April 21, 2013

An Overdue Apology for Bullying

This one is overdue by 40 years, but it comes from the heart.

I recently was invited to participate in a media campaign to promote awareness and prevention of bullying. After a cursory survey among my Facebook community, admittedly, the petition was met with some skepticism.

Comments included:
  • How would you "stop" bullying? I don't think it will ever go away, so I don't think it's realistic to say that it will be eliminated. 
  • No petitions will stop bullying. Nor will campaigns with posters and slogans. All the publicity and policing in the schools about anti-bullying has done and will do nothing.

But also this one:
  • We can't change what happens in every child's home. We can, however, take steps to curb public behavior. Just because the root of something isn't readily accessible or easily altered, that doesn't mean we have to accept the fruit that grows from it.

As I read the thoughts of my friends, my mind traveled back to my elementary school years. I have one regret and this is my attempt to rectify it. I bullied someone. I've never made peace with my actions and maybe a public confession will help. Maybe my side of it will illuminate the irrational thoughts that drive a bully to bully. I don't know. But here goes...

In second grade, a new girl moved to our town. We were a small but growing rural community because folks wanted to get away from the city life. We were within 40 minutes of a metro area so a lot of families were moving to our town. On the first day of school, a new girl, Patty, sat against the brick wall of the school building during recess. She sat on the ground, arms crossed angrily in front of her and whenever someone would come near her, she would throw rocks at them. That first impression stuck. She was mean. As an adult, I realize Patty was probably homesick and lost as the new kid, but as a seven year old and self-appointed class leader, she just was mean. And threw rocks.

For the next four years of elementary school, new kids would move in. Patty would always try to befriend the other new students, but my group of friends and I would intervene and tell the new kid that Patty was mean and nobody liked her. In elementary school hierarchies, anyone who wanted to fit in would also shun Patty. From second through sixth grade, I stood between Patty and her attempt to make friends. Even worse, I was not mean to her face. Patty rode my bus and we were assigned to sit together. I was friendly to her face the whole ride back and forth to school. But in school, I made sure everyone knew not to be friends with Patty. I have a lump in my throat as I write this and I want to go back in time and shake some sense into my little snotty self.

You see, bullying comes in all shapes and sizes and as an adult I know that. I will never be able to undo what I did and it will probably always haunt me.

I don't know what the solution is exactly, but today's sponsor has some ideas. I have partnered with TakePart.com to circulate a pledge. I am paid for every signature I send their way to pledge to stand up to bullying and its damaging effect on children, schools, and communities. I ask you to be a part of the solution by joining the movement to confront this problem head-on.

Even more than that, I need to say this. Patty, if by some twist of fate, you are out there and read this, I apologize to you from the bottom of my heart. I have never regretted anything in my life as much as what a horribly mean little girl I was to you. I cannot begin to tell you how much I admire that you never gave up trying to make friends. I don't know if you even knew why all your attempts were thwarted. You deserved to have friends and I'm also sorry that I didn't recognize that you were a lost little girl. The good news is that I've used that regret to teach my own children kindness and empathy. I really am sorry.

If I learned anything from that incident, I learned that when someone is throwing rocks, they need love and understanding, not shunning. Maybe they just need someone to listen. I honestly didn't realize at the time I was being a bully, but that is another piece of advice I have. If you treat someone unkindly, stop. If you have a chance, apologize and mean it. Make it right however you can. Bullying has emotional and physical tolls for the victim, and sometimes the depression becomes so severe, suicide seems to be the only solution.

Any bully will tell you "why" that person deserved it. The bully is wrong. Nobody deserves to be treated poorly by another human being. It's just not what thoughtful people do. Decent people nip it in the bud and stop the bullying behavior. I also am going to give myself a little slack. I don't know why one of the adults on the playground didn't notice Patty's anger and take her aside. I realize the world has changed a lot in 40 years and maybe the mindset was to let the kids work it out. I only know that today, if I were the adult, I would try to find out why Patty was throwing rocks and privately speak to one of the class leaders and ask them to help her feel more welcome. Adults have the responsibility to set the bar for children.

I am being compensated to run this campaign, so I also want to do more than talk about it. If I reach my signature goal, I will personally donate $50 to the National Suicide Prevention league. I ask my readers to please help me spread the word and encourage your friends to sign this petition.

I don't want to take away from my apology, but just know that karma got even with me... stay tuned for the story of how I was the target of a bully later in my teenage years.

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