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Barbara Greenberg Headshot

Middle School, Bully and What We Should Do Now

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After weeks of waiting for the documentary Bully to come to my neck of the woods, it finally arrived. I got to the earliest showing of the movie to see just what Lee Hirsch had captured in his documentary about the lives of middle schoolers on the school bus, during recess, at the bus stop and at all of those other hot spots where kids ruthlessly torment each other with a blistering style.

And Kudos to Lee Hirsch. He captured these moments not only as I remember them from my middle school days (then referred to as junior high school), but also as reported to me by the many middle schoolers who I have worked with for two decades. Believe me, the main characters have changed but the plot lines have not. You see, bullies seem to use the same methodology. There is no one in authority around so this must -- they tell themselves -- be a great opportunity to find a less-than-aggressive kid and torture him until he feels helpless and downtrodden. The backpack, hat, jacket, locker and all things related to the victim can be destroyed, tossed around, marked up and become community property. What the heck --there's no adult around and this passive victim won't do anything about it. Better yet, if the target has a physical feature that is not fabulous, then that can become the focus of the bullying remarks. In the movie, Alex had large and full lips. The bullies loved it. His lips became a source of entertainment. Later on in life they may have girlfriends, sisters or even wives who pay to get their lips plumped up, but hey, that's not of concern to them now.

And these bullies are aware that they can charm teachers, school administrators and even parents into believing that they are innocent of anything resembling bullying. The kids in the movie marched into the assistant principal's office looking so sweet and innocent. One school administrator even said that the kids on Alex's school bus were a delight. To me, it looked like nothing delightful was going on there.

Kids who are targets of bullies are reluctant to tell their parents -- much like as Alex was in the film. For goodness sake, what middle schooler wants to go home and tell his or her parents that he or she is regarded as a loser? Kids want to make their parents proud. And then they run the risk that their parents will advise them to act in a way that they don't feel comfortable with. Alex's father suggested that he retaliate, but he didn't state how. Guess he was just too busy peeling his potatoes to think this through.

Several parts of this documentary made me bristle with fury. I felt both protective of these helpless victims and angry that the adults in charge were mostly dismissive. My own middle school experiences were brought into sharper focus. I clearly remember having hair under my arms in 7th grade. As I stood on line next to Wendy T., waiting for that awful time referred to as "recess," Wendy would whisper about my hairy underarms loudly enough for the back of the line to squeal in delight. I stood there firmly with sweat on my forehead trying very hard not to get all choked up. Now, was I really expected to tell the teacher that her pet, Wendy T. (a.k.a. "Mushface"), was making fun of my blossoming womanliness? I am quite sure that the teacher would not have believed that "Mushface" -- which was her affectionate nickname -- would have been capable of any harm. It is more likely that I would have been told to be less sensitive.

This leads me to the main question of the film: What are the adults who are responsible for these kids going to do? I am referring to parents, teachers, school administrators and members of the community at large. What I often hear when I suggest that school buses, recess, the lunch room and other places where bullying occurs should have monitors is that there is no money in the budget for such monitoring. REALLY? There is enough money, though, for other activities that do not lead to severe depression, school absence, doctor visits and possible suicide? What about recruiting volunteers to be bus monitors and to make sure our kids are safe as they travel through their school day? Community members volunteer for all kinds of things. This sort of volunteering activity is less important than say -- the bake sale?

Come on -- let's get our priorities straight. We need to look out for our kids.