Bully – 2011
Director Lee Hirch
Written by Cynthia Lowen
“Pretty much a good day for me would be people leaving their hands off of me.” – Bullied student
If I could write a letter to my 15-year-old self, I would have a lot to say. The first thing I would say is to hold on. I came from a family where I was picked on by an older brother. When I would tell my Dad about it, he told me something that forced me to humanize my aggressor. He had been teased himself, my Dad said, and he looked forward to having a brother he could play with. It didn’t quite work out that way.
If that wasn’t enough, my Dad also never told me to avoid sticking up for myself at school.
“If you get into a fight,” he advised me, in all seriousness, “You better make damn sure that you end it. You don’t want that person ever coming back for more later.”
This method worked well for me in elementary school, but I think it may more have been that I was the biggest kid in K-6 from 4th Grade on. I was not in many fights. When I did, fight, it was to protect my sisters. I walked to school, so there were no busing issues at that time.
Everything changed in 7th Grade. The schools had been rezoned so that I was bused to a school half way across town. I can still remember the tension of that first ride into my Junior High. It was a palpable sense of oppression and extremely depressing.
When I got to school, the change was even more profound. In my very first class, I noticed that there were about 3 kids in the class that were just as tall as me. One of them, named Cliff, made a B-line for me, before the first bell even rang, and challenged me to fight. I managed to avoid a fisticuffs, because I was startled, scared and did not want to make sure I had to “end it.” The experience was like nothing I had ever experienced before. It set the pace for years to come.
For about a year and a half, I avoided confrontation by expanding my personal skills. One of these was avoiding speaking out when things did not seem fair. This happened mostly on the bus. There were always one or more kids that were singled out, but only one at a time. Some were just going through an awkward growth spurt. Some just looked different. Some just happened to be the object of someone else’s affection.
“I see you guys laughing over there.” – Bullied Student
Soon enough, the spotlight turned onto me. Two boys decided to enroll me and another honor student in their school of hard knocks. At first, we ignored them. Then I tried to convince one of them I was not worth their time. It was not physical abuse we were subjected to. It was a straight up homosexual fantasy mixed into a KISS-type band, called, surprisingly PIZZ. The story was replete with pictures and lurid details. Neither of these ever found their way into the hands of school officials who cared. Finding one of those would be like finding a needle in a haystack, though. There were several teachers who had anger issues in the school, and issues like recently got Rutgers coach Mike Rice fired happened routinely in our sports practices. It was enough to kill my love for most games.
The story went on and on, throughout the 9th Grade. Every class I shared with the two antagonists, or even those who laughed at their antics, words and pictures was agony. For the other boy subjected to their attacks, it was just as miserable. We had been friends since 7th Grade, but this pushed us apart, to avoid snickering. It was not easy to avoid him, though, because we both had a lot of the same classes. Nonetheless, we limited our exchanges.
Time moved slowly, and every bus ride seemed like fresh torture. Everyone who laughed was an object of my suspicion. One of the two storytellers had a wonderful time carrying on about PIZZ to anyone who would listen. I couldn’t figure it out. Why did he do this to me? We never really had been friends, but I could not recall ever doing anything to him. My mind worked overtime at all hours trying to figure out how I could get out of this mess.
“People think that I’m not normal.” – Alex
Every feeling of helplessness I have ever felt was unearthed when I started watching Bully last night. Incredibly, my memories were not as much for myself as they were for those who I had avoided standing up for when they grew up. Some of these occurrences were before I was targeted, some of them during, less of them after. They were people I tried to avoid, because I had not wanted to bring attention to myself.
I was not necessarily a friend to the aggrieved, I never did have an issue with any of them, because, as you might guess, they were usually quite meek. The moment always seemed larger than I was. Seeing Alex wandering through a day in the life of a bullied child, I wish I could just hug the beautiful boy. Similarly, I wish I could tell myself in that letter to go grab the aggressors and shake crap out of them. Then I would turn to their victims and hug them.
Everything I have accumulated in the passage of time has created a person filled with courage, wisdom and compassion. I don’t feel small anymore, not since the moment my wife said “I do.” There is a feeling of peace that goes through you once you are aware that God has a plan for your life, and the bond between God, my wife and I brought that peace to me.
Alex, and several more kids like him, have no such feeling of contentment. He is silent most of the time, and when he does speak, the words come out all wrong, all the time. He wants friends so desperately he is willing to think of those hitting him, choking him and stabbing him as his friends. It’s the only thing that he feels like he has. Born at 26 weeks gestation, life has been a challenge enough for him already. It’s only cruel irony that the first setback paves the way for the next.
There are many subjects to this story, and they arrive at the same torturous place. The reasons that they are brought to such misery are not emphasized, except for one girl who had the courage to admit to her world (a small town in Oklahoma) she believed that she was gay. One saving grace for her is her friends. It even gives her enough confidence to think about standing up for herself and others like her.
Bullying people for being gay is a horrible thing that is getting more widespread notice these days. The great thing about this documentary is that it shows the illogical horror is not limited to those who feel the need to express themselves. It can happen to anyone, for any reason. The one thing most of them have in common is the feeling that they are alone, that their problems are unworthy of notice and that somehow they must deserve to be in the position they find themselves in.
Something has to give, of course, and often times something does. Several of the kids in this story decided to kill themselves, one decided to pull a gun on the kids on her bus. All of these actions brought attention to well-meaning, but to that point, ill-equipped parents. The parents are then motivated to work for change to prevent this from happening to others.
Many tears are shed watching this film. Many moments are spent wishing there were a way to interject. The movie does its subjects a great justice in that, for once, there is no concerted effort to get to know the bullies. There is a passing glance at the cluelessness of the mostly well-meaning administrators. Too many attempts have been made to understand those who would do others harm.
This is perfectly exemplified in Bully when one kid caught tormenting another is corralled. Instead of just calling the brute on his tactics, the administrator makes a foolish attempt at conflict resolution by making both parties shake hands. The jerk has no problems here, reaching out a hand with an Eddie Haskell smile. The target balks, and finally relents. Then, as the other boy walks off scot-free, the kid who was assaulted is ineptly lectured about his role in “causing” the discord. His face tries unsuccessfully to hide his chagrin that we have no problem understanding. The administrator is ill-equipped for this kind of work. No doubt her doctorate in education did not emphasize conflict resolution.
The importance of this film is that it draws you in completely to the humanity that many of us have tried ignoring as we walked through life. While we see how important they are to the ones that love them, it dawns upon the viewer that these are not “throwaway” people. In contrast to their small stature in public, these kids have people who know their value. They are cherished, and rightly so.
Bully is not into demonizing. There are no words aimed at adding character traits to anyone. The camera fills in any gaps without editorial gimmicks. There is a point when we feel Alex is heading towards disaster when the filmmakers interject by showing film evidence to the parents and administrators. It feels like a reprieve, until we see the talk between Alex and his mother.
“Friends are supposed to make you feel good,” his mother tells him, “That’s the point of having them. It’s someone else on the planet you can connect with. Your only connection with these kids is they like to pound on you.”
“You…If you say these people aren’t my friends,” he responds quite logically, “Then what friends do I have?”
The question is met with a long silence. Her heart is breaking, just like our own.
If there is a solution to this crisis for the American child, it isn’t an obvious one. Hirsch was a victim of bullying himself, and he alludes quite strongly that the communication lines for children are not at all obvious to them. The refrain he was given was in essence “get over it.”
This reminds me of my father’s own confusing words to me when it came to my own occurrences of bullying. My Dad was a busy man, with many problems in his task of heading a house of 8 children. If I could not reconcile a solution to my own problems, what kind of kid was I to spurn his advice and bother him? What was worse, my Mother took my side in some of my problems. I appreciated that she understood, but it caused friction with Dad. The older half of the family took to the notion that I was a Momma’s boy. This is a reputation that lives with me to this day. The “consensus” of them then, as it has been recently reiterated to me, was that I wanted people to feel sorry for me.
Leaving me alone would have been better ;). Their take is irrelevant to me now. I have learned to find value in myself and others who seek to find value in themselves. I have made it past the threshold.
The symptoms of weakness are undesirable in many societies of man and animal. The mere perception of it can wreak havoc in certain situations. Many people who feel like they are weakest link are desperate to throw the others off of the scent. Sometimes this leads to the prospect of seeking someone else to transfer the target. I have done this in my childhood, and I regret it to this day. I have sought some of these people in a wish to make reparations. Thus far I have been unsuccessful. My letter to my 15 year-old self would tell me to hold on to them and tell them they were more important than anyone who sought to do them harm.
My memories of my teasing fade to the background in light of this. My wish now is heightened awareness and proper vigilance. My kids are a few years away from Jr. High, and I am not sure when or if we ever will have them take the bus. In the meantime, I can only try my best to listen to them, hold them close, never be too busy for them and make sure they know my wife and I love them. They will not be getting a letter from their middle-aged self. This will be our stand to make sure they are never alone.
I am thankful to Lee Hirsch for taking the time to remind us of this.
(***** out of *****)