The Bullies, Bullied and Bystanders: Which One Is Mine?

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55 middle school students and I crowded into our local movie theater this week, not sure what we would experience.  Our group was a combination of kids from several classes at school, mixed ages, races, and genders, but the common thread that pulled us together was our experiences with bullying.

I don’t think there’s a person alive who hasn’t felt bullied.  Sadly, it seems to be part of the human experience.  And it’s not just kids that bully-I’ve experienced adults bullying kids as well as other adults.  Working in schools as long as I have might have made my bully radar more heightened than most, but I still remember the childhood feeling of wanting to melt into the earth rather than be the last one chosen for a team, or the criticism for how I dressed or how quietly I spoke. I remember my high school classmate who died at the hands of a bully.

In fact, bullying has reached such epidemic levels that some independent filmmakers followed kids with video cameras for a year, inside and outside of school, to document exactly what is happening with bullying in America.  The resulting film,“Bully”,  is heartbreaking, terrifying, and leaves the audience wondering what to do next.

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It didn’t take long for the mood in the theater to change from excitement to shock.  Watching regular, American kids experience verbal, physical and emotional abuse on the big screen made my popcorn unappealing, and had me reaching for a tissue.  I felt my body convulse with sobs as I watched Ty’s parents bury their 11-year-old son, a boy who reminds me so much of my own.  As his mother, nearly comatose, rocked in his bedroom, wondering what she could have done to prevent his suicide, it was more than I could take.  I wanted to scream at the screen, lash out at the pathetic creatures who taunted this little boy day after day until he felt, at 11 years old, his life wasn’t worth living.  What person has the right to inflict this type of torture on another human being?

During our debrief after the film, my students kept coming back to the parents.  How could they not have known what was happening?  And what kind of parents would raise children to think that this type of behavior was acceptable?  I wonder myself, if the parents of bullies even have an idea of what their kids are doing to other children.  Do they think that they’ve raised their son or daughter to be intolerant of differences, to be an aggressor, to be a bully?  And do they feel responsible for their child’s actions, even the slightest, when they find out that the baby they raised has turned into someone who takes joy in bringing others pain?

And I wonder about the parents of those who are bullied.  Do they know what their child endures every day as they ride the bus to school, walk the halls, or eat in the lunchroom?  Is their child ashamed to share their experience as a victim?  I wonder what I would do if my son or daughter came home and told me that they never wanted to go back to school, that they had no friends, and they didn’t want to face another day.

Days later, these thoughts continue to clog my brain.  I tuck my 12-year-old son into bed at night, and wonder why and how he’s escaped this torture.  I watch my 15-year-old daughter, weary with studying, and wonder how she has escaped the cyber bullying.  And then I wonder, do I really know what’s going on with them?  Do they see this happening at school?  Are they bullied? A bully? A bystander?

I tell myself all is well, I’m doing my job, and they are safe. 

I wonder if Ty’s parents thought that, too.


Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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  1. Thanks, Brenda. It really is a sad state of affairs when kids are scared to tell their parents what is really going on, and afraid to get help from anywhere else, too. OR they think they won’t get help…we need to watch out for each other.

  2. That’s terrifying to be honest. I’ve always felt being a parent was the toughest job, ever. As a mom, I am in tune to my children’s mood shifts, the way the eat, act, etc., and pray this is enough to know when something is not right. Now that my oldest is in college I have Skype to read her face. It’s hard knowing. I wonder if parents get caught up in their own lives so much they miss what is going on with their own kids? My daughter and son tell me all the time that their friends do not talk to their parents. This is sad to me. Those kids are alone. Good post, Jennifer.

  3. I ask myself those same questions when it comes to my children. My parents didn’t know anything about me being bullied at school, or about me being sexually abused? I do worry a lot for my children and wonder if any of those is happening? would they tell me if it does? how to react, what to do, how to know?
    Great post thank you <3

    1. Oh Nikky, this is heartbreaking. I can only imagine the pain you suffered. I know that because of that, though, you are parenting your children differently than you were parented. Take care.

  4. What a riveting post! I have a 14 year old son so the subject of bullying terrifies me! It also terrifies me because a classmate of mine when I was in the 8th grade committed suicide due to bullying & being pressured by his parents to make all A’s! We as parents need to pay attention to whats going on in our children’s lives. Talk to them! Ask questions about their day. Get to really know our kids! And don’t pressure them to be perfect! Just request that they do their best. If they study hard & put forth the best effort they can & make C’s, then thats ok! Love your children for who they are!

    1. Robin, I completely understand this. I’ve seen friends and students suffer from this same issue…I know parents operate on the best of intentions for their kids. When communication breaks down, and kids feel stuck, the unthinkable can happen. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I cried just watching the trailer, I remember bullying from when I was in school and if everything I read is true it is far worse today. I remember an awful teacher we had who was also the principal who would belittle the kids in our class. I remember one young boy in grade seven being hauled in front of the class, he was very overweight and the last place he wanted to be was up there he leaned against the wall and the teacher started making cracks about him knocking over the wall. It was awful and 20 odd years later I still see his humiliated face.

    1. Your story highlights how pervasive this issue is-if you’re imagining the humiliation of this young boy, imagine what he remembers and how it has impacted his life. Thank you for sharing your story.

  6. It’s become such a huge deal. When we were growing up, you were bullied, told a parent or teacher, they did or did nothing about it and you just kept it moving. Nowadays, it’s just so much more intense – cyber bullying and physical bullying. It’s just so terrible. I can say that growing up, I bullied a few people but not to any of these extents. I’m not proud of what I did but I was a child. My guidance counselor spoke to me and I quickly changed my views on it and stopped doing it.

    1. Keska, you’re absolutely right. The bullying happens quickly, spreads like fire, and can be anonymous….so different from the playground fights and taunts of our childhood. You bring up a great point-sometimes kids (and adults) don’t realize their actions really are bullying. When we confront it, and name it, it allows the bully to own their behavior and hopefully end it like you did.

  7. Thank you for your post about such an important issue as Bullying. I’ve heard that they have groups that are specifically designed to help the kids doing the bullying. This is another important step…I think most kids that are the bullies are having to deal with their own traumatic experiences at home.

    1. I agree, Becky. Bullies-whether children or adults-are often trying to work out their own issues. It just has to stop impacting the victims…we can’t keep losing our children like this.

  8. Perfectly said! I got your message about guest blogging and I am very interested. I will get in touch with you tonight when I get home on my own computer. I also work at a school and often wonder if these parents are aware of how their kids behave when they are not around. I have Recess Duty everyday. Thanks for writing a great post!

    1. Thanks, Victoria. I imagine that the parents of most bullies don’t know…that is what is so frightening about it. I think bullying can be so subtle, too, that it can happen without the bully even noticing. Very sad.

  9. It is so scary, isn’t it? I wish that I could give my kids enough confidence to ignore all of the bullies instead of taking other people’s words and actions to heart.

  10. Jennifer what a beautiful and very moving piece. I’ve seen some clips on this movie and frankly I’ve been afraid to see it myself or with my 13 year old. I too think I’m so lucky that my son talks to me and that he is so open to talking to diverse group of adults in his life. But then I too think, is that what some of these parents thought too? Did there child seem happy and well adjusted? It is very scary. Thank you for gently bringing this very difficult subject to the surface.

    1. Thank you, Kathy. Don’t be afraid…just take lots of tissues. It is so impactful to see it on the big screen…you won’t be sorry you took the time to do it.

  11. Wow. This stuff terrifies me. My boys are only 4 and I pray daily that I will raise them right so that they aren’t bullies or bullied. Thank you for sharing. As much as I don’t want to watch this movie, hopefully, I would be able to gain some insight on the warning signs.

  12. This post was fantastic. It’s such a HUGE issue now, and people need to take this bullying seriously! I have drilled it into my son that being mean is NOT an option, that peoples differences are what make them wonderful, etc. However; there’s a line between that and teaching them to be strong for themselves as well, and that’s difficult, especially when there are so many parents out there who actually model the bullying behavior and/or don’t take the time to teach their children that their behavior is unacceptable. Ugh.


    1. Thank you, Jenn. I agree with you-it really seems that it will take a collective front for parents to ensure that we teach our children that everyone deserves respect, and if we bring our own children up with a sense of self worth, they won’t feel the need to bully others.

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