A YouTube video went viral not long ago. In the video a heavy set school boy is seen with a small tormenter jumping in his face, poking at him. Suddenly, the larger boy picks up the smaller boy and slams him to the ground. The smaller boy, stunned, limps off to the cheers of the other students who are watching. Reportedly, the younger boy had been bullying the larger boy for a long time. The bigger boy finally had had enough and dealt rough justice to the little bully.
Bullies come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes, when I look back on my life, it seems like I have spent most of it dealing with them. The recent horrifying stories of teen suicide related to bullying (there was another terrible story this last week of a teen girl ending her life after a long siege of bullying) speak of a culture that is increasingly bestial, where only the strongest survive. Bullying may be getting a lot of attention now due to social media and the wave of suicides, but bullying is as old as mankind.
I know well the power that bullies have to destroy. My siblings and I attended a small Christian school. The concept was good in theory. In reality, what happened was that parents who had rebellious kids in public school decided that a Christian school was just the place to straighten them out–particularly those with a taste for drugs and booze, foul language, and the odd illegal martial arts weapon or firecracker.
Because of who we were as administrator’s kids, we were guaranteed social problems from the first day. As the assorted druggies and general malefactors were expelled, their remaining colleagues in the school halls took their revenge on the us, the perceived “narcs” who had tattled on them. I remember one morning before school started, I was at a desk in an empty classroom working when three senior girls came in with a can of shaving cream. Despite my attempts at self-defense, they smeared the cream in my hair, on my glasses, on my books and papers. It wasn’t a joke, all in fun, it was an assault. All these years later, I can still feel the violation of those rough hands on me while they hissed out insults. Three senior high school girls against one junior high girl. What a fair fight.
There was nothing to be done about the hostility, as it was based on who we were. When you were related to administration, there isn’t much you could do. Any effort to fit in was met with failure. I even showed up at a school basketball game near my home once with our new puppy, Rudy, in my coat. I had this delusional idea that it might attract notice or comment and a conversation might ensue with some of the kids on the bleachers. It didn’t work. I remembered walking home realizing, Ah! It’s because I’m a social loser, that’s why! I was just told so today at school!
The worst attack came when I was 16. One of the notorious potheads at the school hung out with two other girls, a smirking trio that boasted of their sexual exploits and drug use. One of them was clearly under the influence one English class when prior to the class starting, she lunged out of her desk, unprovoked, grabbed me by the hair, screaming, “God–I hate you!” while jerking my head around. My glasses flew off, and she was left with hair in her hands.
The teacher, Mrs. Wilcox, walked in just as she was finishing her assault. I ran out of the room, humiliated and crying. As a student who already struggled with self worth and depression, that attack was the beginning of a long downhill slide for me emotionally. I left school and walked all the way home that winter day without boots through the slush and sleet. I remember thinking that there was no reason I should really be alive anymore.
The student was not thrown out of the school, but was made to “apologize”, which she did, with her two sidekicks smirking along with her as she went through the motions. I was forced to go back to the school, embarrassed and degraded.
There was something daily to deal with, the snickering when I came into study hall, the strategic maneuvering by the senior girls so I would have been the only one left to room with the chaperone on the senior trip to Florida (I didn’t go), the feeling of loneliness and isolation because of the just under the surface ridicule always present, and above all, nothing in my life to counterbalance the messages I was receiving. If had had just one other consistent objective voice in my life–an interested faculty member, a youth pastor’s wife or someone who appreciated my interests in history or writing, it would have made such a difference. As it was, I was on my own.
That same sense of loneliness and isolation in suffering caused by bullying can be seen and heard in the writing and videos of some of the teens who have ended their lives. At that age, it is nearly impossible to understand that high school is such a temporary phase. All you can hear are the voices of those who “matter”, your peers. When you are constantly told by peers that you are ugly, stupid, pathetic, laughable and so forth, you internalize those messages in your heart at the deepest level. Unless you are an unusual young person of faith, or unless you have parents who actively seek to get you away from those messages, you are at the mercy of the bullies. Or so you feel. The more you feel depressed and rejected, the more you believe the messages. Unless the cycle is broken by someone in your life, you are intensely vulnerable. Your hunger for affirmation and kindness makes you eager to keep it, if and when you find it, even if it’s the wrong place.
Bullying conduct is not just the behavior of kids. If bullies aren’t confronted and given push back, they continue on into adulthood. Many reading this blog are aware that I once published a successful Christian news blog called Slice of Laodicea. Back when blogging was relatively new, I began publishing news and comment in conjunction with the radio talk show I produced and co-hosted. It was a natural adjunct to the programming I did on issues that affected the family and church. At its peak, we were getting 10,000 unique hits a day from readers around the world.
This could really be a post in itself, but I will tell you that my encounter with online discernment blog bullies was eye-opening. A swaggering podcaster/blogger, a man who calls himself a “pirate” and his listeners “mateys”, took a dislike to something I had written on my blog about Rick Warrren’s attempts to woo those in the Reformed faith. The man could have easily written to me and said, “Dear Ingrid, I take exception to what you’ve written in your latest post. I would like to talk with you about it as I don’t think you are being fair in your assessment. In Christ, The Pirate.” Instead, he sent two emails that were so threatening, my sister actually thought he was physically threatening me. Another blogger wrote to the pirate privately, saying that using the term, “prepare to be boarded” even had connotations of rape. The pirate threatened to blast me with his “cannons” and told me he was loading them up for a “full broadside.” He fulfilled his promise.
The pirate bully went after me on his podcast and Facebook account for several days, sneering that I had zero discernment and should be picking bananas in South America. It was the puerile, bellicose ranting of someone in utter disregard of Christ’s commands as to how we treat others, let alone a fellow believer. And his enablers, either apathetic or afraid of the skeletons in their own closets, stayed silent. Bullies cannot thrive without the help of others, whether it’s in the hallways of the local middle school or the corridors of the carnival fun house called “discernment ministry.” I am comforted that God has seen all of it, including the deletion of all of my articles by another online bully, an act that could have cost me years of work had a friend in Christ not captured the article cache for me. To this day, I have never received any apology for the pirate’s behavior nor an apology from his cowardly colleagues. It doesn’t matter to him or his acolytes.
There’s an interesting lesson here about the conduct of bullies. None of them can exist without supporters or enablers. What caused me to shut down the blog wasn’t the attack of one spiritually deranged little man with an outsized ego and no manners. What caused me to shut the blog down was the total public silence of those I had worked with for years online–the other Christians. Bullies, when they are not exposed and rebuked by real Christians, are strengthened to harm others. When a blogger I had worked closely with for years said nothing in my defense, even after I had publicly defended him against another bully, Richard Abanes who had publicly defamed him, I realized that something was seriously wrong spiritually with the discernment blog world. How could a brother in Christ watch a sister be publicly mauled and left by the side of the road and remain silent? That’s a question I can’t answer.
It takes courage to face bullies, especially those who drape themselves in spirituality and cast themselves as truth warriors. Any exposure of their conduct can always be characterized as “spiritual attacks” because they are having such an influence for good supposedly. Where there is no Christian conscience, there is limitless potential for interpersonal damage. In the last year, I am sometimes staggered at how much of it I have witnessed. The bully perpetrators care about nothing but their own reputations. That, they are prepared to go to war over.
Our job is to resist the bullies online by never stooping to their level, to always be open to reconciliation and forgiveness and to pray for the souls of those who without a pang of conscience, run over the faces and hearts of others in the name of serving our Savior.
My advice to parents when bullying is going on at school or elsewhere is to listen to what your kids are saying. Contend for them. In an age when bullying is increasingly aggressive, parents need to be equally so. Above all, be willing to remove your kids. If you can’t afford private education (in a healthy school) or private online distance learning, take advantage of open enrollment and sign your child up for online public education options. Wisconsin Connections Academy (they have these all over the country) is just one of those choices at no cost to the parents, and the class options are many. A toxic school environment can have consequences for the rest of your child’s life, as the trajectory in high school can be a lifelong indicator.
Also, find a supportive outside school activity for your student if they have had a lot of negative messages from peers. Let them follow their interests and find their passion. They need to feel they can succeed at something. That is the greatest antidote to lying messages from peers—seeing that they ARE good at something, that they can contribute something and are a person of value to someone. Failure to do this with your student can mean they may find their identity and affirmation in the wrong places. Parents, teachers and all those in leadership need to observe what is going on and take bullying seriously. Lives may depend on it.