“Bullying is killing our kids. Being different is killing our kids and the kids who are bullying are dying inside. We have to save our kids whether they are bullied or they are bullying. They are all in pain.”
“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”
I must admit, I usually enjoy writing these little essays. I find myself jotting down little notes from time to time, and, over the course of a couple of weeks, they just kind of come together into a collection of (mostly) integrated ideas. It’s a fun process and something I usually look forward to.
Not this time though. No this time I felt compelled to talk about something that has in many ways been a huge issue in my life as a kid, then a teenager, and now as a child psychologist. This issue is bullying.
I've been on all sides of the bullying continuum. As a kid I was teased for my appearance, mocked relentlessly and humiliated. Later, as a teenager, I dished out plenty of the same. I teased just about anyone in my path, and this went on for a while. Maybe this was a way of dealing with my own experiences. One thing I know to be unequivocally true, is that this kind of stuff leaves scars. I've got plenty of my own, and am sure I've created a few myself. As much as I enjoy working with kids, I've often thought that it was my penance in this life to try and guide kids through their own troubled times as a way of making peace with my own past.
An image that will always haunt me came from one of my first experiences as a counselor in my early days as a psychology student. I had an assignment at a school at the end of the summer and it was hot. Not just warm, but summer in Chicago hot. A skinny kid came in wearing a baggy sweatshirt, and I made a sarcastic remark about him being overdressed. He managed a little smile, sat down, and we talked for a while. He talked to me about his parents, his neighborhood, and then finally what it was like to be gay in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood. I was very touched by his story, and told him to please come back again.
As he got up to leave, he took a long look at me, and then slowly rolled up his sleeves. There were knife marks across and all up and down his arms. Not little ones either, but long and ugly scars from years of cutting himself.
“This is why I wear long sleeve shirts in the summer” he said quietly.
It was a statement that I've never forgotten.
I never saw this particular kid again, as my assignment ended shortly afterwards, and he never showed up for his next appointment. I've always wondered what happened to him, and I find myself hoping that he somehow hung on. Still, his scars ran deep, and there were a lot of them.
Unfortunately those weren't the last scars that I've seen, but it was the last time I ever made a sarcastic comment about a kid wearing long sleeves. It reminded me of a lesson that I often forget. Words matter. Sometimes they matter so much that they make vulnerable and scared children run knives across their arms, sometimes fatally. It’s all a little terrifying actually. You want to tell these kids that this stuff is not going to last forever. That one day they will be out of High School and free from small minds and mean people.
But you really can’t promise that.
What you can do is listen and try and understand. You can give them a place where they can talk about the isolation and the confusion and the humiliation. And some of them will survive and become the “massive characters” that Kahlil Gibran discusses in the above quotation. Many of the world’s great success stories start in this very manner. But some of them wont. Some of them will spend the rest of their lives thinking that they aren't welcome in a world that has been so hard on them.
What we can also do is advocate for those who have yet to realize the power of their own voices. Personally I've come to see this as my duty and responsibility. Bullying has become one of the most serious epidemics of our generation, and it’s killing our kids, both literally and figuratively. If you are in a position to influence a child in your life, please take the time to talk to them about this.
A life may depend on it.