There's been a rash of suicides recently. Gay teenagers killing themselves after being bullied, often for years, by their peers. Dan Savage spearheaded the "It Gets Better Project." President Obama joined the campaign, making a PSA in which he urges gay kids not to give in to despair. He says, "We've got to dispel the myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage -- that it's some inevitable part of growing up. It's not. We have an obligation to ensure that our schools are safe for all of our kids."
How did that myth find roots? How did the idea that bullying is somehow justifiable gain purchase?
Maybe there's just too much of it. Maybe it feels unstoppable. That's just what kids do, and when you put so many of them together, day after day, then that's what will happen. In their twenties, some my friends still recall the horrors of middle school with a quiet solemnity, in voices better suited for telling ghost stories. Some of my friends shrug it off. "Yeah, I got picked on. Who didn't?"
Of course, it depends on where you went to school, to some extent. The private schools were able to be more protective of their students. People weren't getting beaten up, but they weren't comfortable, either. They weren't really safe. I knew a girl who cried out of frustration because her family wasn't rich enough. She would never have the right clothes, and she'd never really be included. God forbid, she said, she keep putting on weight. She was fourteen. A boy I knew who went to a poor, public school found himself in physical fights constantly because of the color of his skin. The things he was routinely called are things I can't write here. I can't say them aloud. I can hardly let myself think them. He was diagnosed with anger problems, for fighting back when a group of bigger boys surrounded him, knocked him down, and kicked him.
We're not sure where the line between teasing and bullying lies. Is it when the teasing is constant? Is it when it becomes physically threatening? Teasing sounds manageable. It doesn't sound like such a big deal. Bullying, as we have seen before and see again with this most recent string of suicides, can be a matter of life or death.
I was home-schooled. Not for religious reasons, like the majority of home-schoolers. But, in part, because my mother studied child psychology, and she didn't want her kids to be exposed to some of the things that she knew happened in schools. She had been one of the lucky ones: Pretty, popular, white, smart. But she saw what happened to the girls who didn't look like her. And the awkward ones. And the kids who were too different in whatever way. She didn't want to take a chance on me. Which was probably a good idea, because I inherited a lot of my dad's quirky Jewish genes and ended up looking pretty awkward, especially during the middle school years.
But when people asked me why I was home-schooled (which they did incessantly), and I said I was trying to avoid all that peer pressure and teasing and bullying (which I didn't always say, but sometimes), many people told me that all that stuff was good for me. It was the "real world." It was important to "get through it." Why? So you could prove that you could survive long enough to reproduce? So you could go on to be tormented in the workplace without complaint? There seemed to be some unshakable consensus that suffering was good for you, and that kids needed to suffer at the hands of their peers, so that they could learn that the world was a tough, damaging, emotionally devastating place where you would probably never be able to relax. Maybe that's true, to an extent. But it isn't my reality.
The truth is, there are challenges everywhere you look, and everywhere you go in life. You don't need them manufactured for you when you're ten. You have to learn to deal with people no matter what. But hopefully everyone ends up, as adults, in a better environment than middle school -- by most reports, it seems to be. And I really don't see why being tormented from such a young age in any way (whether it be the kind of teasing that makes you cry, or the kind of bullying that finds you on your back on the playground, being kicked) is even close to acceptable, let alone necessary.
Even now, I feel incredibly lucky to have avoided the experience of feeling like I was worthless, ugly and horribly out of place as a kid. And while I, of course, recognize that home schooling is not a viable or perfect solution for everyone to the problem of bullying in school, I'm tired of people imagining that it isn't a very real, supportable reason for the decision to try alternative education.
One of the boys in my group of home-schooled friends was gay. But to be perfectly honest, it was never discussed. Not even once. Good luck standing out as "too different" in a group of random secular home-schoolers. Although I do remember that he dyed his hair red at some point, and I did tease him about that.