Growing up as the oldest in a relatively large family, you learn early in the journey how to navigate conflict and social harassment. Having a younger brother who was much smaller than me in size and weight, but much feistier, I saw firsthand what teasing and bullying can possibly lead to. I was fortunate, even though my brother was at times feisty and confrontational with his peers and those at least two grades older than he was, I was always able to stay out of physical resolutions and verbal harassments. Verbally, I managed to protect him and save face as the oldest brother.
However, as I continued to grow as a person, I became more and more disturbed with the persona of the traditional bully. That kid in school and/or the neighborhood who seemed to thrive on putting people down and making fun of those who were weaker, to the point of a fistfight or making the other person cry.
As a young teacher, I was always concerned about the student that didn't fit in, the student who would set the stage for harassment. I felt it was almost my mission to protect him and challenge the behavior that at times invited the bully to go to town.
That concern has continued throughout my thirty-year career as an educator and a person in ministry.
Recently, it seems that the bully persona has resurrected in epidemic numbers. Their behavior is more violent and emotionally damaging then the generation before.
A young high school student came to see me because he had a devastating experience on a recent ski trip. He just needed to talk.
A group of well-chaperoned high school young men went skiing in Southern Vermont between Christmas and New Year's. It was an annual event. A number of them had participated in the past and a dozen were on the trip for the first time.
The trip was highly organized. Every skier and/or border was assigned a van group and a food group (for meals). Those first timers were mandated to take an hour individual ski lesson to at least teach them how to fall without killing themselves or someone else. The sleeping arrangements were dormitory style on two floors, with the group being purposefully and carefully divided.
There was one young man in the group who is very athletic, academically above average and had a mouth that can be quite cutting. He is seen by his friends as very witty and very quick on his feet with verbal comebacks.
No group of people is totally alike. Each group has its' own personality, chemistry and style. This group of twenty-six young adults was quite diverse. There were very accomplished skiers and some novices that realized they would never get off the beginners slope, no matter how hard they tried. During the day, these young men had a blast. They gathered with their peers who shared their abilities. Some spent more time sipping hot chocolate, and complaining about the cold and how their equipment was failing them, while others were competing with how high their jumps were.
Unbeknownst to the chaperones until the end of the week, the trip's "bully" was rearing his head. During the day, he expressed himself as the caring compatriot who wanted to help the novice skiers. His way of helping was taking a few of them to the summit, leading them to an expert trail, taking them a quarter of the way down and leaving them to fend for themselves.
Of course, when confronted about this behavior at the end of the week, because one of these novices had almost broken a leg in an effort to get down, the "bully" immediately said he intended no harm, but thought it was kind of funny. What he did not realize is that this novice skier is petrified of narrow, perpendicular drops. He had an anxiety attack that required medication (something he kept confidential, which was now public). He was embarrassed and felt ashamed.
At night, again unbeknownst to the chaperones, our bully was making fun of a handful of his dorm mates. He elected to hold court and pick on the most vulnerable and passive in the group. He knew they would not fight back and defend themselves. The rest sat around, watched and laughed. An additional young man egged the group on and was verbally even nastier than the principal bully.
This behavior would have continued the entire trip because they were threatened
to keep their mouths shut. However, one older guy got wind of this and was furious with the behavior. He confronted the bully and gave him a piece of his mind. He then shared
his concerns with the trip's senior supervisor.
What the bully did not know, because it was none of his business, was that there were four in the group of six he was torturing who were very emotionally fragile. They hid it well, but they were hurting. Our bully just further ripped their guts out. Their self-esteem was already damaged. Now they were the laughing stock for the whole trip.
The senior supervisor did not bury his head in the sand. When he became aware of what was happening, he was livid. Seemingly, our "bully" had been warned before about his mouth and his abusive and threatening comments.
This time he had stepped over the line. This supervisor was not going to let him off the hook. His behavior was disgraceful and the damage he caused was indescribable. He was banned from ever participating on a ski trip with this group again. He was confronted in front of the entire group, respectfully, but forcefully, concerning his reprehensible behavior. All of the adults present expressed their distaste for his behavior and underscored how bullying behavior is unconscionable and should never be tolerated by anyone at anytime.
Hopefully the boy in question learned something from this confrontation where he was being held fully accountable for his behavior. His wit, charm and humor were not getting him off the hot seat this time. The initial remorse shown was calculated and shallow. It is still too early to tell what impact was had.
However, the rest of the group learned a very important lesson that hopefully they will remember. Silence is not golden, especially when it comes to putting another down and verbally harassing them. In some ways, by our silence, we are saying that this kind of behavior is okay.
"Bullying" continues to be a problem because many of us suffer from the disease of silence and/or the attitude that it is only a phase that many adolescents go through, how harmful can it be? It can be very harmful and can emotionally damage a developing adolescent for a long time.
As adults, we need to have the courage and the moral fortitude to confront this kind of behavior before it needlessly victimizes another young person, unknowingly your own son or daughter.