I have always been short. But so’s the rest of my family, so I didn’t actually think anything of it until I went to school for the first time. I befriended one of my other classmates, Chris Heinrich, who was already skirting towards a colossal six feet in elementary school. People called me names, and tried to tease me about it, but I fought back. First with my fists, and then after a one year stint in parochial school where I learned I could cut deeper and harsher, with my words. The best defense is a good offense. I was like some sort of Don Rickles Terminator, quickly assessing the other person’s personal weaknesses and striking them mercilessly until they were in tears. So…I became a bully. I let most things slide, but raise my fucking ire, and I would take you the fuck apart. You toss a rock, I didn’t just throw back a brick, I would drop an entire fucking house on you. It was shitty. But I don’t know that I’d be the curmudgeonly sonofabitch we all know and love today if I didn’t learn to take my lumps.
But all in all, I only took a few lumps. I thought bullying was healthy — it would teach you to grow hard scar tissue over weak spots. The facile “boys will be boys” argument. The rub some dirt in it. How much dirt is enough? About six feet of it deep enough to cover a half-sized coffin? I think back on some of the things we did in school, and I shudder. We casually slung around the words “faggot” and “gay” as putdowns - and now some of those kids are out of the closet. For a stint in middle school, we used to simulate mock video game attacks like the “50 Foot Kick” and “Sun Punch” where we would leap across the hallway between classes and boot someone into a locker. And it wasn’t a pretend kick. It was hard enough to launch them into a locker from across a hallway. Our teacher left the classroom to go to the bathroom, and we started “horsing around,” which resulted in her coming back to find one of our friends up in the front of the room, clutching his ribcage and wincing, with a chalk dust halo around his head from us chucking erasers at his head. We weren’t even trying to hurt him. We were just fucking playing around. She asked what happened, and he mumbled, “Nothing. We were just playing.” He could barely get the words out.
Kids are cruel. This seems to be both the explanation and justification for bullying and the ineffective efforts schools make to prevent it. Documentarian Lee Hirsch does a heartbreaking job chronicling the miserable experiences of a varied cavalcade of bullied teens in his film Bully. The film covers two kids who committed suicide, one young girl serving time in juvenile detention for pulling a gun on the classmates that were ganging up on her, one odd duck developmentally disabled boy who gets mercilessly abused by everyone, and one gay Oklahoma teen who wasn’t just ostracized by schoolmates AND TEACHERS, but by the entire community. What makes these children’s stories heartbreaking isn’t necessarily watching them get abused - it’s that these aren’t extreme examples. As you read this, there’s a kid right now contemplating suicide. Or homicide. And it’s got to stop.
But how? That’s the question. While it’d be easy to vilify politicking school boards, the tools at their disposal are useless and rusty. Zero tolerance policies are just as shitty and pointless as turning a blind eye. Schools are dropping art and music programs; you think they’ve got time to watch everyone? And they can bring in counselors and assembly presentations and speakers and they can sell rubber bracelets and they can paint their faces and it’s not going to do diddly fucking shit because kids are assholes. Because their parents are assholes. No one is born into hate. Dr. Seuss didn’t write a book about Franklyn the Giant Faggot who sucks dicks like a fucking girl, you pussy. Toys R’ Us doesn’t carry hunting rifles and knives. You’ve got to learn that somewhere.
Hirsch’s Bully does a wonderful job of promoting bully awareness. But we know bullying happens. And we know bullying is bad. It’s like when people raise money for cancer awareness. I’m aware of cancer. What the fuck are we doing to stop it? The solution, like most of the activism documentaries out these days, is a website. It’s a Facebook page, and rubber bracelets. People have been touting the film as “something that needs to be shown in schools everywhere.” But these kids won’t give a hot shit on a cold day about the film. It’s just a marketing ploy to get more people to watch the film. Just like the PG-13 debacle. I love the fucking irony that the MPAA feels the need to censor a real life scene documenting a teen boy peppering his threats of pummeling and stabbing another teen boy with the word “fuck” because they feel it would inappropriate to subject teens to hearing that sort of language in a cinematic setting. Of course, if the boy actually did stab the other kid in the chest and face, they could film that and still earn a PG-13. But all in all the film’s main message is “Isn’t this terrible?” Yes. It is terrible. But what are we going to do about it? The solution seems to be getting the community involved. But the community was involved with poor gay Kelsy. They’re the motherfuckers who shunned her. And they did it with pride.
Interestingly enough, the film inadvertently points at a solution. At one point, as they film on the bus with the slightly odd boy Alex, we see countless scenes of him getting punched, then choked, then stabbed with a pencil in the arm. The filmmakers were so concerned with the escalation of danger towards the boy that they brought the footage to the parents and the school administration. Alex wouldn’t tell his parents that he was getting bullied. He called the kids his friends - because if they weren’t his friends, then what friends did he have? He didn’t tell, because they didn’t do anything about it. He had reported it a year ago, when one of the boys unlatched the bus seat and stuck his head under it and then sat on his fucking head. The assistant principal said “Did he sit on your head after I talked with him?” And sure, while headsitting was taken out of their arsenal, the kids still abused poor Alex. And when the principal confronted these boys, they smiled and explained that it was sad that some of those other kids were picking on Alex, because he’s weird or annoying. Then the teacher read them transcripts from the video she watched. Of that particular kid beating or punching Alex. And then she explained that that particular kid wouldn’t be riding the bus for the rest of the year. So now the parents have to take their kid to school. Now, I didn’t see if retribution occurred, but that’s what it might take. We’ve got cameras on phones and on computers. They’ve already got cameras on the busses. Use the footage. But it all means that the kids have to speak up.
What it’ll take to stop bullying is two-fold: kids need to speak up and adults need to listen. It’s going to be difficult to teach kids that it’s okay to tell someone when you are being hurt. That someone deserves to be in trouble for hurting another person, whether they use fists or words. You aren’t a baby or a pussy or a snitch. You’re brave for standing up. And if you see someone else doing it, you tell an adult. Or you tell the other person to back off. It’s easy for a group of people to pick on one person, it’s a fuck of a lot harder for one person to pick on a group of people. And it’s important for adults to listen - to actually fucking listen - when a child tells you they’re hurting inside. And then do something about it. A friend posted an article from The Morning Call back in PA about a student body president who made an announcement about the problems in the school including kids who would smuggle cheesesteaks out of the lunchroom and throw them down the crowded halls between classes to see how many people they could hit at once. The principal called her into the office, flanked by two members of the school board, to lecture her about “public image” of the school and insist that future announcements be turned into him in advance for review. This is not the correct response. The correct response is to get more information and then stop kids from throwing food down a hallway like a zoo animal. The correct response would be for all the other kids in the hall to freeze and silently point at the offender pitching the fucking cheesesteak until a teacher can be summoned to take them to a small windowless room. You tell me that if kids went all Children of the Corn on someone they wouldn’t rectify that behavior?
But our society needs to change first. We don’t treat each other well. We rail and insult. For fuck’s sake, that’s what I do for a living on this site — make fun of other people. It’s funnier to rip apart than to put back together. Destruction is recreation, construction is occupation. Hell, even among our own private Idaho here there’s petty jealousies and name calling and insulting and backbiting. If we talk shit and make fun of people, how can we expect our kids to not do the same. If we can’t be civil as a collective society, how can we demand the same of our children. It’s so much easier to be nasty than kind, to pull other people down rather than lift ourselves up. Meanness and spiteful fighting isn’t just a way of life, it’s a fucking reality TV genre. We love to watch other people suffer because it makes us feel better about our own shitty lives. We need to knock that shit off.
Hopefully Bully will get the conversations started. And hopefully children will stop dying. There will always be something that you will get picked on for. You just to need to learn to make that your strength. I used my shortness to win a school election - “Vote for The Little Guy” - and I’ve parlayed my look into an acting career. My super tall friend Christian Heinrich topped out at 6’ 10” and he’s currently playing professional basketball in Germany. It does get better. But it shouldn’t have to be bad to begin with.