I have a difficult confession to make.
One I am ashamed about.
But one that I think is important.
I have been on multiple sides of the bullying issue.
What I mean by that is that I have been bullied, I have also bullied and it doesn’t end there.
I can also say, quite confidently, that I did not bully until I was bullied (most of this occurred between the ages of 11 and 14).
I also will not try to minimize or diminish the experience of the person I harmed by justifying it.
Looking back I believe that, in addition to many other things, bullying made me feel in control when I felt out of control (in a very messed-up way); and it helped vindicate the shame I felt from my own experiences getting bullied. It also made me feel terrible (even at that time when I was emotionally and chronologically immature).
Almost 25 years later, and thanks to the help of Facebook, I was able to contact this person and take responsibility for my behavior. Part of that was apologizing for how horrible I treated her*, making it known such treatment was not deserved and it was all MY fault. But most importantly, it was important to take ownership for actions that I deeply regret even to this day.
What is so striking is that it is possible to do this to another person knowing how painful, isolating and devastating this feels. You know what it’s like to feel all alone in the world. You know what it’s like to feel like your personal and physical safety at risk.
You know what it feels like to want to die and believe it would be easier to not be on this earth than have to face your perpetrators.
I also think I was lucky.
First, our experiences as targets of bullying did not lead to a catastrophically early demise for us or any of our peers.
Second, the person I inflicted my abuse upon (and make no mistake, it is abuse) forgave me. She was kind, gracious and asked what I was going through at the time which was more than I anticipated. She said what happened helped to shape the person she had become, and she was proud of that—from where I stood, I couldn’t agree more.
From what I recall of being bullied, I don’t remember explicitly either “asking for help”… there were no overt “calls for help” that fell on deaf ears. I didn’t ask her about her experience.
But I’m sure there were signs. For both of us.
As I mentioned before my experience with bullying did not end there, because if you fast-forward 24 years, I have a 14 year old daughter** (this was approximately two years ago).
The start of her freshman year of high school she was getting up early, wanting to get to school on-time—even earning a perfect attendance award for the first term. Her first report card was stellar. She was always talking about her friends. She had a generally positive disposition (for a teenager).
Suddenly, right around the holidays that changed. She didn’t want to go to school, then she didn’t want to get out of bed. She started skipping classes and it was always the same ones and then her grades started slipping—the ones she was acing the first semester. It was an abrupt and striking shift. I asked my daughter. She didn’t want to talk about it. She cried a lot. As soon as it started I spoke to her teachers and then her guidance counselor. I wanted to know what was different…anything they noticed? I was told she was fighting with her “best friend” and they chalked it up to “kids can be kids.”
Things still didn’t make sense—that it went to THIS extreme.
I always looked at her social media, but then I started looking at the social media accounts of the people she was friends WITH. Call me a lurker, but this was my kid, my daughter. And I knew something was wrong so I felt comfortable “lurking.”
I’ll spare you the gory details, but what I found was that she was being bullied. Online (so I could only assume it was happening in real life as well). In front of other classmates. Her picture and full name were being used. And she was fully aware of it, and because she was so scared of retribution and ashamed that it was her fault (if it wasn’t, wouldn’t someone have spoken up?) she didn’t tell anyone.
One could say I had heightened awareness about this because of my experiences. This could be true. The same could be said about school administrators and faculty, that because of their exposure to so many different kids they should be very aware of the warning signs. This may have been true, but if it was, they did not act on it. As a parent, even when I had screenshots and evidence, I felt like I was constantly facing a brick wall of bureaucracy and excuses. And the “process” of dealing with the situation did not help matters. It actually makes it worse for those most vulnerable, and continues to test the decision to come forward.
All the while, my child was flailing and failing and I was helpless to help her—I had to send her to school, and for a period, until I had another option (which, in our situation, took some time) I had to send her to THAT school.
Again, I was fortunate I had the resources, family and friends to help her when her school would not. I researched, I kept copious notes, documented EVERYTHING and walked into her principal’s office unannounced on a day when the headmaster and guidance counselor all just happened to be walking through the waiting room and, seizing the moment, demanded they join us. I got a them to issue us a safety transfer and immediately went down to the DOE and sat in their waiting room for hours with my child and when the transfer school we were given was not ideal, we were fortunate enough to be able to look at private as an option.
She is thriving in a new school, and I am beyond grateful to them, the faculty and staff, the friends who love her and stood by her and our family and friends who listened to us—probably when they were tired of hearing about it—but they knew this isn’t easy to talk about. It’s painful. You feel like a failure. You feel less-than. And that keeps us all silent. This helps NO ONE.
It’s easy to chalk up the acts of self-harm and violence as “edge cases” of mental illness and “unstable” youth who would have snapped anyway. But that’s not really the problem, nor is that necessarily true. That’s victim blaming. People internalize trauma differently, and unacceptable behavior is just wrong.
We talk a lot about “bullying intervention.” How to handle bullying once it’s already happening. But in my experience, that’s too late. Once it starts it’s like gasoline on a fire. The sequence of events that are set off are far and wide, and once they are set-off, we have no reliable, consistent infrastructure in place to contain the impact…even when “an adult” becomes aware. It’s beyond their reach as well.
It’s time to talk about bullying prevention. That sounds a lot harder, right? If we can’t intervene effectively, how can we prevent it?
I think any reasonable person will tell you bullying is wrong. Where we seem to trip over ourselves is how to correct unacceptable behavior. But we probably have more agreement around what is “acceptable” behavior. If we (collectively) put more (some/any) emphasis and a higher value on what is acceptable, and made the treatment of others as critical to assessing the quality and competence of one’s contributions—put it on the same level as skill, speed, acumen—then we would be heading in the right direction. It isn’t easy but it’s simple, and if we don’t begin it will never start.
Nothing changes if nothing changes.
Here’s what I mean, if I can be smart as a whip, but mean as can be…my intelligence has no heart, so why should anyone care? If I am an amazing athlete, but cruel in the locker room…I don’t truly understand the meaning of team spirit, why should anyone want to see me play? If I can play the piano with flawless technical precision but I am ruthless and underhanded in my pursuits, I am doing this for myself, not to share my gift with the world…why should audiences come to see me play?
The school year starts in a few more weeks. Whether you have a child starting Kindergarten, or beginning their senior year… or they graduated long ago, or you’re a godparent, a concerned friend or a human-being living in the world today…these are our children. This is our world. We leave it to someone.
Somebody will remember. Give them something meaningful to remember, so we don’t have to have another Memorial Service.
To read the story about about Danny Fitzpatrick, click here.
To donate to the family’s GoFundMe page to help with the funeral expenses, click here.
*name/identifying details withheld
**my daughter, now almost 16, gave me her permission to publish this. I read it to her prior to posting and had an alternate version that omitted details about her if she was not comfortable. Given her courage and passion for this issue I was not one-bit surprised that she did not hesitate to be included, but felt Readers should know I had her consent.