To begin with, please go read Kate Harding's excellent post on childhood bullying. A lot of it applies universally. The part about people being willing to say "but he/she's really a good kid" about bullies especially speaks to me, because I heard that when I was younger. I heard that a lot.
So here, full disclosure time: I was a weird kid. I was too smart for my classmates and too socially inept for my teachers. I was years behind in the areas of "giving things up," clinging to My Little Ponies and imaginary friends long past the point where it was "cool." My family was poor. I didn't have fashionable clothes or lunch sacks full of things to trade. I couldn't throw birthday parties, and when it was my turn to bring things to share with the class, they were always homemade—not the best way to look cool when the other students could afford fancy things from fancy bakeries. I liked books better than I liked boys. I watched cartoons. I sang in public. I wrote weird stories for class assignments. I came from a single-parent household. I stood out, no matter what I did, no matter how much I tried to be "normal." "Normal" wasn't in my skill set.
The kids I went to school with were exactly as understanding of all this concentrated weirdness as you'd expect them to be. They pushed me around, made fun of me, stole my homework; they ripped my books in half, shoved me into closets, knocked my lunches out of my hands. I can't stand the thought of getting a library card, because they stole my library books, leaving me with a fine my family's welfare-level budget couldn't pay. I was from a family so poor that ketchup really was considered a vegetable, and the little creeps I went to school with stole my library books. Not because I fought back, because I didn't. Not because I'd done anything to them, because I hadn't. Because they thought it was funny.
I listened to the adults when they told me it was my fault for being different. That if I just ignored the bullies, they'd go away and find an easier target. That if I was willing to change, to conform, that the bullies would be my friends, and not my tormentors. Why I would want to befriend people who once pushed me into traffic because, again, they thought it was funny...that part was never explained. I ate a lot of lunches in the office or the library. I got better about keeping my head down, about not crying where anyone could see me, and about answering "How was your day?" with the obligatory lie.
Fine. My day was fine. I had a lot of "fine" days back then. It's amazing how often "fine" meant "horrible, terrible, mortifying, humiliating, dehumanizing, brutal." All I ever had to say was "fine."
By the time I was fifteen, I had attempted suicide multiple times. Luckily for me, the Internet wasn't around to make it easier, and I had to rely on (often inaccurate) second-hand information. Right around the time I started to fully understand what it would take for me to kill myself, I started meeting people who understood what it was like to be different, who didn't make fun of me for being myself. It helped that my high school was across the street from a junior college, giving me easy access to a whole new social circle. There are times when I honestly believe that if I'd gone to a different school, I wouldn't have survived to graduate.
In a way, I was one of the lucky ones. I was a member of my school's dominant racial group. It was a college prep school, and most of the students were too focused on scholarships and golden tickets to make hounding me their life's goal—I was a hobby, not a vocation. I was rarely the target of violence. When I came out of the closet, I got some additional mockery, but not much; not enough to truly make things worse than they already were. My life could have been much, much harder...and I say that as someone who literally developed stress headaches and ulcers by the age of seventeen, from the strain of coping with the bullying.
It didn't help that for decades—and I do mean decades—I blamed myself. There had to be something inherently wrong with me, right? Otherwise, the bullies would leave me alone. Especially since so many of the bullies had friends, had favorite teachers, were golden children who could do no wrong. I was convinced that I was somehow flawed, and that I was just too stupid to see it. It was the only explanation that made sense.
Only it turns out that there's no explanation. Some bullies come from broken homes, or have low self-esteem, or need to prove themselves on the pecking order. Others...don't. Some bullies are wealthy, smart, attractive, and have everything in the world going for them. Some bullies do it because they can. Oh, I'm sure that every bully has a root cause, but at the end of the day, you bully, or you don't. One choice is right, one choice is wrong. And way too many people make the wrong choice, because it's easy, because it gives them power, because it's fun to kick the people that nobody will defend. Most bullies seem to learn early that their victims have been trained to "be the bigger person" and "turn the other cheek." You know what? Ignoring a bully just makes it more fun to torment you, because then, if they get you to react, they know they've won.
We've known for a long time that school bullying was out of control, but every time it gets "uncovered" again, people react like it's some sort of shock. Kids can be mean? HORRORS! Kids bully other kids? HORRORS!
Everyone at my high school knew that bullying happened. If you were a bully, you knew. If you were bullied, you knew. If you were neither of the above, you tried not to align yourself too closely with the bullied, because there was a chance the big red target we all had painted on our backs might rub off. No one in the American school system is ignorant of bullying. But still, we take the word of the bullies over the word of the bullied. Still, we allow for the mistreatment and marginalization of anyone labeled "different."
And still, kids are dying over it.
This whole situation hurts my heart. Please, please, speak out against bullying. Break the cycle. Humanity will always have the potential to be cruel, but isn't the world already difficult enough? No one should die for the crime of being different. No one should learn the lessons so many of us were forced to learn.
No one else should die because we didn't stand up and say "enough" to the bullies of the world. The fact that I have to write "no one else," and not "no one," just shows how bad the situation has become.
Please. Break the cycle, before it's too late for someone else.