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The Deadly Cost of Bullying

06/22/2012 11:21 EDT | Updated 10/12/2012 02:55 EDT
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Confession: I was an A-hole kid. My parents raised me well but my teachers broke me. I gave into the monkey mentality and harassed another person who everyone decided was a loser. I will never, ever amend that. We were nine or 10 and he was a new kid who spoke in a funny accent and was probably a little bit mentally delayed. He talked to himself. He wet himself. He made funny noises and screeched like an animal. He was flamboyant and weird. He was maybe gay. His name was Slawek. He just didn't fit in. And we, kids, picked up on that right away. We were mean to him. We mimicked the way he talked and chased him as he'd run off squealing. Laughing. Laughing, because that was the thing about him -- he thought we liked him. He didn't get it. At least for a little while -- until the abuse escalated.

It escalated when the adults got involved. But not in the way you'd think. In fact, the adults gave us the impression that what we were doing was okay. Our music teacher even made up a song about Slawek that he made us sing as a group! It went like this (translated from Polish so it doesn't rhyme at all): "Oh little sun, show us your face because the cloud looks funny on you. And the frown doesn't suit you."

Slawek was the "little sun" in the song and although it sounds cute and innocent, it wasn't. Imagine a whole group of kids singing that to you, a new strange kid with a frown on your face? My memories of that time are cloudy but I think I remember him crying when we sang that. I think that's when it sunk in that he was different and that everyone was picking on him. At least that's what my broken heart tells me when I think back to that time.

Meanwhile grownups kept not saying anything about Slawek's abuse. Take our homeroom teacher. She wasn't any better. She commented on Slawek's funny accent all the time and she berated him for being slow in front of the class. She wrote him up for talking to himself -- she wrote kids up for the strangest offences. (I got written up for "moving too much while sitting at my desk" for example.) She was an abusive person who wouldn't think twice of smacking a kid on the head. I got smacked. It wasn't a big deal. I was tough. Today this sort of behaviour from teachers would be considered criminal and would probably have some serious repercussions. Back then, it was only mentioned in passing... after Slawek killed himself.

Or maybe he just fell out of that window? At least that's what we kids were saying to each other. (He was only 10 -- how would a 10-year-old even think of doing such a thing?) When the media showed up at our school, the teachers gave interviews and suggested the kids were taunting Slawek and that there was possibly some abuse at home, too. Later on that week, on the news, a strange short dramatization aired that showed kids tattling on a boy and poking him with sticks on the playground. In the end, there was not a kid left in my class who wasn't traumatized by this event but, most importantly, there was one kid dead.

I have a little boy now. He is three years old. A while ago I watched him get bullied by three older boys in a sandbox at the playground. I didn't catch on too quickly because I wasn't sure what was happening. But there they were, pointing to him and shouting, "You are bad! You are bad! You are bad!" and he was crying and I ran up to him and took him in my arms and hugged him close and felt rotten for not noticing sooner. The thing is, the mother of the boys was standing right next to the sandbox and did nothing. Nothing. It seems she is OK with her sons growing up to be A-holes. Perhaps she feeds them bullets for breakfast and tells them to "man up" when they soil their diapers too.

I just watched the Karen Huff Klein bullying video. You should watch this video. In case you're not sure what bullying looks like, it's captured perfectly. If you can't stomach the whole 10-something minutes of it, just watch the beginning. Early on, you can see Huff Klein take off her sunglasses to wipe the tears off her face. Off the camera you can hear the little monkeys hooting and spewing obscenities. Better yet, watch that video with your kids. Show them what bullying looks like. Teach them.

Group mentality can be a terrible and deadly thing. It's been written about in fiction (for example, in Lord of the Flies by Wiliam Golding); it's been studied by psychologists; it's been discussed ad nauseum in the media in reference to bullying. Bullying is bad. Whether it's a little kid named Slawek or an adult named Karen Huff Klein.

The thing about children, however, is that they're just forming their little brains and it's only natural for them to be swayed by the stronger kids in their group. Without grownups to tell them that to do that is terribly wrong and cruel, they have no chance to learn sensitivity toward those who may be a little different than them. I know that I'm not making the most original point but perhaps this is the point that needs to be repeated: Take responsibility and don't let your kids grow up to be bullies!

Originally published on they don't tell you.