voices.

R: That’s so creepy!

CD: *laughs* You want to listen to this section back?

R: Sure. *rewind and listen*

CD: Aha! We’re recording again. First, I want to thank you, R. for agreeing to get interviewed by me.

R:… you’re welcome? *laughs*

CD: Yeah, you don’t have to act like we’re in a formal interview… everyone knows we’re bizarre. Anyways. The idea for this interview came when I asked you what kind of blog post I should write next, and you said I should write about bullying in middle school. And I said – well, I don’t know that much about bullying in middle school. Maybe I should ask you.

R: Yeah. That sounded like a good idea.

CD: It was interesting for me over the past two years or so because middle school… was not the best time of my life. But I didn’t get bullied in American middle-school, and I don’t remember other people getting bullied either. Which doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but I don’t remember it at all. I did get bullied in French middle-school and that was really unpleasant; it just didn’t happen when I went to our American middle-school. But you’ve been saying that now there’s a lot of bullying at your school.

R: But wait. Didn’t you get bullied when people made fun of you for being French?

CD: Yeah. But that was mostly in high school, actually. And wasn’t… constant. It just happened sometimes.

R: Teasing?

CD: Exactly. Which I gather is a big problem at your school too –

R: Yeah, there is a lot of bullying at my school. And the teachers aren’t solving it, even though they’re trying to. They don’t have the right approach.

CD: What’s their approach right now?

R: Doing a two-million dollar anti-bullying program called Hawk talk –

CD: Wait – Hawk as in the bird?

R: *rolls eyes* It’s our school mascot.

CD: *laughs* Oh god. That’s so –  Okay, okay. Hawk. So what’s the Hawk Talk?

R: Pretty much – every morning, you get thirty minutes extra with your homeroom teacher. And your homeroom teacher opens up this anti-bullying booklet and then talks about stuff we’ve covered millions of times over the years. Again. And Again. And Again. It’s really cheesy. No one likes it. And then the teacher make you fill out worksheets about what you would do in a bad situation. But nobody actually pays attention.

CD: Yeah.

R: They also have bullying forms, so if you’re bullied you can fill it out. They say it’s confidential, but it’s really not. I’m sure tons of people are afraid that if they’re bullied and they fill out the application, the bully will –

CD: Find out.

R: Find out and… kill them.

CD: Aaaaah! Seriously?

R: Well, not kill them. But you know what I mean.

CD: Yeah. Retaliation. So… what do they talk about, the teachers? Is it just telling you that bullying is bad? Or –

R: Exactly. They just talk about how bullying is bad. But everyone already knows that – and they still do it.

CD: Right.

R: They’re covering the same material. Nobody really cares anymore. And bullying hasn’t gone down by a significant margin since they started. It’s not working. So they need to find some other way of stopping bullying.

CD: I though – one of the things that’s really striking for me – when I listen to you talk about bullying, it seems like it’s everywhere. And it seems like it’s everyone, almost.

R: I think a lot of people bully and they almost – don’t realize it. I’ve seen kids saying that the new law in North Carolina that’s prejudiced against gay rights is bad – and then I hear the same kids turn around and taunt other students for being gay.*

[*He’s referring to the newly passed North Carolina law that bans gay marriage]

CD: Seriously? Wow.

R: Right? It’s… very weird. People don’t realize they’re being bullies; they don’t realize that they’re being that hurtful. And, you know, if you make enemies of popular kids, they’ll gossip about you. If you made enemies of some people, they spread information throughout the school, and you turn into someone to be made fun of. It’s happened to several kids and – it’s really horrible.

CD: Right.

R: It’s  – it’s a little like – you know, you make any little mistake. If you accidentally push over a popular girl, she might spread gossip about you to everyone else, and within five minutes, people will be laughing and pointing and you won’t even know why. So that’s a really big problem.

CD: Yeah… *long pause* Now we’re smiling at each other like dolts, because we do that all the time.

R: I’m smiling because you’re weird.

CD: Too true. Moving on. From our conversations – it also feels like almost everyone gets bullied.

R: Um –

CD: Or am I misreading?

R: No, I’d say that’s true. Almost everyone gets bullied, but some people get bullied a lot more than others. Especially kids who aren’t popular.
You know, right now it’s like a hierarchy. When students try to move up in the world, they get made fun of a lot. I see this at school all the time, and I saw it at my last camp. There was a kid who joined a group of people – because at camp, people divide up into groups, which is very similar to what happens at school. He was trying to be friends with them, and they would act totally friendly, but when he left, I would overhear them saying “oh, he’s so weird” and stuff like that. So people started looking at him funny, and more people started making fun of him. I was one of his other friends, and luckily, he started moving away from that group.

CD: That’s good.

R: Right. But that doesn’t always happen. Bullying victims – often they don’t get support, even from friends. And at school, people can pretend to be nice, but they can be horrible behind your back – make fun of you, and bully you.

CD: I heard about one kid at your school – people started spreading a rumor that he was gay, and it was all over – on Facebook, email etc. And everyone was talking about it behind his back.

R: That’s happened two or three times.

CD: It’s happened more than once?

R: Yeah. And I feel horrible for those people, because – first of all, being gay shouldn’t be a bad thing. Second of all – I mean, who is cruel enough to do that? It’s horrible.  The poor guy, he’s probably being made fun of all the time. I mean, I’m sure he was really damaged, especially if it was all over facebook. I don’t have a facebook, but I know if you put stuff on facebook, two hundred people know within two hours.

CD:  The joys of the internet.

R: Yes.

CD: And I know – you’ve been called gay once or twice.

R: I was doing a presentation for Health and Wellness, and I was being falsely cheerful, because I hate Health and Wellness.

CD: *laughs* Ouch.

[I hated Health and Wellness too, for the record]

R: I ended the presentation, and someone shouted out “gay.” But it was really nice – you know, my feelings were hurt, absolutely. But the rest of the class just told that person they were being mean, and to stop it. Which was really nice, and that actually helped me. There are some things where people realize that you’re being bullied and they –

CD: And they tell people to stop.

R: The school slogan is “Name it, Claim it, Stop it.” Name the bullying, tell the bully what it is, and say stop it. Which… sometimes works, but most of the time, the bully totally ignores it. It’s hard – you see some people try to stand up for others, but it’s really hard to stand up against a bully who is popular, or who has a lot of friends who are bullies.

CD: Yeah, because you don’t want to be the one who becomes bullied.

R: Exactly. That’s risky.

CD: It seems like the word “gay” has sort of become – the problem isn’t that people are gay. It’s just a fact of life. Some people are  gay, some people are straight, some people are bisexual, some people have other orientations. The problem is that the word has become –

R: An Insult. It’s like saying “you’re stupid.” Or “You dress weird.” It’s pretty much: “You dress weird, talk weird, are really strange” – all in one word. That’s what it’s become, and that’s just not good.

CD: Yeah.

R: Bullying – comes from a lot of things. One of them is, if you’re bullied, the bully might actually be afraid of you. Bullying is a lot like, you know -racism and sexism. It’s a lot because people are afraid of people who are different. So they discriminate. Or they bully.

CD: I know you have a friend who is openly gay. Does he get bullied more than other students, or are people okay with it?

R: Well, actually, he’s not openly gay.

CD: Ah. Hold that thought.

R: Yeah. He has told a couple people – his close friends – and we are totally fine with it.  But if he was openly gay… I think he made a very good decision in not coming out. Being openly gay is a good thing. And people should absolutely feel safe enough to do that. But if you’re in middle school, and especially in my school, if you were openly gay – life would turn into a living hell for you. For sure.

CD: WOW.

R: Absolutely. People you thought were your friends would probably just – be repulsed.

CD: You know what I find really disturbing about this is… we live in Madison. And Madison is like, socialist hippieville. We’re one of the most liberal places in the country. So if even here, it isn’t safe to be gay, or lesbian or bisexual in middle school, that’s really sad.

R: It is really sad. And even when people believe gay people shouldn’t be discriminated against – as I said before, the guy who was against the North Carolina law also makes fun of kids by calling them gay. It’s like – what the hell is wrong with you?

CD: Do you not realize you’re contributing to the problem?

R: Exactly. And you know, I think the adults really don’t discriminate against gay kids – the adults in our school. But with the kids, it’s become this thing. You know, you’re gay – that means you’re different. I mean, racism is still present in the school, but it’s not that present. It’s a very minor problem. Well – what I mean is, in terms of insults – people aren’t made fun of for their race. Now “gay” is the new big insult.

CD: It feels like –  if someone were to make fun of someone else for being Black or Hispanic or Asian – that would not be cool. But it’s still sort of cool to make fun of people for seeming gay.

R: Calling someone gay is – now people think of it as, it’s not that big of a deal to say. You won’t get in trouble. If you’re racist towards someone, the teachers will immediately – kill you.

CD: *laughs*

R: It’s over. But insulting someone for their sexuality… you won’t get in trouble. And in some schools, I know teachers aren’t even allowed to express their opinions on that, or help kids who are being harassed for being gay (he’s referring to the Rolling Stones article). They can’t tell someone to stop calling another kid gay.

CD:So – people get made fun of for being or acting gay – whatever that means. What other kinds of things do people get made fun of for?

R: Being gay – or acting “gay” –  is the top thing. But, after that, it’s a lot of small thing. Appearance is big. If you dress different, or you dress “weird,” you’ll get teased. If you’re fat, you’ll get teased. Even if you’re not fat, but you just look – different – you’ll get teased. If you do something wrong, you might be teased about it too. Bullying is a major problem in our school, but most of it has to do with gossip.

CD: That’s interesting.

R:  People think it’s just a girl problem, but it’s really not. I think the story about girls gossiping more than boys might be sort of true – I don’t know, I’ve never been a girl – but boys still gossip a lot. I think the blame is just about equal. Girls do gossip a lot; boys gossip a lot –

CD: The girls gossiping more than boys might be a bit of a stereotype.

R: I think so. I mean, I know boys gossip a lot. It’s horrible, because the gossiping thing – one thing will spread around the school in five seconds. It goes very fast, because you have tons of people.

CD: And gossip is really hard to fight because – it’s a form of bullying, and it contributes to bullying, but it’s also a way people bond, and it’s often an important part of people’s friendships. You want to be able to tell your friends secrets.

R: Right. It’s a big thing, to be able to trust someone with your secrets. But at my school, you have to make absolute certain, if you’re going to tell someone something, you have to be 120% sure that they’re not going to tell anyone. If you 100% trust them – that’s not good enough.

CD: *laughs* Wow

R: One of my friends told me who he had a crush on, and I didn’t tell anyone. He told another close friend, and that person didn’t tell anyone. He told another person, but he made a mistake, and that person told everyone.

CD: Oh no!

R: In a matter of days, he thought that his crush now knows that he likes her, which… is horrible. Then that makes the whole situation really awkward. And of course, people were making fun of my friend for liking this girl, and they were making fun of the girl too. So yeah. Gossip is huge. And things get twisted as people tell them to each other.

CD: Right. It’s not “Jess likes Samira” anymore, it’s “Jess went up to Samira and asked her to get married.”

R: Exactly.

CD: I know there were times when you didn’t want to go to school – I mean, okay – there are lots of reasons you don’t want to go to school. But there were times when it felt like the atmosphere was so negative, you just didn’t want to be there.

R: When people are being extremely mean to each other, and bullying is super common, and my friends are being bullied – yeah, I don’t want to be there. One thing that happened recently, for example: a guy who I knew was a bully became friends with my best friend Joseph. And I was… I didn’t judge Joseph, but I was sort of worried. And one day, Joseph was really sad because this friend started to harass him. He started being mean to him, and tease him. Joseph asked him to stop, but the guy didn’t. So Joseph said, if you don’t stop making fun of me, I can’t be friends with you.  And the guy was just like – it doesn’t matter, I have lots of other friends. That was really bad. It was horrible, actually. Even after Joseph stopped hanging out with him, the guy just kept harassing him. And Joseph was upset for a really long time.  So it’s really hard to trust people.

CD: I can imagine. Question: do people get physically bullied? Like – pushed, punched, poked, whatever.

R: Physical bullying is not that common at all. It’s very rare. It’s the kind of bullying – it’s old school bullying. Back in the day, if you beat someone up, the teachers didn’t care. But now – if you beat someone up, you’re suspended, you’re expelled – you get in deep trouble. On the other hand, if you just call someone names, nothing will happen to you. And that brings me to the other kind of bullying that’s a huge problem at our middle school, and that’s – cyberbullying. It’s extremely common at our school. It’s probably even bigger than in high school. Maybe. I don’t know, because I’ve never been to high school. But I know you have – so was there a lot of cyberbullying when you were in high school?

CD: There wasn’t with me. But when I was in high school, I wasn’t really involved in the online scene. And things like facebook were new back then, so I think people hadn’t figured out how to take full advantage of it for its bullying potential. How does cyberbullying work at your school?

R: Well, obviously the trolls. People who just go on your facebook or your email, and write “I hate you, I hate you.”

CD: You guys already have to deal with trolling?

R: Yeah. And a lot of it is on email. People send tons mean emails to other students. And I’ve heard that on facebook, there’s a lot of bullying.

CD: Like – how? People writing mean things on other people’s walls –

R: That. That, and also, negative information can be spread very fast that way.

CD: Yeah. Like “Hey R. I hear you’re in love with your teacher Mrs. Mendelsohn.”

R: Aaaah. CD… that’s weird. Ewwwwwwwwwww. Anyways. What was I going to say?

CD: How would I know? Oh, right, my secret power as a mind reader.

R: *rolls eyes* My point was that my dad thought I had facebook at one point, and he was worried because he knew a lot of cyberbullying at my school. My parents have received emails about cyberbullying incidents. And on facebook, you’re extremely vulnerable to cyberbullying. And now that everyone has cell phones – it’s texting. People texting all the time, especially mean gossip. So it spreads extremely quickly.
And now, it even spreads to people who aren’t at your school – who are at other schools.

CD; Right. So you could just show up to another middle school, and say “Hi, I’m R.” and everyone would be like “Oh, hi R. We know everything about you! Like how you’re married to Mrs. Livingstone! And you’re in love with… Miguel and you’re gay and…”

R: Exactly. And I think it’s more harmful because when you’re on the internet or your cell phone, people say meaner things. You might not call someone stupid to their face, but you might send them an email or a text that says “you’re stupid” or “you’re ugly’ or “you’re gay.”

CD: Right. So, let’s talk about solutions. Or the current lack thereof. Right now, your school has a big anti-bullying campaign and it’s been going on for what – two years? Three years?

R: Something like that. A while.

CD: And it doesn’t seem to be doing very much.

R: Nooo.

CD: It just seems to – almost – it makes everyone bored.

R: It might even make it worst, if possible.

CD: It almost makes it cool to be a bully, because the adults are uncool.

R: Exactly.

CD: Do you think the adults understand the bullying problem? Okay – let me rephrase –

R: One thing I don’t think the adults understand is the hierarchy in the school. Even if the bullying stops, you will be regarded as a lower being and gossip will be spread about you. The problem is that the hierarchy makes people unsafe.

CD: Right. I think maybe – adults understand physical bullying. And they understand if someone were constantly called stupid or gay. But stuff like gossip, I don’t think they necessarily see why –

R: Even when someone is called stupid or gay, I think it’s really hard for adults to stop the bullying. They can’t give the bully a valid threat or a good reason to stop.

CD: Okay. That’s a problem. Actually, now that I think of it: you know the story you told about the kid calling you gay in front of the class? I find it really striking that it was the students who shut him down, not the teacher. Did the teacher say anything?

R: No, she didn’t say anything. She didn’t try to stop him.

CD: Well – urgh. Because if your peers hadn’t stood up for you, it would have made it seem like name-calling was okay.

R: I agree. The thing is, I don’t think the adults know how to help people who are bullied. And I think the best thing adults can do is strengthen the victim. To get the victim to a place where they can feel safe standing up for themselves. It’s not that they need to feel strong enough to stand up for themselves, they just have to feel safe. But right now, our school isn’t safe. Some people are very vulnerable. So we also need to work on ways to get the bully to stop, and that’s… difficult. Bullying is a problem where there might not be a real solution.

CD: I think – I think bullying is a problem that requires a lot of work and it requires a lot of different small solutions.

R: Exactly. I think it’s not something where there won’t be one magic pill that solves everything. Unfortunately. One bullying program is not going to do much.

CD: Are there times where you’ve seen, with your friends or your peers, where you’ve seen bullying get stopped? Like the incident where you were called gay, and your classmates shut it down.

R: Yes. That was one instance where it got stopped.

CD: Can you think of other ones?

R: Unfortunately… no.

CD: That’s bad.

R: It’s possible, but I’ve not been there. I think a lot of people are afraid to stand up. The exception is:  when something is really mean, people do stand up. The problem is, when it gets really mean, it’s usually after the bullying has been going for a while. So the victim will be grateful for the help, but they’ll still be hurt. A lot. The damage will already have been done. What you need to do is stop the small stuff. We have to stop it when it starts.

CD: I think one of the things it has to be is – it has to be a really individual commitment. Which is hard. Especially with things like gossip. It has to be an individual decision – something like: “I have decided that I’m not going to gossip.” And then, telling other people, if they try to gossip with you: “Guys, I love you, but I don’t want to gossip with you, because I know that that often hurts people’s feelings, and I don’t want to be part of that”

R: Yeah.

CD: Yeah, sorry. I know I sound really cheesy right now. There are better ways of saying it. “Let’s not gossip, let’s go play Frisbee instead.”

R: Right. Exactly. *laughs* Playing Frisbee solves all the problem.

CD: It’s how I solved all my problems. It’s not that we need to sit around and say “we love everyone and want to be friends with everyone.” It’s just getting to a place where people aren’t feeling attacked all the time.

R: And the individual commitment – it’s hard to be committed when you’re a bully.

CD: Well, you’re certainly committed to something… you’re just not committed to stopping bullying.

R: No duh. Being individually committed to stopping bullying would really help – if people would just try to stand up for people who are being bullied. And the more people that do that, the less weird it’ll seem when someone stands up.

CD: I think that’s part of it. Right now, there’s almost a peer pressure to bully. Or at least, if you’re not going to bully, not to stop people from bullying. And instead, there needs to be a peer pressure to stop people from bullying.

R: Exactly. More people just need to start doing it. Start trying to stop it.

CD: And I think that’s really tough – don’t get me wrong.

[At this point, we’re interrupted by two phone calls. Then our stepsister asks if we want to go to the beach with her. We say yes and resume recording after our beach trip.]

CD: And we’re back, ladies and gentlemen and listeners of all ages and genders. Before I forget – one of the things I said to you while we were at the beach, which I think is interesting more generally is – in social justice, or in anti-oppression politics, we talk a lot about how there are people who believe that words don’t matter. They think the only kind of violence that can hurt people is physical violence. But it seems like that’s really not true with bullying.

R: Yeah…. no. Those people are just wrong in every possible way. So many problems, so little time. I’d say that words hurts people a lot more than violence does, especially these days. Gossip, cyberbullying – those are all words. And they really do hurt people.

CD: And if words didn’t matter, you could just go around and say “Who cares who calls me stupid?” But it does hurt, and it does matter, and it does make a difference.

R: There’s an old saying that “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But that’s wrong, ladies and gentlemen. That’s just wrong. There are things that people have said to me that still hurt, a year or two later.

CD: I agree. I’ve heard the saying re-worded as “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words can scar me forever.”

R: Yeah. I think that’s a much more accurate phrase.

CD: Before we left, we were talking about solutions…

R: Yes. We were. And we were talking about how individual commitment is really important. and how we should stand up more for victims.

CD: But standing up for others is hard if you yourself feel vulnerable.

R: It’s a vicious cycle, because you get bullied, so you feel vulnerable. So you don’t stand up for other people. So more people get bullied, and they feel more vulnerable, so they don’t stand up for other people. So more and more people are bullied, and there are more and more victims. You have to get out of the cycle somehow. It’s tricky.

CD: One thing is: if you and your friends – For one thing, you can always stand up for friends that are being bullied.

R: Yes. That’s a lot easier than doing it for people you don’t know.

CD: It’s easier to say “Oh, people are saying mean things about my friend Jess, so I’m going to tell them “no, you guys, this is not okay.”

R: Or you can say “I’m not going to talk to you guys if you say mean things about my friend Jess.”

CD: Exactly. And maybe it’s also a good thing if your group of friends makes a decision that you’re all going to stand up for each other. So everyone knows – in an explicit way – that you guys will always help each other out. That way, if you’re being bullied, R., you know that you can go to your friends Joseph and Tom and Miguel and say “Guys, can you help me?” And you’re not embarrassed, and you’re not worried that they’ll say no, because you guys have already talked about it.

R: Yeah. Exactly.

CD: And even starting with a couple of friends that you know you guys have decided amongst yourselves that you will stand up for each other – that helps. Then when you as a group feel safe – and when you feel comfortable, you can say “okay, that guy over there isn’t our friend, but we know him and we like him. People are calling him gay, so we’re going to go over there and say “not cool guys.” In a less cheesy way. Because your sister is the king of cheese.

R: I mean, that’s the only way I’ve seen bullying get stopped. When friends stand up for you, or when other people tell the bully to stop.

CD: That’s true: from all the conversations we’ve had, and from everything you’ve said to me, it seems to me that the only way bullying will stop is through peer-to-peer techniques. I don’t think a top-down, teacher-and-administration effort will work.

R: It’s never really going to stop. I think we need to reduce it dramatically, and do a lot more to help the victim. It’s a little like – hunger will never stop –

CD: – but that’s not a reason not to try and make it better.

R: Exactly. And I agree – I think adults imposing a program is not very effective at all.

CD: Our stepsister* was telling us that kids actually bully other kids using the anti-bullying program. Like, they make fun of the program, and then they make fun of other kids using the program – or kids who participate in the program, or who try to follow the lessons –

[*Our stepsister is in R.’s grade, and goes to the same school]

R: Yeah exactly. Because they’re like “that’s so stupid.” It’s just another weapon.

CD: So I guess the question I have is – I’m not really an adult, but in your life, I’m sort-of an adult. And as a sort-of adult, I can completely understand that if you were a teacher or another adult, you would want to help kids. You would want so stop bullying. So do you think there are ways to do that without making it worse? Without just saying “bullying is bad, don’t do it?”

R: Yeah, I think there are better ways teachers can help. You know, I think one of the big lies adults tell you in middle-school and high-school is that they’re always there for you. And sometimes, they’re really not.

CD: Yeah.

R: One thing is, if they could make the victim feel safer in reporting. It needs to be confidential, or the victim might be afraid that they won’t be able to tell the teacher without being harassed by the bully again. They need to change the way harassment forms work, so that kids are more willing to confide in adults. Because right now, we feel like if we tell a teacher, it won’t be confidential. And that’s really frightening.

CD: It probably keeps students from looking for help.

R: Exactly. Harassment form – people are embarrassed to do it. We need to make them realize that they shouldn’t be and that –

CD: It happens to everyone. Or – you’re not a bad person for reporting it. Or a weak person. Being bullied is not a sign of weakness.

R: Exactly. And also: a lot of people say “Oh, everyone goes through bullying.” And what they mean is “it’s not a big deal” But even though everyone goes through it, that doesn’t make it –

CD: 0kay.

R: Yes.

CD: Everyone used to get smallpox, but we still got rid of it.

R: Yeah, if everyone does it, it doesn’t make it good.

CD: Bullying can have really bad long-term effects on your psychological health.

R: And your emotional health.

CD; Yes. And on society at large. Because we don’t want to be a society that’s just bullies and victims.

R: That’s really really really big. I’ve heard my parents say before: “Oh, it’ll die down eventually.” And I think that’s… *in a very quiet voice* bullshit.*

[yes, my twelve year old brother swore. Everyone clutch your pearls]

CD: It kind of is bullshit. In my experience, bullying is everywhere, not just in school.

R: It’s just horrible. I really hate when people say that, because it doesn’t make the problem better. It just makes the person feel like a jerk – like “oh, why am I complaining, it happens to everyone.”

CD: There are some things where “it’ll die down” is vaguely legitimate. I’m trying to get an example here – if you’re a girl and you’re getting period cramps, you’ll get that once a month and it will die down eventually – actually, I’ve changed my mind. Even if you get period cramps once a month, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever complain about it.

R: Also, bullying is really different from period cramps.

CD: …Yeah. Bullying is like not period cramps! You heard it here first, folks.

R: I remember I was in Paris, and I was talking about some people bullying me, and my parents’ friends said “oh, that happens to everyone. They’re just going through a phase. Everyone goes through a phase where they bully people, and she’ll get over it.”

CD: That’s still not okay.

R: That’s still not okay. And I was like – blink. blink. What? How does that make sense?

CD: Yes. And like we’ve been saying, there are really negative results that come from bullying. For example, if people are bullying you by calling you gay – first, it sets up a thing where people who are gay are uncomfortable coming out. Which is completely unfair, because I’m not uncomfortable coming out as straight, and there’s nothing better or worse about being gay than being straight. No one’s going to bully me for being straight. And of course, the other problem is that bullying people by calling them gay makes it seem like being gay is a bad thing. And it’s not; it’s just a fact of life.

R: Yeah, exactly. It’s just a fact of life. Its like – I have curly hair. And that’s a fact of life.

CD: It’s not something to be ashamed of.

R: That’s what bullying does. It makes people feel ashamed of what they do, what they wear etc.

CD: Who they are. What they like. Who they like.

R: So there are a lot of problems with bullying. And there are not a lot of solutions that are very effective.

CD: Well, I think a lot of the solutions that are effective are very long term

R: But we also need some short-term solutions that help the victim and the bully. While the long term effects are working out. Or else the victim’s just going to keep getting hurt.You know – asking their friends if they’ll stand up. Or asking their friends to just be with that kid and listen to them.

CD: I think that’s somewhere where teachers can really help. Providing a safe space so victims feel safe to come to them and say “Hey, I’m having a real problem with bullying.” And sometimes the only thing the teacher will be able to do is listen, because doing something else would break confidentiality, or would make the student unsafe. Not being able to do anything except listen – that’s not great. But at the same time, it’s really important because listening tells the victim that what they’re going through is legitimate. And it means they have a place can talk.

R: We really don’t have that right now. I don’t have a lot of people I can talk to – especially adults. And I’m not really being bullied, so I can’t imagine what it’s like if you’re being bullied all the time – not having anyone to talk to.

CD:  The other thing is – the teacher can also be the person who says “I know R. and Joseph and Miguel are really anti-bullying, so if you talk to them – or I can talk to them for you – I know they’ll go with you to the cafeteria where people are making fun of you and they’ll eat with you.”

R: Exactly.

CD: I think we have to put a lot of trust in students and in kids to get rid of the bullying problem. That doesn’t mean we can’t help them, but it can’t be something we impose. It does mean that –

R: It has to be the students and the teachers working together. You know, we could implement a program where students who are being bullied at lunch – other kids can eat with them. And other students can volunteer to help other kids with bullying problems. Mostly, I think teachers need to get closer to students. Because right now, I don’t think people trust them. They say that you can come to them, but it doesn’t really feel like it. I think that’s the problem.

CD: I was thinking – you haven’t read Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small series, right?

R: No.

[everyone should go read Protector of the Small now, if not sooner]

CD: It’s Pierce’s third series. It’s about Keladry, who is the first girl to openly try for knighthood – because Alanna dressed up like a boy during her training, right? And Keladry is bullied when she’s a page, because almost everyone is bullied their first year as a page.

R: Right.

CD: But in Keladry’s first and second years, she goes out and she fights the people who are physically bullying other people. And all her friends says “why are you doing this? It happens to everyone, everyone goes through it So why are you doing this? It’s called hazing.” Kel says: “I know that, but it’s not okay. People are getting pushed, people are getting beaten, people are getting seriously hurt and humiliated, and it needs to stop.” And eventually her friends start to join her, so then you have patrols of two or three people roaming through the halls and stopping bullies. And more people join – five or six, and then seven and eight. It takes time, but it becomes an entire movement of her friends who are like “You know what, at first I didn’t see why this was important, but now I do, and now I’m going help out.” It took a lot of effort for Keladry to do it, because she had to do most of the work at the beginning, and she got beat up a couple times. But at the end, the movement was so big that all people had to do was go out and check the halls once a night, and that was it. The bullying problem was over.

R: And I’m sure it really helped the kids who were being bullied.

CD: Yeah, because what would happen is they’d chase the bullies away, and then they’d say to the kid who was being bullied: “Hey, you want to come study with us?”

R: Yeah. Those are probably the most effective solutions. Because I think what makes it worse for me – and for other people who are being bullied – is feeling like you’re alone. Or like other people won’t help you, or like the school doesn’t care.

CD: Yeah. Like your problem isn’t legitimate.

R: Exactly. So that’s part of the solution: breaking the isolation, and making people feel less ashamed. And let them know that there are people who are there for them, and who will help them.
The long term solution is the one where people take a stand, and where they try to help and participate in the work of ending bullying. And the short term solution is teachers supporting kids, and making sure they have resources, and places where they can talk and feel safe.

CD: Is there anything else we need to talk about? Ideas, stories –

R: I can’t think of anything.

CD: Actually – I remember a story on This American Life, where there was a kid with anger management issues because he had a bad home life. And so at school, he was a jerk, and his classmates made fun of him all the time. getting bullied all the time. One day, the other students were really teasing him, so the teacher sent everyone out of the room except the three most popular girls. Not necessarily the most popular kids, actually – kids who are sort of like you: they’re diplomatic, and everyone likes them, but they’re not necessarily the most popular. And the teacher sat them down, and she said “Look, this is why Brendan – I made up that name – is angry all the time. First, please don’t tell anyone. And second, I need you to help me stop people from bullying him.”  when the other students came back, the girls started working with their friends, and saying “No, we’re not going to make fun of him.” And that eventually made the bullying stop.

R: That’s a really good example of how a solution like that would work. I’m not surprised it was so effective. It takes a group of people who decide to do it. Who decide to start a movement. We need a movement.

CD: Yes. We need an anti-bullying movement from the ground up.

R: Exactly.

CD: Okay. That’s a good note to end on. This is us signing off. Everyone: don’t bully.

R: Yes. It’s not good, as the teachers say.

CD: And if you’ve been bullied, there are resources. And we will find them.

***

There are two things that really resonate with me from this interview. One is:

“You know, I think one of the big lies adults tell you in middle-school is that they’re always there for you. And sometimes, they’re really not.”

And the other is:

“Being bullied is not a sign of weakness”

We need to fix the first problem. We need to be there for those who are being bullied. We need to stop dismissing it as drama, or as something everyone goes through, or as a phase they’ll get over, or as “character building.” We need to stop pretending that kids who complain about bullying are “oversensitive” or need to toughen up. And we need to stop ignoring the problem just because it happens to kids. It’s all well and good to say “it gets better.” But we need to make it better now.

If all you can do is listen, do that. I cannot stress how important listening – or just being there – is.

And we need to make sure everyone knows the second part: Being bullied is not a sign of weakness.

Thanks for reading, everyone.

Note on Comments: I’m usually pretty light on the moderation – so far, I’ve never deleted a comment. I don’t even mind people who insult me personally. However, if you go after my brother, I will stuff your comment up into the place where the sun don’t shine so fast I’ll set a new speed record. Frankly, if you go after any of the bullied kids we talked about – or bullied kids in the abstract – the same thing will happen. And homophobia? Not an option. You have been warned.

Resources:

How to support kids involved in bullying

Where to get help

Trevor Hotline for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Youth: 1- 866-488-7386. (Important note: If you are called gay, or harassed for acting/seeming gay, the Trevor hotline will help you even if you don‘t identify as LGBTQ. In other words, the service is not exclusively for LGBTQ teens)

National Hotline for Children and Teens: 1-800-448-3000 (They will help you with bullying problems; sexual, physical or emotional abuse; suicide prevention; school issues; depression etc. They’re wonderful, and very well trained – no matter what your problem, they can help (and if they can’t, they will find someone who can)).

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

If you are being bullied, or if you know someone being bullied, and you don’t know who to talk to, these hotlines will help you. PLEASE call them (or find someone you trust to talk with), even if you think your problem isn’t important, or that it doesn’t count as bullying, or that it’s your fault. Call them.

Unfortunately, these are USA-specific numbers (any suggestions for other countries?) If you know of other resources or other hotlines, please let me know and I’ll add them to the list. I’m particularly frustrated that I can’t find a dedicated national hotline for bullying victims…


My Brother and I reform the American Educational System: Complaints about the Lexile Test

Many of you may know that I have an amazing younger brother (R). For those of you who don’t know, let me be the first to tell you: I have an amazing younger brother.
Trust me on this, I’m not biased at all.

My brother and I spend a lot of time reading together (when we’re in the same city) or giving each other recommendations for what to read (when we’re not). We talk about books ALL THE TIME. R. has forced me to stay awake until I finished a book he wanted to talk to me about (this was during my winter break, otherwise known as “the only time in the world I can sleep.” I was not pleased). The book, by the way, was Deadline by Mira Grant, and my ensuing discussion with R. was totally worth the lack of sleep. R. and I are bizarre like that. It freaks some people out.

Last summer, two poor, innocent members of my family were trapped in a car with me and my brother while we were talking about China Mielville’s The Scar, which is one of our favorite novels of all time. By the time we’d gone through a blow-by-blow plot summary and a careful analysis of every major character, and we were moving towards the inevitable comparisons with China Mielville’s other Bas-Lag novel, Perdido Street Station, our driver looked ready to claw his way out of the vehicle with his bare hands.

So, as you can probably tell, my brother is pretty passionate about books. (Did I mention he’s awesome?)

It is in this vein that I present to you the following story. For the record, I did ask my brother’s permission to post this – I’m not using him as an unwilling source of amusement!

R. sent me an email about an incident at his middle school:

 “At school today, in science, we’re starting a new project. You have to read a scientific article and summarize it and bla bla bla. The  usual. Then my teacher says that you should pick what you read by your Lexile score. Under my breath, I said “That’s so stupid!” But my teacher heard me! So he asked, “What’s so stupid?” So I said “I think that it’s unfair to regulate what students read by what they got on a test that for all we know could be very inaccurate. Students should challenge themselves, right? Students aren’t going to read things if you give them specific material. People should be able to read what they want! What if you wanted to read something interesting but it was too “challenging” for you? That’s why I said “that’s so stupid.”” And [the teacher] was speechless. Ha Ha Ha!”

Uh, have I mentioned that my brother is awesome? If teacher had called me out in middle school, I would have fallen out of my chair, and said something along the lines of “Ghlahbbshiiiirghportanggoooo bang bang, uh, what was the yyyyaaaarghing question?” And then I probably would have burst into flames. Or melted like the Wicked Witch of the West. But not only did R. have a non-melting response to the teacher, he had a GREAT response to the teacher. Seriously, we should have him writing education policy for the United States.

I think his comment to the teacher pretty much stands for itself, but since I like to blather on, I’ve got some additional information and some commentary.

If you don’t already know, American students in middle and elementary student get their Lexile score after taking the corresponding Lexile test.  I don’t know if it’s used outside the USA – if you are a foreign reader, and you know, speak up!* The Lexile score, in theory, measures reading ability and should allow the teachers to match students to “appropriate” books. Essentially, it’s a reading test. I never had to take it, but I think I only managed to avoid that era by only a year or two.

I understand the instinct behind the use of Lexile scores. Schools want students to read more, and think that if kids are discouraged by the books (or articles) they’re asked to read, they’ll read less. I also want to tread carefully, since there are probably reasons for using the Lexile Score that I’m not thinking of. But in the essentials, I think my brother’s right.

Part of the problem is sheer inaccuracy. The Lexile test is a high-pressure, timed examination. It cannot possibly replicate the conditions under which most students read. While supposedly the test tells us things about reading comprehension and analysis, instead, I think it tests kids’ abilities to work when faced with speed and stress. Neither of those factors is particularly important to good reading. As far as I know, kids aren’t strapped to their chairs and forced to read The Scarlet Letter in thirty minutes or less in their language arts classes (although that would have made my middle school years far more interesting).

Moreover, although I can understand using something like the Lexile scores to gauge a class’s general reading level (I don’t like it, but I can understand it), I think using Lexile scores to determine what kids should be reading is a terrible, terrible idea. The assumption behind the Lexile test – and the science teacher’s remarks – seems to be that what will get kids to read is reading material that is not too hard. And yes, it’s important not to discourage kids. But I seriously doubt any avid reader fell in love with books by going “Wow, that was not too hard! I want to do that again!” Or even “That article was not too hard! I want to learn more science now!”

So many of the problems we face in getting kids to read more are ones that take place before the book is even opened. The schools don’t have enough money. The teachers don’t have enough training. Kids don’t have time to read outside of school. Many students have serious problems outside of their academic life. It’s hard to concentrate on language arts when your Mother is sick, or your electricity is off, or you live in an unsafe neighborhood, or your classmates bully you. Those are important issues, and they need to be addressed. The Lexile Score is no solution. Nor do I have a solution to those problems.

I do, however, have an idea about what to do once we get students opening books.

If that first page is opened, I think a student’s interest in the book is determined not by the ease of reading, but by their interest in the book’s content. And I think that by focusing on the Lexile scores – on level of difficulty rather than level of interest – we are doing students a grave disservice.

I have no idea what my brother’s Lexile score is; I never did. I’ve bought him quite a few books; I’ve recommended even more, and he’s stolen an immoral quantity of novels out of my bookshelves. (Yes, R., if you’re reading this, I know about those. And I am not pleased).

I recommend books to my brother based oh the blind assumption that if he’s interested in them, he’ll read them regardless of how difficult they are. I’ll gladly admit that it’s a stupid assumption, but for the most part, it’s proven useful.  As I wrote above, my brother has read China Mielville’s The Scar – in fact, he’s read almost all of Mielville’s oeuvre. R. also read (and loved) Bram Stroker’s Dracula at the tender age of eleven. I’m pretty sure he’s read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine. Last summer, he read Azar Nafisi’s very sophisticated, intertextual autobiography Reading Lolita in Tehran for fun. None of these are typical 12 year old fare. And none of them are “easy texts” – even Mielville, the most “popular” of these writers,  has a knotty prose style, and his plots are complicated enough to give me headaches (of joy).

And if I’ve followed the content assumption with R., it’s because that’s the way I came to books. I read my first classic at eight. I took it off my parents’ bookshelf because the name was interesting. It had a strange cover. The print was tiny. I shouldn’t have liked it – but the first few lines described a girl my age being thrown in a haunted bedroom by her mean Aunt and her bullying Cousins, and I was captivated. I identified with her; I knew her; I had to know what happened to her. The book, of course, was Jane Eyre. If my parents had been using a miniature Lexile score, they probably would have taken Jane Eyre out of my hands and given me a more appropriate text. Which would have been a shame.

I want to be clear that I don’t think R. and I read Dickens and Bronte at a young age because we were some kind of prodigies.  Much as I’d like to believe that my family is fertile ground for young geniuses, those books should be within the power of most teenagers to read. That they don’t speaks more, in my opinion, to their interest in Jane Eyre than to their lack of reading skills.

When we make students read Huckleberry Finn and The Scarlet Letter and they seem completely uninterested, it’s a lot easier to blame it on their reading skills than to consider the issue of content. Maybe younger students nowadays can’t identify with Huckleberry Finn. Maybe they don’t care about Hester Prynn (sacrilege!). Maybe we should focus on finding books that students want to read – in hopes that someday they’ll turn to the books we want them to read.

So why aren’t we trying to find books that kids want to read?

A lot of it has to do with trust. We, as adults (I’m over eighteen! I’m totally an adult!) think that we know best for kids. And a lot of times, we do. But in this particular situation, I worry that our intransigence – our belief that we know their reading interests and their reading levels better than they do – leads to problems.

Yes, the content kids prefer might be Gossip Girl. Or The Hunger Games. Or Twilight. It’s okay. They’ll live; I promise. I went through a YA phase, and my parents freaked out. They wanted me to read Joseph Conrad. I wanted to read The Princess Diaries. But if I’d read Joseph Conrad when I was fifteen, I would have been wanted to drown the man in a teacup. Now, I really like Conrad. I also really like The Princess Diaries. Reading YA didn’t – and doesn’t – prevent me from reading and enjoying “literature.”

Yes, the content some kids want to read might have sex. It might have violence. It might have drugs. Good.  There are a lot of Middle Schoolers who deal with sex, abuse, violence, death, drugs, disease, bullying etc. on a daily basis. They should be able to read books that speak to them. We can’t just pretend that “grown up” problems are divorced from the lives of pre-teens and teenagers. Maybe we can even use it as an opportunity to talk about those issues with kids.

(I know. I just proposed that we talk about sex with kids. Someone arrest me).

Or maybe they’ll just prefer to read War and Peace. Or Gossip Girl. Or Whale Talk. In any case, they’ll be reading. And if they like what they’re reading, odds are, they’ll want to read more.

As R. said:  “People should be able to read what they want! What  if you wanted to read something interesting but it was too “challenging” for you?”

My brother: as awesome as Starbuck:

(No, I don’t know if Starbuck reads. But if she does, I guarantee she reads neither The Princess Diaries or Joseph Conrad. I’ve always pegged her as a Whale Talk gal myself.)

Anyone have other insights into the use of Lexile Scores? Am I not seeing something? How else can we get kids to read?