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The Bully in Us

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Bullying has become our latest cause célèbre. Lady Gaga came to Harvard to start her youth-empowerment foundation, festooned with hats that bullied the air for space. It Gets Better videos have proliferated (except from our centerfold senator, Scott Brown). But the prism through which we view the problem -- the bullies versus the victims -- is dangerously simplistic.

The unfortunate truth is that bullying is a cornerstone of human nature. Whether it's a product of evolution, genetics or society is beyond me to say, but its prevalence suggests that there is a bully in all of us. That we have all been bullied and returned the favor with gusto and, hopefully, regret.

I've had this nagging feeling that despite the recent legislative victories in Massachusetts and beyond, we haven't really been honest with ourselves as human beings. That while horrific teen and pre-teen suicides brought this issue to light, we haven't yet delved into the dark parts of ourselves.

Two days before the Fourth of July, my students and I had the privilege of spending time with the poet Magdalena Gomez, who helped crystallize for me the gnarled root of bullying. She ran a workshop for four hours with over sixty teenagers and adults, and she had more energy than all of us.

But aside from her talent and charisma, Gomez has spent the past few years working with Maria Luis Arroyo compiling an anthology that more accurately captures the essence of bullying. Bullying: Replies, Rebuttals, Confessions and Catharsis (available via Skyhorse Publishing, NYC) paints the problem from paired perspectives of bully and bullied. It's fantastic. And it's an anthology which I love for teaching purposes, since short, standalone pieces are much easier to wrap your head around in a fifty-minute period.

The impetus for the book? The death of eleven-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, of Springfield, MA, who hanged himself after enduring anti-gay bullying at his school. In her workshop, Gomez, also from Springfield, spoke of her shock at the initial silence surrounding his death, and her need to do something about it.

I've spent the past week using Bullying in my summer classes for English Language Learners. We've instituted the book as a regular part of the curriculum across all subjects. The poems, many of them published in the Spanish original with English translations, have had power and resonance beyond any lecture that I could give students about bullying. I asked them to pick their favorite pieces:

From "En el dia de liberacion" ("On the Day of Freedom") by Emmy Cepeda:

Blood unifies us, but freedom separates us
It bothers you that I can fly
And you don't even know how to walk
You fight death and I fight with what I live.

And from "Why Schools Don't Work" by sixteen-year-old Narelle Thomas:

If schools are meant to prepare people while they are young in order to help them to learn and understand things better for when they get older, then the system should be updated as the times change and the people change.

Issues of bullying are inextricable from the problems of our educational system as a whole. Gomez's difficulty in even getting enough submissions for the anthology speaks to our mania for teaching to tests, rather than teaching creativity, innovation and inspiration to our youth.

It is our detachment from ourselves, and from each other, that creates bullying. It's essential to continue passing laws, and it's critical that politicians and celebrities continue to make public statements. But the problem is interpersonal, individual and intergenerational. A poem included in the anthology, "Temps" by Marian Tombri, speaks even to our economic crisis -- the bullying of temporary workers by permanent managers. It's a startlingly broad definition of bullying, but one that rings true.

So yes, let us continue the good work of stomping out anti-LGBT bullying in our schools. But let's recognize that bullying is not merely for those who still have recess. We have to better ourselves first to better our children.