Susan Raffo

The context of bullying and how I was part of it

Filed By Susan Raffo | October 06, 2010 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: bullying, child care, parenting, queer

She still feels shy about it. It doesn't matter how many times we tell her that she gets to make her own decisions; that it is not her responsibility to take care of or protect us, she still gets shy when she admits that she doesn't tell everyone at school that she has two moms.

bullying.jpgIt started gradually, somewhere around 7 years old, this shift from her life being an open book for any and all to read towards this sense of caution. She's clear that it isn't shame she feels, more of a desire to pick her battles. Because even here, in her small radical school focused on social justice and civil rights, there are kids who just don't get the whole two moms thing. The whole idea, they tell her, is stupid. Whoever heard of such a thing, having two mothers? And Luca, our daughter, very quietly just tucks away one aspect of herself into her back pocket, learning when and where it is safe to bring it out and when she should just not say a thing.

Over the last few weeks, there has been a whole host of written and YouTubed stories told by adults about how they were bullied as children. From the "It gets better" campaign started by Dan Savage and his partner to other first person tellings, all in the spirit of bringing to light the violence and horror that can be high school.

So where are the stories of those who bullied? The stories of those of us who, from small to large ways, maintained the status quo, the strict codes of how a person can behave that makes high school so miserable? I was thinking about my eight year old daughter, Luca's, experience and remembered this: bullying isn't just about the violent acts that make the news. It is the fabric underlying every single one of those actions, all of the words said and unsaid that allows any person to feel justified in attacking another, whether physically or more quietly. It's the context of what is normal, the spoken and unspoken rules about it, and the way that each person is deeply aware of how they fit and don't fit. And then it's about those who do the policing. In remembering this, I also remember that I am guilty.

Liverpool Elementary School. His name was Jim and I really don't know why he was targeted. A white boy, the word back then was "hefty," not fat. He was one of those boys who was always doing the Three Stooges with two of his friends. Do kids still do that? It was so common when I was young, and it was almost always boys; that schtick where each pretended to hurt the other, all of them recoiling with silly faces and sound effects like "whoop whoop whoop."

I am not sure why Jim was targeted when so many other kids were doing the Stooges or playing the same way he played. But Jim was the kid that everyone called gay, laughing at him when he tripped in the hallway, putting this invisible line around him and everyone else. By the end of elementary school, when the three grade schools merged into the magnet junior high and high school, Jim kind of disappeared. He wasn't the butt of any jokes anymore, but he didn't get any honors. I wasn't surprised when I saw a picture of him on one of those high school reunion websites: he had become a body builder, his muscles and physique impressive in the way that oil and careful attention can give them.

I remember once, walking down the hallway in between classes when no one was around, I passed by Jim who was walking in the other direction. I'm not sure right now what I said to him, I don't think I would have used the word "gay," but I remember saying something to him, something rude, something that I knew wasn't nice. Something that made his face fall, made him draw himself in tighter, accentuating that line between Jim and the rest of us. The words haven't stuck with me these 30 years later, but that feeling of power has, that heady feeling of breaking the rules, of making someone else feel bad.

In junior high and high school, it was Eric. Eric was obsessed with a Saturday Night Live skit and character called Mr. Bill. When I look at the website mrbill.com I notice that the way the character runs, with his hands splayed out and held away from his body, is really similar to how Eric used to run through the hallways. Eric was the person who kept shifting from being the darling of the cool kids, kind of like a pet or a mascot, to being beaten up in the bathrooms. Rumors spread through the school, how Eric was found on his knees in front of another boy, that boy's cock in his mouth. How Eric snuck into the locker rooms to spy on the football team getting out of practice.

I'm watching some of the old clips on mrbill.com while I write this. I don't think I ever really watched them on TV, I just knew about Mr. Bill because he was an icon, popular with high school kids. Watching it now, I am stunned at the violence. Noticing how each skit is the same: Mr. Bill just keeps getting beat up again and again and no one seems to notice. In fact, people keep talking as though it's the most normal thing in the world. In one skit, a voice over is showing Mr. Bill his new home, explaining where different things are going to be built. A hand reaches in and is holding a drill. Mr. Bill is standing next to a wooden beam and is shouting "oh no, oh no" as the hand with the drill, still detailing the fabulous options on the new house, begins to drill into the wooden beam, also drilling into Mr. Bill so that the doll/icon starts spinning along with the spinning of the drill bit. Everything normal. Mr. Bill being pinioned by a drill. Offscreen you hear people laughing.

I felt the same kind of disdain for Eric that I felt for Jim. Eric never noticed me, I wasn't popular enough or stood out enough at the school, but I couldn't not notice Eric. Even the teachers treated him like a pet, calling him out when he stood on the desk, flapping his hands, but doing it in that bemused kind way that meant they were performing as much as the kids were. Performing our relationship to Eric.

It's not a coincidence that Eric's targeting was probably mostly about his disability, what I am guessing was autism even though we didn't have the word back then. No matter what it was about, the words used to justify beating him up were mostly gay this and gay that. Unlike Jim, I never said anything directly to Eric. Instead, I got my power shots from talking about him with my friends, repeating rumors, keeping the line firmly drawn between him and us. If anyone had asked me if I thought Eric was creepy, I would have said yes. I was probably too much of a good girl to say yes if someone asked me if I thought it was ok to beat him up, but that's largely a false line. I did nothing to change the school climate that made it normal for there to be a Jim or an Eric.

I've been thinking about this, watching as Luca decides how she wants to stand out in school, how she wants to be visible. The clear rules about what is normal and what isn't that she is already responding to. And then listening to the stories of adults who were kids who were beaten up.

Noticing how easy it is for me to feel indignant now about bullying, about violence directed towards children, about social exclusion based on difference, and also noticing that when it really mattered, when I was one of the peers, I did nothing. Instead, I contributed to the climate. So that I could fit in? Maybe, but even saying that is too easy. There is too much space here for me to build an argument around the terrible social pressure that is school and to, in the end, claim my own victim state. That would be wrong.

Bottom line: I did nothing to change things. Eric was beat up because I traded in gossip with my friends in the lunchroom. I was one of the people who word-hurt Jim in order to feel a sense of my own power. End of story.

It's easy for me to write essays about how I have been the one who was hurt or the one who spoke the right words at the right time. It is harder to write about how much I have contributed to the very things I now want to change. But I have to write those stories, too. Because otherwise, all of those who bully or who stand by watching and doing nothing can seem like aliens, like frightening people without a heart. But they aren't aliens. They are me. And stopping the ways in which children and young people know at an early age that some part of them is not ok means being as intimate with the perpetrator as the victim. I am waiting to hear all of our stories, not only the ones where we were hurt. I know some of you were bullies, too. Or like me, supported the spaces so that the bullies could exist.


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We shouldn't just be trying to put ourselves in the shoes of those who are bullied, but of those who bully as well. We'll get half the truth if we focus on the victims' thoughts, and we need a whole lot more understanding of what's going on if we're going to address this problem.

I don't think there are any among us who haven't at one point felt the need to denigrate others to conform, especially when we were in school.

And Lance Bass did come out with his story of how he was a bully.

You're not the person you were then.

You know what the best, most satisfying revenge for me is? When the bullies and bully-enablers grow up to be decent human beings.

Thanks you. And I'll even speak for Eric, and Jim. You're forgiven, for the person that wronged them no longer exists. You eradicated her.

Agreed. Your comment was almost as eloquent as Susan's post, Zoe.

Jessi Tebben | October 8, 2010 9:02 AM

As always, thank you, Susan. Reading your stories this morning brought to my mind a memory I had long tried to forget happened and don't think I've ever shared with anyone before.

I was a kid who often did stick up for others when they were bullied. I kind of prided myself on it- my ability to speak up to people who's bodies or reputations were bigger than my own or the people they were hurting. But, one day in 8th grade- we had all just been through driver's education (which happens early in South Dakota)- this group of very popular girls showed up at my house on their way to the lake. I remember that they came in like it was the most normal thing in the world that we would be hanging out. And I went along with it because there was something so exciting about pretending that it was true. We ended up talking about a real friend of mine, and I continued to be carried away by the moment and gossip about this friend right along with the group. They couldn't have been at my house for more than 10 minutes, but I can remember how suddenly I was able to really think in those minutes that everything they were saying about my friend was true. Every negative feeling I had ever had for her all came together in my mind and seemed to be all that was true about her in that moment.

Then someone suggested that one person should call her while the rest of us listened in to hear how she would incriminated herself. I RAN to get the other phone. As the leader of the group set up my friend to say things that would haunt her the rest of the summer and into the next year at school (and beyond, I'm sure), I can remember forcing myself to smile while the true gravity of what we were doing pooled in the pit of my stomach. When it was over, the popular girls invited me to go to the lake with them. I took them up on the invitation. As a result, I traded my loyalty to my friend for a ride to the beach in the trunk of a popular girl's car.