Monday, August 17, 2009

I was a teenage bully-victim

I just read an interesting article in which the author argues that the books for teenage girls written in the late 1960s through the 1980s (books that were read by trailing edge Boomer girls and Gen X girls) are far superior to those being published today. And I couldn’t help but think about my own experience as a girl in the 1980s and the impact these books had on me.

Blogger JenX67 often talks about the ground-breaking book “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret” – in fact she’s named her own blog after that title. I, of course, read that and many other Judy Blume titles. But it wasn’t just the “classics” that got me through my rough junior high years.

There was a girl in junior high school that stalked and harassed me for about three years. She used to follow me home from school every day and yell “bitch.” It was pretty bad. In fact, when I got to the first corner turn, I’d run as fast as I could to get to the next block to escape the harassment. There's a whole bunch of other stuff, but I don't talk about it anymore. It's just over.

Like many girls my age, I was told to ignore it. THIS NEVER WORKS. Therefore, I was a really easy target – hey, why not bully Suzanne? She’s not going to do anything about it. I look back now and realize if I would have just gotten in this girl’s face and told her to go fuck herself, it would have stopped. I may have gotten punched (which was really unlikely, because looking back at this person, she was far more insecure than me), but I would have saved myself a lot of heartache. I was well into my 30s when I learned to stand up to bullies at work.

In 7th grade, specifically, I didn’t have a lot of friends. I’m sure the other girls didn’t want to risk the same thing happening to them. But I did have my books.
I used to love to read what I would call teen “pulp fiction.” Books about high school girls living there lives and overcoming their teen issues. They gave me companionship. And they gave me some hope.
I don’t mean this to be my sob story. There are people who have much sadder stories than getting bullied in junior high school. I just think it’s interesting what kind of memories old books can bring back.
Special note: I was also inspired to write this post by my friend Kathy, who wrote a great article on the topic of bullying. Hopefully, she'll post her insights on the topic here, too.

10 comments:

jenX said...

i just followed this over from twitter and was so surprised to see my blog mentioned. thank you! it's a great post! (yes, about penelope, too.)

a few months ago, my brother convinced me to write a post about bullying on the school bus. he was a gen xer who was bullied mercilessly in junior high and high school.

i don't think i ever figured out how to stand up to bullies at work. it's so interesting that you would post this, b/c i've been wanting to run an observation by you. the people i've had the best relationships with in the workplace were women who were Baby Boomers. Gen X women can claw, Suzanne. I have stories. Was this just my experience, or is it more universal?

jenX said...

p.s. love the play on the title - i was a teenage werewolf. hahaha!

Anonymous said...

Suzanne, I think your story is sad, and all too indicative of the response kids get when they finally tell someone they're being picked on. Ignore it, walk away, they only say/do that to make themselves look/feel good, avoid him/her/the situation, stand up for yourself, toughen up. the responses continue until the bullied kid feels like there must really truly be something wrong with him/her because they're always getting picked on, and nobody DOES anything about it. My mom says each of us girls (my 2 sisters and I) had problems with somebody picking on us at some point in our school years, and she went to the school each time and spoke to the principal about it, and each time, the problem stopped. I didn't know this, so whatever my mom did, she did on her own - THANKS, MOM! Other times, the things that happened we either dealt with ourselves, had friends who stood up for us, or perceptive teachers who saw what was happening and took care of things. One incident I never told my parents about until just recently happened my 10th grade year. I was a baton twirler, and on game days, we wore our uniforms just like the cheerleaders did, and the football players wore their jerseys. We didn't wear the sequins, we had skirt outfits that we had just for school wear. There was a guy who was in 1st/2nd hour with me, and one day he decided he liked that skirt on me. He was being sexually obnoxious - comments, trapping me at the sink in the artroom (the sink was in an area where it was secluded from the rest of the room) and rubbing up against me. He'd walk by as we were herding ourselves out the door and put his hand up my skirt. I talked to the teachers of both classes, the moved his seat away from mine and his movements were much restricted after that point. I talked to the principal, and he just shook his head and said "We can't do anything unless you're willing to press charges." WTF??? I don't think I can emphasise that enough. W T F. WHAT THE FUCK. I have to PRESS CHARGES before the principal will step in and stop this harrassment. I couldn't imagine telling my parents. I could just imagine their response. Maybe I should have told them, and watched the sparks fly in the main office. Really though, I was more afraid that imaginary witness would come forward and say I deserved it. Some guys I'd been friends with forever rode the same bus as the creep, and they beat him up after school one day. After that, he left me alone.

-Kathy (who has no google i.d.)

Anonymous said...

When my son was being bullied in kindergarten, the principal took him to each classroom and said, "point him out." My son wouldn't, or couldn't, find his tormentor. The incidents occurred off and on throughout the school year, and the principal did inform the teacher and noon aides to be on the watch. Sometimes, the bully was reprimanded, other times, the bully couldn't be identified. None of the other kids would stand up for my son. Did they not see what happened, or did they not care? I don't know.

My son has some characteristics that make him bully bait. He's shy, quiet, doesn't do well in large group/crowd situations, doesn't make friends easily. He has a sparkling personality and sense of humor, but it takes a while to get to know him well enough to see it. He's a little bit of a loner, preferring to play with one or two friends at a time instead of a crowd.

I did tell the principal I appreciated his efforts - but if my son was provoked enough, he had my full permission to strike back any way he wanted, even if it meant slugging the bully. And if the principal felt my son deserved suspension from school, then so be it. We'd take the day off and see a movie and have ice cream.

I told my son he could hit back if he felt he had to, and he said "ok," but in a way that told me he'd be unlikely to do just that unless he really, really, really was provoked. He's very much a rule follower.

I'm sure experts would tell me I said the wrong thing. In my defense, I didn't say, "hit back, or else." I didn't tell my son he'd be punished if he didn't stand up for himself.

What I told him was to tell me any time someone bothered him. Depending on what he said, I would ask him, "Do you want me to talk to the kid?" (I work at the school, but do not see my son during the day) Sometimes he nodded yes, sometimes he nodded no. If the answer was yes, I conferred first with the teacher, and that was usually all it took - they would handle the situation.

Anti-bullying programs would be great, if the majority of parents would accept it. But that would mean parents would have to do some soul searching themselves. Does making their boys into men mean slapping mom around to show'em how it's done? Telling their girls to just grow up and quit whining isn't effective when they have no self-esteem because they're abused at home.

We need to create an atmosphere where it is absolutely ok to tell and not fear retribution. Kids need to learn the difference between tattling and reporting to an adult something that is harmful to another person, though.

Bullying behavior will never completely disappear, in schools or the workplace. But - we have to stand up for ourselves and others and let the bullies know their behavior is unacceptable.

Kathy (who has no google id)

KateNonymous said...

My mother taught me two things:

1) Ignore them and they'll go away
2) That she had been picked on by a school bully (another girl) and would go home to hear "ladies don't fight." The bullying continued until one day when she grabbed the bully by the shoulders and beat her head against the wall.

I've always tried #1 for a short period of time--with minor bullies, it does sometimes work, because what they really want is a response. But the lesson I really took to heart was #2.

Now, I've never beaten someone's head against the wall. But I've never had any qualms about yelling back. The one exception was my first boss, who was definitely a bully (for what it's worth, Anonymous, she was a Boomer; none of my other bosses, male or female, of any generation, have been anything but delightful to work for). And even with her, I would make sure that I let her know that I didn't like her bullying. I just kept my voice down when I did so.

Suzanne, I agree that there are much worse stories (Penelope's is very sad). But bullying comes in a lot of degrees, like all problems, and I think the less extreme versions are also worth talking about. Thanks for sharing as much of your story as you did.

mygenx said...

Ah, this post brings back memories of me getting my ass kicked on the grade school playground. I was picked on a lot those days and since I was the nice quiet kid by nature it would just build and build until I couldn't take it anymore. So I usually swung first as my father instructed me but I usually got countered and layed out on the tarmac. Where were the teachers in the 70s and 80s. I must have been in a dozen recess scraps but never was there a teacher around who cared. No worries, It only made this Gen X'er tougher. Bullies suck. Fight back even it it means that you get knocked on your ass. I always felt better knowing that at least I tried to do something about it.

junkdrawer67 said...

Coincidentally, I've been thinking about this very subject lately. It was spurred by an article I read on slate.com about bullying and how to stop.

http://www.slate.com/id/2223976/

The author asserts that the commonly held assumptions about bullies are often not true, ie they have low self-esteem and are really cowards.

I can attest to this, having tried to stand up to bullies and gotten my clock cleaned for it. Although, I have to say after that they seemed to leave me alone.

I'd venture that there are more people who have been bullied than were never bullied ever, especially among GenX. Heck, as a generation we've been bullied.

Anonymous said...

@junkdrawer67 - you are absolutely right, re: the bully myths. Some bullies like to be in power, and take every opportunity they can to seize it. It has nothing to do with low self-esteem. The sad thing is, many of us have said these things to our own children, or have had those things said to us - I was given a book called "The Everything Parent's Guide to Dealing with Bullies" (pub. 2009 Adams Media, by Deborah Carpenter w/Christopher J. Ferguson, PhD) and it was a real eye opener. The book has information about all those bully myths, the low down on bullies and bullied, which prompted a commentary by me on another site. Suzanne is working on getting a link to it. If you're interested, go to http://www.spanitz.com/artman/publish/index.shtml and you'll find the article at the head of the list.
Kathy - who needs to get a google id

GenXpert said...

I think this post has really touched a nerve with a lot of Gen Xers and I thank you for all your comments.

I think @JunkDrawer67 hit the nail on the head when he said our entire generation has been bullied.

@jenX, I have to tell you, my work bullies have always been Boomer women. However, I think that things were changing so much for women in the 80s and early 90s that the small gap in our ages (I think I'm about 4 years younger) may have impacted our experiences. Or not. I just think in terms of how things changed from 1991 when I was an intern to 1993 when I was in the actual workforce.

I also had the experience that it was usually one of 2 or 3 Xer women working with all Boomers, so we were more likely to cling to each other for support.

(Sidebar to Boomers reading this - the three people who have been my biggest advocates and shepherded me to the next level of my career are Boomers.)

@Kathy - you need to start an anti-bully blog!

Kristina said...

The real shameful thing in my mind is that the authority figures in all these stories ignored it. "Kids will be kids" they said, or "they have to learn to work it out themselves". And even if the bullying happened off school grounds (as it did with Suzanne) you can bet the school still knew which kids were the bullies and didn't do a thing about it.

And I agree WTF about "pressing charges." That's patently outrageous.

I know Boomers like to make fun of the rules in school these days designed to make school less of a shark tank (i.e. rules against physical groping which sometimes end up lumping in innocent behavior), but who can blame the Xers for wanting their kids to have some protection in school when this is our legacy?