Eyes Wide Shut: On NOT Seeing Bullying

My last two conference presentations as a fledgling academic have been variations of the same topic: How do we teach about bullying in high school English classrooms to get students to think more critically about this topic? Bullying has been at the forefront of the media, and it was very much a part of my life as a high school English teacher that I tried to address in the classroom. However, my conference presentations didn’t discuss bullying as it is most recognized by society right now: the name calling, pushing, threats, light punches, and overall meanness that characterizes the generic definition of bullying. Bullying, where I taught, was far more violent. Or so I thought.

I am lucky to live in one of the few cities that released the documentary “Bully” a month ago and I rushed to see it. This film could not portray an environment more different from my teaching experiences if it tried. It follows several young men and women in small cities and smaller communities in the Midwest and the South as they struggled with bullying. They were bullied because they were different; they looked different, they acted differently, or their sexual orientation was different. But my teaching life has been in inner city schools, and bullying—from what I had seen—looked very different from the bullying in the film.

One thing that was repeated in the documentary “Bully” was the lack of reaction from school administrators and the local police because the situation never escalated into one of violence. There was minor pushing and punching, but no blood. There was name calling and taunting, but no full-blown fight. Because there was no violence, there was no response.

Violence was not a stranger to my school. Three years ago we became a scanning school with our own full-time metal detector due to the number of police incidents in the building. With the scanning machine we received one armed policeman in addition to the dozen security guards who already patrolled the halls. Part of my research examined the social groups in my school. The students reported that our school didn’t have cliques like those “suburban, White schools” (one student’s words) but that we had cliques based on race, gangs, and neighborhood allegiance. These cliques had fierce lines, and if they were crossed there was often a fight. Additionally, it was not uncommon to get into a physical altercation for small transgressions such has bumping someone in the hall, stepping on someone’s shoe, or looking wrongly at another person. Add social networking (the nemesis of a peaceful school), and the halls in our building were downright combustible.

I have been stewing over the film for weeks now. The schools and police in the film were unable to act because they claimed they needed something more violent to justify a reaction. In my school we had the violence, and we had many reactions to the violence, but what did we not see because of it?

And then I remembered Gabriel (not his real name), and I suddenly saw what I hadn’t seen seeing for years. Or, I had been seeing it, but the fights were so much bigger and louder that “regular” bullying became had become invisible and allowed.

Gabriel was put into my senior elective English class his junior year because he getting harassed from the kids in his grade due to his silence, the slight stutter he had when he did talk, and his intelligence. I grew to love this kid. Gabriel was an attractive, tall, smart young man whom I knew would grow up to be amazing, but he was suffering in the social hell that high school can be for those who are different. He stayed in that senior elective with me for the entire year, and while he did come out of his shell a little bit, he continued to struggle, suffer, and hope for a better life after high school.

Of course he didn’t say much of this to me, but he did write it.

I kept his end-of-year essay, and I remembered it upon watching “Bully.” It was an assignment for seniors, asking them to reflect on their four years of high school before their graduation. Gabriel’s essay reads as follows:

When I first began high school I was very nervous. The thing is that I was looking forward to the interesting experience. I went into school ready to be the best in educational terms, and be recognized. I was always treated like a nobody, or invisible entity whose only purpose was to amuse people, but they only amused themselves because I hated it. For example I would be made fun out of, tripped, had personal belongings stolen, like school textbooks. I had hope for a better future.

The friends thing was interesting because I had barely any. When engaging in the process of making friends, the experience can be agonizing. The kids didn’t work with me in a group because they said I was weird, a psycho, retarded, funny looking, annoying and so much more…

My 10th grade year in terms of friends was an improvement over 9th grade. My grades were the same, but the courses changed. My personal life was also the same as it was before according to experiences; I am a funny looking, creepy, weird, psycho. My biggest worry is that would not be able to handle the challenges of life. My biggest fear is that I would end up hating the world completely, and things would remain the same or get worse.

I have five pages of this combination of hurt, frustration, and hope.

And I realize—now—how I, as a teacher, didn’t see the bullying right in front of me. In the movie “Bully,” nothing could be done because there was no violence, but in my school, there was so much violence that I did nothing for students like Gabriel because his issues seemed so pedestrian compared to the fights in the halls and in our classrooms. I couldn’t see the bullying because I saw too much violence. Now I see both, and I am, quite honestly, overwhelmed with a heaviness in my heart for students like Gabriel whom I served so poorly and with the responsibility to act and to do better.

[A version of this post was published in The Huffington Post here.]