Writing a personal opinion column sometimes requires revisiting unpleasant experiences and looking at them in the context of current events. Several suicides by teenagers in recent weeks, most of them gay, caught the attention of the news media and increased national awareness of these human tragedies. The suicides also opened the proverbial door to mean and spiteful comments from individuals who seem to derive sick satisfaction in scorning lifestyles with which they do not agree.
It is easy to be snide. Searching for a cause for the ultimate self-hate crime requires some level of reason and a desire to look at who bullies teens and why.
“Picked on” was the term used when I was growing up. Kids being kids meant everyone was fair game: skinny kids, fat kids, tall kids, short kids, bespectacled kids. Affluent kids picked on poor kids, strong kids picked on weak kids. I’m not sure who picked on the rich, big kids, but I’m sure someone did. Probably older siblings
I hit the trifecta of playground bullying because I was a skinny, less-affluent kid with a Chinese mother. Traversing the four blocks to get home sometimes required the evasion skills of an international spy or the watchful eyes of protective adults peering out their windows.
I recall the day things changed in grade school. I was getting something out of the closet when another boy attacked me from behind, kicking me in the back. He laughed derisively, expecting me to cry or to tattle to the teacher. I did neither. I punched him in the jaw, knocking him across the row of seats. The teacher asked what happened, then punished me for my inappropriate response.
My fifth-grade lesson learned was not to stand up to bullies, but to be wary of teachers. (Brief disclaimer: my mother-in-law is a retired teacher and I have two sisters-in-law who engage in pedagogy.)
Four years of high school added to my deep suspicions of public-school teachers, coaches, and administrators. As a student-athlete who finished high school with 8 varsity letters, state and conference track championships, and an election by the student body to the office of student council president, one would easily assume I avoided many of high school’s basic bullying. That assumption, however, would be woefully incorrect.
My problems, or targeting, began when I chose cross-country over football. After I set numerous junior-high track records and won a state championship, the high-school football coaches salivated at the idea that I would play their sport. Do not ever think the people we pay to teach our children, coach our teams, and run our schools are not capable of bullying.
The vindictiveness of the coaching staff and school administration turned so ugly that an assistant football/track coach later apologized for his behavior, adding that he had no choice. My track coach told me after I graduated that he would have awarded me the school’s equivalent of an MVP award each of my four years instead of my freshman and senior years, except he knew to do so would only make my life worse, and there was nothing he could do about it.
Some of my classmates and teammates took their cues from the coaches and administrators who sat back and watched as I was physically attacked before and during school, pelted with stones and coins during assemblies, and spat upon at track meets.
By the end of my sophomore year, I had channeled my insecurities and rage into winning races. I was fortunate in that respect. Others, less athletically gifted, turn to drugs, alcohol, or, as we have seen in recent weeks, suicide.
I stopped running, literally and figuratively, during my second year in college when I discovered winning no longer masked the pains associated with training and competition. I realized running and winning were my weapons, my means to strike back at my tormentors and to feel good about myself. Hate no longer drove me.
I floated the idea for this column to some of the folks down at Sparky’s Diner. Mia Abogado nodded and said teachers and administrators bullied her younger sister in middle school and high school.
“Our parents met with her teachers and the assistant principal,” she said. “One teacher brought her lesbian girlfriend/p.e. coach, apparently for protection, and admitted she wanted to teach my sister a lesson because she got tired of hearing the boys talk about her. My parents looked at the assistant principal who just sat there grinning at the show.”
Texas state representative Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) has tried since 2003 to make school harassment against the law. He plans to introduce a bill in January that requires public school districts train teachers and administrators to prevent and respond to discrimination and harassment.
Coleman’s announcement follows the suicide last month of a 13-year-old boy, a victim of what his parents described as mock gay sex acts he endured during gym class and being tripped down the stairs the day before he shot himself in the head. The parents said they made eight visits and several phone calls in the last 18 months to complain to teachers and administrators. School officials dispute the parents’ claims and say they have no evidence the boy was bullied.
The Texas Association of School Boards recommended in 2008 that all Texas public school districts adopt harassment and bullying policies, not so much to protect students, but “for managing risk and liability” and to comply with federal laws that prohibit harassment based on the usual suspects of race, gender, color, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, and religion.
The Health Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services goes beyond the limitations of legalese by defining bullying in school as repeated acts of physical assaults, slanderous remarks, forced isolation, inappropriate teasing, and getting people to gang up on a person.
While the U.S. Department of Justice defines bullying in terms similar to those used by HRSA, it also admits that bullying of students by teachers is a “related problem” that requires its own analysis and response.
Bullying, whether by students or by teachers or by administrators, has long-lasting effects on the victim and many times results in inappropriate behavior or in someone’s death. Bullying also instills fear, and no child anywhere should ever be in fear of going to school.