Bullies are in the news a lot these days. We’ve seen two people end their own lives in as many weeks as a result of cyber bullying. As a teacher, I can tell you that bullies are a big problem in school. This is nothing new. Bullies have always been a problem. And it’s easy to blame the bully, or even the person being bullied. If only he or she had stood up for himself or herself. That’s really easy to say. But really what is a person supposed to do?
I was the victim of bullying as a kid. I was bullied because I was fat. I was bullied because I was a liberal living in a conservative town. I was bullied because I had long hair when the other boys had short hair. Being bullied is always about being different from the others. So what was I supposed to do? Surrender and be like everybody else? Okay, losing weight might have been good for me. But should I have lost weight to please everybody else? And should I have changed my political opinions and hair style to please everybody else too? Why can’t we let people be different without hurting them?
Sometimes we don’t recognize bullies because they are us. That is, sometimes a bully isn’t a person; sometimes the bully is a group of people, a clique. We all remember the cliques from high school. We just see them as a part of growing up. We laugh about them. We make fun of them. The truth is, those cliques were really cruel. You didn’t see that if you weren’t the person being rejected by the clique, but cruel they were. It’s painful being rejected. It’s especially painful being rejected by the people you admire.
I was reading a web page for kids all about cliques. It tries to teach kids about how cliques are bad things, about how they hurt people. The web site says, “If you are on the outside of a clique, it can hurt your feelings. You might feel very frustrated, angry, or sad and want to cry or say mean things about the people in the clique. You might feel lonely if you’re alone at lunch or after school, or even afraid if you feel that someone might pick on you or fight with you. You might be frustrated or upset because you don’t know what to do. You might feel down on yourself because the group doesn’t want you as a member. You might feel hurt because of the ways other kids keep you out.” (kidshealth.org)
The article recommends, “Parents, sisters and brothers, other family members, and teachers can help when someone is being left out or treated in a mean way. They might help by giving you advice on how to deal with mean kids. Sometimes they can teach kids that it isn’t OK to treat others this way and show them ways to stop kids being mean to other kids.” (kidshealth.org) I would just like to say right here and now that this advice is all well and fine, but I doubt it will help much. Adults don’t know any more than children do about this. Adults are just as bad.
As adults, we don’t go off to school every morning. We go off to work. And now we contend with workplace bullies instead of school yard bullies. Sometimes it’s our boss. Sometimes it’s a co-worker. And the cliques at work are just as cruel as the cliques in high school. I don’t know why anybody would think that adults know how to deal with the problem of bullying.
I have seen workplace bullies work their magic. I’ve seen the attitudes of good employees crumble away. I’ve seen good people chased out of a profession for no good reason. I’ve heard other employees say things like, “She just doesn’t fit in.” I’ve seen people ostracized and isolated. But what can you do? You can try to be a friend, but the work place is usually much smaller than a school. You can’t tell the person they can make other friends. There are no other friends to make.
There is a priest at our parish. He’s from another country. He speaks English, but he has a pretty thick accent. I am told that nobody wants to talk to him. The other priest gets tons of dinner invitations. Everybody wants the other priest to do the funeral, the wedding, hear the confession, say the home mass. Okay, so the new priest is different. So he has an accent. I’ve talked to the guy. He has a great sense of humor. He’s a funny guy.
The truth is you can’t make people like somebody. And while most people are good enough not to hurt your feelings one on one, they have no problem being cruel when they are part of a group. And we still shouldn’t have to change ourselves around to satisfy what other people expect us to be. It hurts adults just as much as it hurts children to be an outsider, rejected by the clique.
I can say this because I have been the victim of this lately. I used to hang out with my fellow teachers at my grade level at lunch and recess. We used to talk and joke at lunch. Two teachers joined our faculty a couple of years ago, and ever since they came, I’ve been sort of pushed out. They now sit at other tables in the lunch room. When I’ve come to sit next to them, they all now turn their chairs away and turn their backs to me. I’ve even seen them get up to leave a table where I was sitting as soon as one of the others came into the room. They make grade level plans without including me in the discussions. I don’t know why they suddenly don’t like me. I try to be kind and welcoming to everyone. I will tell you that it hurts just as much being rejected now as it did in high school.
So if a kid was having a problem feeling outcast and rejected, I don’t know what I’d tell them. I certainly won’t discount their pain. There are no easy answers. All you can really do is tell yourself that you don’t have to respond to the negative energy being sent your way with the same negative energy. You can remind yourself that it is good to be loving and forgiving. And then you can go and do something different so you don’t have to hang around those people. You can’t make them like you. And really, who wants to be accepted into a group that is being forced to accept you?
I think I would tell kids and adults alike to take care that they don’t become part of the problem by being bullies themselves. We have to take a close look at the way we treat other people. Maybe if we are part of a group that is rejecting somebody else, we should speak up and say something. Maybe we should take the risk of being rejected ourselves. And maybe we should go out of our way to make other people feel welcome.
A friend of mine, a teacher who taught at our school for over thirty years, made a point of going to sit with every substitute he saw in the lunch room, just to make them feel welcome at our school. Nobody ever sat alone in our staff lounge when he was there. I miss him.
Lately, I have really come to believe that kindness is the solution to all our problems. If we could all just be kind. Then maybe nobody would ever have to go hungry. Maybe nobody would feel like s/he had to turn to crime to get by. Maybe nobody would get strung out on drugs. If we could all just be a little kinder, there would be an end to racism. I can’t change the world. I can’t even change you. But I can change the way I treat you. I can respond with kindness instead of anger. I can choose to forgive instead of seeking revenge. I can choose to help you instead of judge you. I can embrace you instead of reject you. I can smile instead of glare. It doesn’t have to cost anything at all.
Every classroom has a set of rules. Rule number one in my classroom is, “Be kind.” It is my own personal number one rule as well. Maybe it’s a little corny, but I think it could work. I think we could change our world. Be kind.