Bullying has always been a foreign concept to me. Portrayed in shows like Glee, bullies use physical threats and intimidation; teachers are omnipresent and omnipotent, advocating for the victims. I have never been bullied in the most classic sense. I have never been pushed into a locker; I have never had my lunch money stolen. But bullying is not just direct action; it can also be the creation and maintenance of a fearful environment. I felt threatened by my peers and I have never felt more alone than those few months in what was, for me, a living hell.
It happened in my sophomore year, in a study hall. Due to the nature of study halls, students were given free reign and this particular class contained a group of male students who were, to say the least, disturbing. Between their generally racist, sexist and homophobic conversations, they casually talked about "raping hoes" and the sexual reputations of different races. The comments were not directed towards the girls in the room, but the discomfort was palpable as the conversations reached a fevered pitch. The teacher did little to effectively stop this -- sometimes she gave them verbal reprimands but she usually would become uncomfortable herself and would leave the room to talk to her coworkers in the hall, locking us in the classroom, punishing bullies and victims alike. Several times I came home crying -- I naively believed that the adults in schools would keep the peace. When my parents tried to get help, I told them I didn't want to report it. Not only was I afraid to report these students (on the basis that if the administration did nothing, I was now at risk of retaliation) but also, I didn't want to leave my much quieter friend alone in the class. Children are instinctual beings; we sense weakness in others and move with a frightening mob mentality. With teachers who didn't seem to care, finding a "trusted adult" was simply not an option. Whatever these students could do to me inside the school was child's play compared to what they could achieve in the real world, where there were no adults.
Bullying is like any other form of power abuse -- outsiders can easily tell the victim to get help, but from the inside, it is not so simple. "Tell a trusted adult" is the common phrase minors are told in cases of bullying. But when a child is afraid of their abuser, seeking help seems futile. Many victims feel, as I did, that the best course of action is to keep their head down. We understand that adults cannot shield us from everything; witness protection simply doesn't exist in high schools. However, teachers, you can help us -- and we desperately need you to. It isn't hard: open your eyes, pay attention when students are using antagonistic speech and report them. Don't allow bullies to run your classroom. When students see adults stand up to bullies, we will begin to as well.
Note: I had originally written this piece as an essay for Nicholas Kristof's anti-bullying essay contest. Though my piece was not chosen by Kristof to appear in his column, bullying and discrimination in high schools is still an extremely relevant issue.