Bullies are plentiful in the sixth grade. At the age of twelve, most girls learn to exist among cruel whispers and pointing that may or may not be about them. Paranoia is at its peak, but there’s at least some comfort in humiliation that is shared among the majority.
There was one girl in particular who ruled as queen bully between the sixth and eighth grade for me; a tiny thing who wasn’t the prettiest or most popular girl. Just the meanest. She seemed to exist in constant disgust of those around her, with our inappropriate eye makeup and misguided fashion sense. Really, anything from 1988 could be interpreted as misguided. But she didn’t know that yet.
She had no idea how much we all hated her. Or maybe she did. She was a universal villain, and somehow that made her tolerable. She was the kind of classic bully we see in movies; a shared experience we can bond over. But sometimes there is bullying that singles out just one person. Have you ever been the one person?
There was an incident that happened when I was in the sixth grade that has stuck with me. I was only a witness to it. Sixth grade was the first year we had different teachers for each hour, and fifth hour was Science class with Mrs. Green. She was a veteran teacher with a reputation of being a little kooky. But kind. She was always soft-spoken and friendly. Years later I would learn that she was also a bit of a hoarder, but that’s another story.
We were all filing into our assigned chairs one day when it happened. A girl walked in and took her seat, and the row of girls behind me shouted a unanimous “moo.” The girl ran from the room crying.
Now, I cannot imagine how many times something similar had occurred with little attention, but this time Mrs. Green had been walking into the room and saw it. She went after the girl, and we all waited to see what would happen. A teacher actually seeing it meant the girls would be sent to the principal’s office and class would resume as usual. But that didn’t happen. A few minutes later Mrs. Green returned to the classroom in a rage none of us knew she was capable of. She did not send anyone to the principal’s office. She wanted us all to stay right there and talk about it.
A strange thing happens when you ask a class full of kids to talk about bullying; you find out that everyone is on the same page, even the bullies. It isn’t popular. If those mean girls didn’t feel like fools after Mrs. Green got done lecturing them, they sure did after listening to the rest of us express our own disapproval. Even though we discussed it in general terms, we all knew who had done it this time. My how their attitudes changed once they found themselves on the receiving end of peer judgment. And I am certain that no one in that class that day said an unkind word to anyone for at least a month.
But how often is bullying a student-involved classroom discussion?
My own encounter with a bully came during my Sophomore year of high school. At first I was completely blindsided. It started on a Monday in Mr. Finn’s World History class, where I sat behind a girl I didn’t know too well. She had always been nice to me, but there had been this party over the weekend….and well, stories had been told. There was a rumor about me and a boy who she liked, and now I was her enemy.
At first she made rude comments in class, or purposely dropped things on the floor rather than passing them to me. Hilarious. Next, she and a few of her friends tracked me down in the halls to sing dirty songs about me and the boy. Looking back, this was mostly embarrassing for her, but I had a pretty innocent reputation. Her constant attacks on my virtue were bringing attention to me in a way I wasn’t thrilled with, and she seemed to find such pleasure in dragging my name through the mud.
Then she followed me to work. I worked at the pizza place across the street from my high school, so it was like a scene straight out of some eighties teen movie. I was cornered, and the place was filled with students. How convenient for her. Here she and her friends could spend a whole Friday night throwing insults at me over the counter! What luck.
She made her stupid jokes. Her friends laughed, but they must have been a little uncomfortable. How upset, really, were they that I may or may not have been physically involved with some guy she had a crush on? She wasn’t dating this boy. He didn’t even like her. What business was it of theirs? Then something unexpected happened. A completely uninvolved third-party stepped in, right there in front of the ice cream display.
Jason was arguably the most popular boy in my class. His dad was the football coach, and later he would (of course) become Homecoming King. So….people liked him. In the middle of one of her verbal attacks, Jason stepped up to the counter and told her to stop. He defended my honor by proclaiming to know that the rumors were not true, and accused her of acting ridiculous. Apparently Jason’s word would hold up in any student court, because she appeared to be as relieved as she was embarrassed. She could now discard the image of me and the imagined love of her life together in any intimate way.
She actually apologized to me. I mean, genuinely apologized! And that was that. Because Jason said so.
Let’s face it; I could have complained to some kind of authority figure. Heck, I could have had her thrown out of the restaurant. But nothing would have gotten results the way Jason got results. Any other scenario would have had her pulling my hair out behind Michigan Donut (a reference only a few of you can appreciate).
I suppose we cannot expect every Jason out there to go around saving the day. It would be effective, but Jason had his own internal conflict to overcome. It’s hard to step in and tell someone they are being a jerk, especially for teenagers among friends. And although Jason continued to prove his good character throughout high school, it takes courage that even Jason didn’t always have. I know, because in seventh grade I once watched him bark like a dog at a girl until she cried. Because he wanted her to know that she wasn’t pretty enough.
People change. When we are young, we are still figuring out who we are. We are easily influenced by our friends. Even that snotty junior high villain I mentioned earlier was pleasant by graduation. We made a lot of mistakes during those years, but we were wide open for improvement. Why not make it easier? Kids want to talk about this.
I went to a high school with a reputation as the school where the rich kids go. Most of us were not rich, we were just named for the wealthiest area in our district; but that area did have a significant impact on the rest of us. The topic of school uniforms would occasionally come up in class, and the next hour would be spent with each of us explaining why it would make life easier if we all dressed the same. Everyone felt pressure to fit in, and these types of discussions had a bonding effect. The same way we all bonded that day in Mrs. Green’s classroom.
Teachers have a unique opportunity to create that atmosphere. If it makes only the smallest difference, isn’t it worth the effort? Peer pressure can be used for good. Finding out that the people around you are on your side can be life changing. Hearing influential students make a stand can change people at a time when they are most able to change. Put the conversation on the table and the kids will do the rest.