Bullying gets under my skin more than a lot of subjects precisely because I experienced it firsthand going through school. As such, watching the 2011 documentary Bully was a heart-wrenching, emotional and in some ways, infuriating film to watch. The documentary follows a few different kids from different cities around as they navigate the tumultuous waters of public education.
One kid in particular was riding the school bus when another kid sits down next to him. The first kid, wearing glasses with a bit of a protruding jaw and a rather lanky frame said to the other, “We’re buddies now.” The other kid, not liking the sound of that, went on a tirade filled with expletives about how they were indeed not buddies. At one point he says to him, “I’ll bring a knife tomorrow and fuck you up.”
Now, I’ve never, to my recollection, ever been threatened in that manner throughout my public education. However, I can rightly say that the school bus is one of the most terrifying experiences as a younger kid. It’s like a being in a prison cell on four wheels, except, there’s not even the potentiality that the guard (re: the bus driver) will step in. Usually, the most involvement you see from the bus driver is his eyes in the review mirror monitoring what’s going on, but with the sentiment, “Whelp, I’m just going to keep my hands on this wheel and my foot on the gas.”
I remember one scenario in particular, I was in the fifth grade and on our bus, it was fifth graders through twelfth graders. Naturally, the bus driver, in his infinite apathetic attitude, seated me in the back surrounded by a gangly group of twelfth graders. To my fifth grade four-eyes, they loomed large, imposing and authoritarian. I was scrunched up between one with a sly grin like Skeet Ulrich in Scream and another that offered me a lollipop, or maybe it was a regular sucker; I only remember licking it under their guise terrified to do otherwise. And I kept my eyes focused on the window and the blurring green trees and houses. Skeet’s arm also rested around my shoulders, as if indicating we had become “buddies.”
That’s not bullying in the strictest sense, but it was a terrifying experience to my younger self, nevertheless.
Another horrible setting ripe for bullying is gym class. In the film, naturally again, one lanky, nonathletic kid is forced to partake in activities that are designed to have him not only picked last by his fellow gym mates, but picked on mercilessly. It doesn’t help matters that the P.E. instructor is just as adamant that such a kid should get more involved. No, he shouldn’t. Let him be. Add in changing in the locker room and showers to this and dear god, the prison analogy is seemingly more and more apt.
At one point in the documentary, a tearful father explains how his son, who had committed suicide due to bullying, was forced to wander out of the locker room naked because other boys had stolen his clothes. Or in other cases, they would kick him from behind while he was peeing at the urinal in the bathroom. As an aside, this behavior, where it’s obvious derision of gay behavior while engaging in overtly homosexual harassment and acts, is pervasive on school grounds, whether high school locker rooms or college fraternizes (re: hazing). I find that peculiar, indeed.
The old line, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is atrocious. Whoever originated such a line clearly underestimated the power to which repetitious use of language can break someone. If someone constantly hears that they are a loser and a “nobody” and that they are nothing; then eventually they start believing it. And in the extreme cases, such depleted self-worth manifests into a tragic suicide attempt or a successful attempt. Apparently, an administrator noticed one kid was being bullied in the cafeteria, so she takes him out of class (which seems the wrong way to go about it – publically drawing attention to it; I feel that’s rather humiliating, but I digress) and talks to him alone. She asks him what’s been going on in the cafeteria to which he replies, “They call me a faggot and stuff…it…it breaks my heart.” If I didn’t have tears by that point, which I did, I certainly did then.
Again, too, this goes back to the idea of using gay insults on others. I often ponder if that’s something that’s always been around between children as a way to challenge someone’s emerging masculinity (which is troubling, as gay people can be every bit as masculine) or if that’s a recent development.
Suicide as a response to bullying is a heavy subject touched upon by this documentary. One family in particular had a harrowing experience with it that I find unimaginable. The mother of a child was walking around her house recounting the story. Her husband had walked into his son’s room, turned to the closet, and noticed him hanging there. His younger son also ran into the room and saw his older brother hanging there. Miraculously, he lived. I just can’t wrap my head around the idea of seeing my own son driven to such a point that he would kill himself and that I would find him hanging by a rope…it’s just, wow. Unfortunately, this same kid would go on to commit suicide successfully. Words do hurt and they hurt much deeper on a personal level than sometimes physical abuse even can.
I found myself living vicariously through the expressions and attitude of the aforementioned kid that was bullied on the school bus. At one point, the bullying had gotten so bad on the bus – one kid literally shoving his head into the seat and punching him in the arms – the filmmakers had to show the video to the parents and school administrators. Upon seeing the video for herself, the bullied kid’s mom asks him, “How was your day?” And goes on about asking him if he thinks this is normal or okay. He doesn’t respond right away. Instead, he just stares at her for what seems an awkwardly protracted time. Finally, he says to the camera away from her, “They push me so far that I want to become the bully.” Ugh. It’s reached a point with him that this repeated abuse seems normal and that it’s something he deserves because it’s become such a normal routine. Yet, there’s also a part of him that would like to become the bully because he knows the power afforded the bully. The conditioning to that behavior has numbed him though, as he says to his mother, “I don’t think I feel anything anymore.” That’s troubling for a number of obvious reasons.
I lacked communication too about situations wherein I faced verbal or even to a lesser extent, physical bullying in school. I wouldn’t tell my parents or anyone else about it. And yes, there were times I dreaded going to school in direct response thereof. However, I actually came to deal with one situation in particular that was the most egregious on my own terms. In the eighth grade, a kid had been bullying me on a daily basis. It was mostly things like knocking over my books, bumping into me, shoving me and so forth. Well, one day, I’d had enough of it. Just like a kid in the documentary who exasperatedly tells an administrator that he’d just had enough and whacked a bully in the mouth, I had to stand up for myself. The bully followed me into the bathroom, which seems another ripe arena for bullying, and as he came behind me, I turned around, grabbed him by the collar of his t-shirt and shoved him up against the tiled bathroom wall. He was a larger kid than me, but in that moment, I managed to actually lift him off his feet and told him as directly as possible, “Stop fucking with me.” And oddly enough, as sometimes happens in these instances, he ended up becoming one of my friends throughout the rest of the school year. He never bothered me in such a manner again.
Now, am I advocating violence as a form of ending the bullying? I don’t know. I feel as if that may fall under “self-defense.” I would suggest going the route of diplomacy first such as alerting your parents and administrators via communication, but if the bullying persists thereafter? What recourse do you have other than standing up for yourself with force or at least a very strong verbal directive?
To sidetrack for a moment, where is the line between filming or documenting something and the moral imperative to step in? In other words, at what line did the filmmakers say to themselves, “Okay, we can’t watch this kid get bullied any longer?” Earlier, when the kid threatened to bring a knife the next day, they didn’t appear to tell parents or administrators, but when it got noticeably more violent and aggressive, they did so. There’s something to be said about distancing yourself from the story, so as not to be the subject of the story itself, but morally, there has to be a line. I wonder how photo journalists in a war zone deal with it. Should I get the shot or should I save the kid from being shot? It’s that kinda dilemma that utterly fascinates me. I know my heart was actually trying to break out of my chest in watching that kid get bullied, so I have a hard time imagining myself sitting passively behind the lens of a camera while it went on.
There’s a town hall-type meeting that occurs at one of the school’s in response to a bullied child’s suicide. He was eleven years old. That boggles the mind. One administrator said, “Kids will be kids; boys will be boys.” That’s equal parts disgusting in its simplistic defeatism and maddening in how cliché. Maybe kids shouldn’t be kids in that way in terms of their behavior; maybe boys shouldn’t be boys in that way in terms of their behavior. There should be a desired behavior and clearly, bullying does not meet that desired behavior. To just throw your hands up and say, “Well, kids bully; that’s what kids do, everyone’s been bullied at one time or another,” is an ugly, ugly reflection on our society.
Luckily, a smarter individual on the board made a fair point about the limits to what a school can do. To paraphrase, he said, “Can a school change a child’s behavior if they’re going to go home and not have it reinforced?” Certainly, he brings up a valid point that parenting obviously plays a vital role in shaping a child’s behavior. To which, I’m not sure where a solution lies therein.
That said, the school is most definitely responsible for providing a safe environment for all kids, so irrespective of being able to reinforce a proper behavior, they can enforce a safe environment, which whether on the school bus or otherwise, they are lacking in many ways.
Speaking of which, the film probably should have dove into more of what schools have done to combat bullying and what has worked. Moreover, the film would have had more complexity had it interviewed someone that did the bullying or the parents of someone that had bullied. As many know, kids who bully have many of their own issues that just are expressed in the form of aggressive and verbal bullying. This issue is not as black and white as is perhaps insinuated by the documentary.
And even as a proponent of capitalism and that making money is acceptable, I too would echo South Park’s satire of the documentary:
Kyle got to be the voice of reason in “Butterballs” and asks Stan the obvious question: “If this video needs to be seen by everyone, why don’t you put it on the Internet for free?”
Stan doesn’t answer.