Yesterday as I was waiting in the lobby of a school (which I won’t name), I noticed that all-too-familiar sign on the door which read something like ‘Our staff are free to work in an environment without assault. Verbal or physical assault will not be tolerated and will be prosecuted’…or something like that.
We’ve all seen that sign, in hospitals, schools, and in various transport hubs. All school staff should be free to work without fear of assault. But what about the students?
After I gave a talk to about 200 year 9 students, one young guy approached me to say hello and have his book signed. I wrote in his book “For Harrison. Best Wishes!” and signed in sharpie pen, “J.Norton.” He was a pleasant, clean-cut young man; a clearly curious and conscientious guy and I was happy to be able to sign a book for him (I personally love having signed books). Later, as I was packing up, Harrison came back into the hall (with a few friends) disheveled with his tie off, shirt ripped open, clutching a soaking wet, muddy copy of MetaWars.
The school bully had grabbed the book from Harrison, roughed him up, and threw his book in the mud.
So much for students being free from assault.
I was shocked, appalled, and angry. I was so shocked that I was a bit deer-in-headlights. I should have advocated for Harrison and demanded to see the head teacher that instant, or called the police, but I did neither. I let the head of year 9 handle the issue – she promising to “deal with it.”
The kind bookseller very kindly gave Harrison another copy and I signed it again, this time saying “Stay strong. The bullies always become bin men.” (what I was thinking of was the genius visual gag in the Toy Story films where Sid the bully from the first film is actually the garbage man in the third film)
Of course, what I really wanted to write was “Bullies respond to power; get a dozen of your mates together and teach this monster a lesson he’ll never forget.” But I didn’t do that either.
The head-of-year-teacher mentioned that the bully was a well known troublemaker and the librarian admitted that this bully actually kept kids from coming up and saying hello after my talk; they didn’t want to be seen to be too keen, or too into reading. Harrison braved the bully and faced the consequences.
If I had had more time, was less shocked, and better hand writing, I would have written a more considered inscription into his book. I don’t know what the answer is to bullying, especially as even the best and brightest minds on the planet tend towards violence as a solution (Libya and Iraq come to mind), but I’d write something like this….
For Harrison –
You just got knocked down, and probably felt embarrassed and humiliated, but you did the most important thing could you do…you got back up.
You came back, shared the problem, asked for help, and knew that you weren’t alone.
From the sounds of it, this bully will probably pick on you again, and likely others. It’s a failure of leadership in your school that this kid is even allowed on school property. The head teacher should be ashamed and removed; but that’s probably not going to happen and it certainly isn’t going to help you right here, right now.
As I see it, you’ve basically got three options:
First, you could fight back. Unless your life is in danger, I’d advise against it for a few reasons.
It turns you into him. It lowers you to his level and having met you, I know you’re better than that. And, unless you’re professionally trained, you probably won’t win. Violence begets violence, and you might be able to land a few good punches, but then you’ll spend the rest of the year looking over your shoulder for him to surprise you, and maybe do something worse than a tussle and throw your belongings in the mud. If you want to remove the threat, you start going down a very dangerous road that can only lead to incapacitating this kid. Don’t go there. No good will come of it, and chances are you’ll end up in jail.
The tricky thing is that the violent option seems like the reasonable path because it’s what adults do in the real world. My grandfather fought in World War II when violence was the only way to stop Hitler. All free-thinking people are forever in the debt of the “greatest generation” who defeated Hitler’s army. We hail Churchill and scorn Chamberlain, so it’s easy to think that violence is the option. But history has taught us that both world wars could have been avoided by focusing on their root causes. More recently, Tony Blair saw Saddam Hussein as a bully and he and his American friends threw the whole heft of military might to find and kill him. U.S. President George W. Bush probably felt pretty great killing the bully who once threatened to kill his father, but his legacy is a man who took a nation (and the UK) into a war that was justified under false pretenses. A hundred years from now, he’ll be remembered as a villain, not a hero. And Desmond Tutu has already labeled Tony Blair as a war criminal. Tony Blair did a lot of great things for the country but his legacy will be a man of war, a man of violence. I think you’re better than that.
Second, you could just keep your head down. You could go about your days, trying to keep a low profile and perhaps stay out of trouble. This is a temping option as well. It’s low risk, probably keeps you out of harm, and avoids confrontation. This is a coping mechanism and one that you may need to employ from time to time just to avoid a black eye or worse. But, you can’t live you life this way. It’ll eat away you inside, and you’ll morph into a different, meeker person. You can’t hide forever because bullies can smell fear, like sharks can smell blood. Plus, you’ll be denying yourself the riches that come from new experiences. You got to meet an author yesterday. I never had that experience when I was your age, and if you kept your head down, you’d not have had a new experience and life a whole lot better (and more fun!) when you embrace new experiences.
Third, you can be you. I think this is the best option. And from meeting you, I think you’re already there. You seem great. And being yourself – being resilient to attacks, both verbal or physical – is going to make you strong. The world is a really, really tough place and there are bad people in it. But there are also a lot of awesome people doing amazing, creating things that change the world or at least make it better in little ways. I think you are one of the awesome ones. You took your punches, but you got up, came back for your book and hopefully you just keep on doing what you’re interested in, what stimulates you, and what makes you happy. If you do that, all your life, I think you’ll be more than all right. I think you’ll be fantastic.
There’s an internet meme called #ItGetsBetter; with lots of great videos on youtube from people who’ve survived high school. It’s mostly aimed at the GGBT folks (who get the roughest ride in high school), but it holds true for anyone trying to survive high school. The videos are worth watching because it’s true…it gets better.
High school can suck on many levels. Everyone you’re in school with is dealing with surging hormones, trouble at home, or varied levels of emotional intelligence. I’d love to tell you that the adult world is much different, but it’s not. What is different, however, is that the world has an amazing way of sorting out the good from the bad, the awesome from the sucky, and the heroes from the villains. And over time, the villains tend to gather together in places behind high walls called prisons. These are not nice places.
But the good people find each other; and there’s power and unity in numbers. We human beings are tribal. In high school, it’s hard to find your true tribe because the pool to draw from is only so big. In college, if you go that way, it’s bigger and you can find the people that support you and want to see you succeed. In the big, real world, it’s even better because there’s 7 billion people to draw from. There’s entire cities or neighbourhoods of people who gather together to be themselves. I don’t mean that moving is the answer, but as your world expands, so do your chances of finding your people. And when you do, you don’t feel alone. I got the sense yesterday that you’ve already got good friends and you seem well-liked, so you’re half way there. But it gets better. Keep going, because I’ve got a good sense that you’re going to be awesome.
PS – Be under no illusions that you have been failed by the system. The administration of your school has failed you. You are in their charge and they had clearly understood that this kid was a threat to the safety and security of the school. But, lots of people are going to fail you throughout your life and usually unintentionally. So, get your parents to strongly voice their concern and disgust with the school and its overseers, but don’t get distracted by the injustice. Life is structurally unfair. And that’s not an excuse for you to cling on to, it’s just another hurdle you’ll have to clear. There will be many more, but your perseverance and resilience are your best ninja-skills on the broken path. You’re going to do great, and as a good friend of mine (who faced tons of bullying in high school, often race-driven) says, “Living well is the best revenge.” Live well, be yourself, and one day this bully kid will be cleaning your bin.
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