We Unleashed The Lion

29 Feb

Kids fight.  I wasn’t much of a fighter when I was a kid, but I got into one real fight in middle school with some kid on the soccer field, and looking back on that I can’t remember what it was about: but it wasn’t that one of us was bullying the other; or that we were from different cliques, groups, or certainly gangs.  I’m not even sure how many punches were thrown and though I can remember the kids name very well–hey, he’s a Facebook friend now!–I remember the only “pain” from the experience being the disappointment of my temper having gotten the best of me once again, and the debilitating frustration of not being able to explain to anyone why I was so upset.  There weren’t bullies in my school in the traditional sense of the word: no Scott Fargus pelting us in the face with snowballs, hanging us from tree-limbs by our underwear, or flushing our heads down the toilet.  But there were mean-spirited fuckheads, who were compensating for disappointments or insecurities in some aspects of their lives by being shitty and verbally abusive to other kids.  I was one of them–one of the mean spirited fuckheads, I mean.  And one of the other kids, too.

I remember when the Pearl Jam song, “Jeremy” came out.  It made me think about two things:

1.  These dudes are going to be one of my favorite bands of all time.

2.  They are right, man.  Kids in schools are going to start snapping and really start killing themselves and the people that push on them.

Well, in different ways I was wrong about both things.  Pearl Jam ended up becoming a caricature of themselves, and are now one of my least favorite bands of all time.  If a Pearl Jam song from any album other than Ten comes on the radio, I reflexively turn it off.  But a few years after “Jeremy,” Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris  walked into Columbine High School, injured 24 and killed 13 of their classmates and teachers as they sprayed the cafeteria, hallways, and classroom with bullets, before shooting themselves in the school library.  When you’re 16 and living, working, and going to school on a boat, and this is the way you hear about Columbine–a school not far from where one of your best friends grew up–I guess you tend to remember those details: the names, the numbers, the locations.  And then over the course of the next few years, it just kept happening.  Nothing on the scale of The Columbine massacre, no school shootings with perpetrators whose names I can remember, or even at schools I could name off the top of my head now.  But at least once a year, or so, somewhere, typically in some suburban fantasy land where “nobody ever thought something like this could happen,” a kid gets pushed over the edge, and the “unthinkable” happens.  And, as was the case these past two days, our gut reaction, as a community driven by a sensational media, is to draw it back to one thing: bullying.  The kid–we assume–is an outsider, pushed to the edge, who snapped and brought a gun to school to avenge his bullies, and killed some other people along the way.  And then the details come out, and as Michael Moore pointed out even in the case of Klebold and Harris the truth is so much more complicated.  Sometimes the bullied are also bullies.  Or perhaps the girl who jumped in front of a bus was dealing with some other heavy issues besides the insolent little punks who told her to “kill herself” on Facebook.  I don’t say this to minimize bullying at all, but to reiterate: shit’s always much more complicated than we would like to make it.

When I taught in jail the term “bullying” would have applied in so many ways, I wouldn’t know where to begin.  The justice agency bullied the education agency, the education agency bullied the justice agency; some counselors bullied kids, some kids bullied counselors.  The kids didn’t bully the kids (they either jumped one kid in larger groups, or beat the shit out of one another man-to-man, or Big Homies extorted littler day-room kids for their snacks and privileges.)  Fights were so common they became less worrisome, and more of a source of excitement.  It’s sad to say, but when you put kids in a place that looks and operates like a jail they act like it’s jail.  At my current school I don’t see traditional “bullying.”  I don’t really see any fights, even.  It may be because the kids are older and generally have other shit to worry about.  It may be that they save their aggression and violence for their block.  It may be that teachers like myself mock all of the kids enough for everyone to get their fill.  But I know where it does happen: it happens on Facebook, and Twitter, and via text messages, and subliminals.  I get it.  The insecurity, clownery, and machismo of the bullying mentality lends itself perfectly to social media.  It’s even easier to shit on someone and make yourself feel better when HUNDREDS of people can see it, without you having to hear or pay attention to their response.  God, if Facebook was around when I was 15…what a nightmare I would have been in some kids’ lives.  There would be a permanent record of what an inconsiderate ass-clown I was at that age.  Physical fighting and verbal taunting, bullying, and deflecting insecurities onto other people is something kids are always going to do.  And when it adapts itself to an online world that most adults don’t understand or know how to monitor, it’s going to cause even more fear, of course.

In January, when a teenage girl in Staten Island jumped in front of a bus, the news papers talked about online bullying a lot.  And then they talked about a failed relationship with an older boyfriend.  And then depression.  And then issues from her childhood.  Eventually, after the story was well off the front page of The Post, they talked about the stress of being a teenager.

I can’t imagine to know what in the world went on in the mind of Dylan Klebold, T.J. Lane, Amanda Cummings or Tyler Clementi before they took their own lives or someone else’s.  Just like almost everyone else in the world, I do not know their whole life story, or the circumstances that left them feeling that taking anyone’s life, even their own, was their best and only option.  I just remember what it was like to be young and tell other kids hurtful and mean things, and to have other kids tell you mean and hurtful things.  And I can remember what it was like to feel like shit about so many other things in your life.  And I remember how stressful and hard it was to be a teenager, even if I look back at some of it now and say “how petty.”  Nothing in your life at that time is a black and white fill-in-the-right bubble, and it was A complicated project that you didn’t feel like you really had the tools to complete.  I wonder why the media, and so many adults seem to forget that.

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