These song lyrics from 1975 resonated with me:
To those of us who knew the pain…
And those whose names were never called
When choosing sides for basketball.
They described my life from ten years earlier.
Never being chosen for basketball, baseball, or anything else, was painful for me but I wouldn’t consider it being bullied.
Being punched in the gut while on line at the lunchroom, being mocked, being called names, being extorted for money: these I consider being bullied, and for three years, 7th, 8th, and 9th grade, I suffered them all.
Did I tell a teacher? Did I tell my parents? Did I tell anyone at all? No.
I didn’t tell a counselor or camp administrator when I was badly frightened by bullies in summer camp when I was 12, either.
Why not? I was too ashamed.
Why was I the target of bullies?
Is it true that I didn’t break the rules and sneak off at night in camp like all of my bunkmates? Yes.
Is it true that I, unlike all of my classmates, didn’t have the strength to climb the ropes in gym? Yes.
Is it true that I, more than some of my classmates, raised my hand and had the right answer? Yes.
Was there anything else peculiar or eccentric about me? Not that I know of.
I learned years later that my gait is not normal, enough so that I wasn’t permitted to march in the US Army Chaplain Training School parade. Maybe my tormenters had noticed that; they never said. But I don’t waddle or wobble, so I doubt that they noticed it.
I wasn’t overweight, underweight, unusually tall or short. I made it a point to wear Converse sneakers like they did, and the kinds of shirts and socks that they wore. I carried the kind of briefcase they carried in which I had the kind of looseleaf they had. But for some reason they singled me out anyway.
I even once got detention for causing a distraction. The distraction was that I was being taunted. To this day that event baffles me. But that was the only teacher who made it worse.
No teacher attempted to make it better.
The failure of adults to intervene makes the experience even more painful for the victim of bullying. Rabbi Kalman Bauman, Menahel of Yeshivas Toras Emes in Miami Beach, Florida, said it well:
“This is a matter of ‘Lo saamod al dam rei’acha’—it is an imperative for every adult who deals with children. One of the biggest factors in making a child a victim is the feeling that s/he is worthless. And if the child is aware that the adults are aware of what’s going on and don’t do anything, that is the confirmation that ‘I am worthless.’”
I survived the nightly stomachaches and nausea I felt every school night for those three years. Maybe Nietzsche was right this time, maybe that which did not kill me made me stronger. But it doesn’t turn out that way for everyone. There are often lifelong effects on both bullies and their victims. Childhood bullies often take their manipulative and aggressive habits into adulthood, resulting in their having a greater likelihood of failing in their jobs, in their marriages, in their parenting skills, and sometime resulting in their being incarcerated. Victims can suffer lasting repercussions, ranging from low self-esteem to post-traumatic stress disorder.
B”H I came through it okay. I still wouldn’t want to relive it or wish it on anyone else.
I would like to prevent it from happening to anyone else.
Many schools have tried to prevent bullying.
Some schools have placed cameras in hallways and other community areas such as the recess playground and the lunchroom.
Some schools have tried to work with bullies, inviting them to explore the underlying causes of their behaviors. Some have set up programs to teach and encourage mutual respect and kindness. Some of these schools have seen significant short term results. How well have these programs worked in the long term?
According to a study published in the Criminal Justice Review1, school-based anti-bullying programs have not been effective in reducing bullying or violent behaviors in schools.
Why do these programs demonstrate such limited effectiveness? Because bullying is more advantageous to bullies than is non-bullying. Although bullies are sometimes thought of as being insecure and, in effect, victims of their own aggression, research has suggested the opposite. Aside from aggressive and dominant personality traits, bullies have high self-esteem and are effectively normal children. There is no incentive offered by these programs to entice bullies to follow the strategies these programs suggest. As bullies see no personal benefit in following the program recommendations, they simply reject them. Nonviolent children may attempt to follow the program suggestions but may ultimately become frustrated when violent children do not. Thus, in the absence of effective incentives for the bullies themselves, there is little reason to believe that these programs would succeed.
My suggestion is to work with bullies the same way we work with other children who have difficulty maintaining appropriate behavior or focus in school: provide each one with a shadow. The most basic role of a shadow is to follow a child to ensure that no problem behaviors occur at school. By assigning a shadow to a bully, you assure that he or she behaves appropriately at school.
Mechanech: Yes, I’ve assigned you a shadow. You look angry. You have a problem with that?
Bully: Yeah, I do. I don’t need a shadow. There’s nothing wrong with me, I’m normal.
Mechanech: Who said you’re not normal? You have repeatedly hurt other students verbally and physically and we need to make sure that you never do that again. We’ve spoken with you about it and you continue to do it anyway so we decided to prevent it by keeping a very close eye on you.
Bully: But you’re invading my privacy!
Mehanach: I guess so. What would you suggest as an alternative to assure that you never hurt anyone verbally or physically again?
And that’s where you leave it; in the bully’s hands to figure out some way to earn your trust so that you’ll remove the shadow.
I prefer incentives to gain cooperation but this is one case in which a strong disincentive is necessary.
Sadly, we now have to protect our children in school from outside harm. That doesn’t reduce the achrayos we have to protect our children from threats and harm from their peers within school.
1The Effectiveness of School-Based Anti-Bullying Programs: A Meta-Analytic Review. Christopher J. Ferguson, Claudia San Miguel, John C. Kilburn, Jr., Patricia Sanchez. Texas A&M International University. Laredo. Volume 32 Number 4 December 2007, pp. 401-414.
Rabbi Ackerman is the author of
Confident Parents, Competent Children, in Four Seconds at a Time
Available at bookstores and on Amazon
He can be reached at 718-344-6575