When I was 11 years old, I began middle school. It was a terrible experience. The school was in a tough community, and I was a sheltered child. It was not a good fit. The bullies sensed our cultural differences — I lived in a secure family, and most of them did not — and they pounced on me. Ugliness ensued, and the situation escalated. I was afraid for my life, and I couldn’t see a way out. The nightmare lasted until I was 13.
Somehow, I survived and moved on. That “somehow” involved accepting exile to a private school in another city where I was mostly welcomed. It wasn’t the ideal solution (I was a Jewish child trying to stay invisible in a Catholic school), but it worked well enough. I could begin the healing process.
Bullies Expected Me to “Tell”
Jump ahead a few decades. With the advent of social media, I strongly suspected that at least some of the bullies of my past would find me. I was terrified, but I was as prepared as a person could be.
Indeed, several of the former bullies eventually did contact me. They wanted to apologize, and I was willing to listen. Toward the end of the conversations, though, each of them asked me a question that had apparently always haunted them: “Why didn’t you tell?”
Their syntax was odd and consistent enough that I paid attention to it. When adults asked the question, they typically added a direct object to clarify their meaning: “Why didn’t you tell me about your toothache?” or “Why didn’t you tell me you were going to be late?” However, each of the former bullies asked me the question the way that a child might: “Why didn’t you tell?”
As children, these bullies hadn’t known how to use their off switches. But the now-adults seemed to believe that, if I’d reached out, the teachers or school administrators would have been able to stop them. Years after the fact, they were evidently still wondering why I hadn’t marshaled the forces that could have prevented them from causing as much harm as they had. Fair enough.
Here’s Why I Didn’t Reach Out
The question was simple, but the answer was complicated. As an adult, I have coping mechanisms at my disposal that I use automatically. I also have an additional 40+ years of life experience.
But when I was an 11-, 12-, and 13-year-old child who was suffering abuse from her peers, I didn’t know what to do. In the first place, you don’t rat people out. You just don’t—not if you want to stay alive. In the second place, I lacked the courage to use my voice, because the bullies had shattered my self-esteem.
I Could Only Imagine Getting Help
Also, I didn’t know how to ask for help. I wanted to. On some level, I knew that I should. I fantasized about walking into the vice principal’s office (as far as I could tell, the principal was never on the premises) and telling him what was going on. I’d stare at the vice principal’s closed office door whenever I passed it, and I’d imagine turning the handle and walking inside. I’d will myself to do it.
But I couldn’t. See, I was a well-behaved student who followed the rules. When school was in session, I was always supposed to be in one classroom or another. Before school, I was expected to be in my homeroom. After school, kids weren’t allowed to linger in the building; when the last bell rang, we were required to go home. The school day was structured so that I knew how to walk by the vice principal’s office between classes, but I didn’t have any idea of how to get inside.
What I Might Have Done
I suppose I could have corralled a teacher before or after class and asked how one might meet with the vice principal.
But approaching a teacher would have required figuring out the logistics and then finding the right words to use. How in the world could I do those things when I was in a constant state of panic?
Here’s How the School Could Have Helped Me
It would have been ideal if I’d had the ability to “tell.” Given the fact that I didn’t, it would have been great if an adult had approached me instead. The fact that children were torturing me, inside and outside of classrooms, was an open secret. This wasn’t a one-time incident. The bullying was ongoing, and adults surely saw some of it, at least.
Although it’s challenging for me, I try to give the teachers and school administrators who looked the other way the benefit of the doubt. It’s likely they were scared, too, for many of the same reasons I was. These kids were violent, and they demonstrated no awareness of boundaries. Adults weren’t necessarily safe from the children.
Additionally, bullying wasn’t a widely acknowledged problem then. “Kids will be kids” was still a mantra. Educators and school administrators lacked the skills they would have needed to recognize signs of serious distress, and the school probably had no policies in place for dealing with bullying, anyway. What was the point of acknowledging a problem they couldn’t fix?
So I can understand why a teacher or school administrator may not have proactively come to me and offered assistance. But I still wonder why they didn’t convey to all of their students that, if they were in trouble, it was their job to help.
Minimally, they could have told us when they held office hours and under what circumstances we could meet with them. They could have pointed us to any resources that were available and told us how we could access them.
The educators and administrators at my school could have explained, in advance of a disaster, how to “tell.” I was an educable child, and I have to believe that, if I’d been told what the procedure was for reaching out, I would have at least tried. I could have done that much, for everyone’s sake.
Are Things Different Today?
I share my story with you because I can. I’ve finally made peace with the saner of those childhood bullies, and I’ve let go of the fear that the other ones could ever touch me again.
But there’s a reason why I raise the issue of “telling” now. Schools have zero-tolerance policies that should minimize the current threat of bullying.
Yet, through Facebook, I recently heard from a student who is afraid that she won’t be able to graduate because she’s being bullied. So, despite the progress we’ve made as a society in acknowledging the potential consequences of bullying, we still haven’t gone far enough. Somewhere, there’s still a student who needs help and doesn’t know how to ask for it.
Having anti-bullying policies in place clearly is insufficient. Educators need to find reach out to students who are targeted by bullies. Better still, they should communicate with them on a regular basis before disaster hits. Lives may depend on it.