I believe this is true with bullying. Taking on a situation where someone is trying to take you down can make you feel stronger. Unfortunately when you aren't successful - whether due to skill, wit, strength or being up against too sophisticated a foe - it can kill you. It can kill your spirit, your sense of self worth or in extreme cases make you think that killing yourself is the only answer. That is why we all need to take this issue seriously.
Recently, I went with my 18 year old son to see Bully a newly released movie that attempts to shed some light bullying and its effects. Here are my thoughts:
Bully exposes viewers to some of the very challenging situations too many children face when trying to survive and thrive in their worlds. It offers us a chance to see and feel for children, parents and communities trying to figure out better ways of getting along and what can happen when we can't - including the loss of children's lives.
I appreciated the ability of this film to get at the emotional costs to children and their families who are often dismissed by school officials and left feeling helpless and hopeless.
In one tough scene, we see Alex - a meek young man who has been nicknamed 'fishface' - being viciously taunted, harassed, stabbed with pencils and head-slammed into the seat in front of him on the bus. In another heart-wrenching clip we watch parents forcing themselves into a funeral home to “put their son to bed one last time" after he has killed himself due to harassment at school.
Perhaps though, some of the less shocking moments were more poignant. Like when Alex's mom challenges him on the fact that kids that would do this to him aren't really his friends. His response, "But if they aren't my friends, I don't have any friends."
The theater audience - which was mostly the entire 7th and 8th grade classes of Ann Arbor Open, their teachers and a dozen parents - all seemed effected by the content. From occasional outcries or quiet sniffles, to clapping at the film's end followed by a noticably subdued calm, it clearly had an impact. Which is the greatest value of the movie and the most important first step in altering the dynamic of bullying. It is critical to reach the hearts of children so they don't bully, step in when they see it happening and stand up for themselves if they are being targeted.
Getting at the hearts of administrators and school staff is also essential to inspire change. As the movie exposes this is a big challenge. In fact Alex's mother sums it up well after an ineffective meeting with a phone-it-in principal stating, "She politicianed us."
While acknowledging that the clips were edited for effect, that principal was the most difficult to watch. Her pat answers, platitudes and bandaid attempts to get a victim of harassment to shake hands with the source of his torment were offensive not only to me and my son but to the teens in the audience - many of whom cried out in disgust.
As a professional who presents to school communities on this very topic, I must admit that I am often underwhelmed by administrators' dedication to fostering an environment of safety in their schools. I call them 'head nodders' - administrators and staff who say the right things without a real commitment to doing the work. Working off a checklist - did the bullying prevention talk - rather than understanding that these are children's lives.
Perhaps it is because the issue seems so intractable and they don't know what to do. Because it is hard to change. Even with the caring that I often do see from dedicated teachers and desperate parents it is difficult to get ahead of this issue.
Educators and parents can and most definitely should use the Bully movie as a valuable tool in their efforts to stem the tide of bullying. But to make headway, it requires serious commitment and support from the entire community - on-going and proactive. It requires a real political and societal will.
That is why I give the teachers of Ann Arbor Open great credit for arranging the screening, inviting parents to attend as well, and for both the pre-discussion and the follow-up that is planned. These are the elements needed to make a real difference. And the message must be repeated often.
Would I have changed any of the movie itself? Yes. I would like to have seen statistics, professionals who are doing it right, deeper exploration of girl bullying which was seriously under-addressed, even one clip the helps us understand why children bully in the first place, and an example of a bystander having a positive impact on the situation.
Those are on my wishlist for that further discussion at Ann Arbor Open and other schools who do make the effort to get students to see this movie. Which is my biggest wish of all - having more schools, administrators and teachers watch this movie themselves AND have their students watch the film as well. It can't end there, but it would be a start.
As Kirk Smalley, the father of 11 year old Ty who committed suicide due to bullying said - "Be the difference." Bully, the movie, though not perfect, is trying to do just that.
Annie Zirkel is a Relationship Consultant, Speaker and Author based in Ann Arbor, Michigan who offers Don't Take The Bait - a presentation designed to teach children about bullying and to encourage them and their schools to create cooler, safer places of learning. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org