Sunday, June 19, 2011

Our Bullies, Ourselves

I read a reviewer describe Lisa Scottoline's latest book, Save Me, as a book about bullies in elementary school.  Maybe it is, although that seems a minor plot point to me so far.  I'm finding it increasingly difficult to care about these characters.  I find myself skimming parts of the book.  I've thought about not reading any more of it, but I have a little over 100 pages and I really can't figure out where the book is heading.  Will a big secret be revealed?  Several of them?  What is up with these minor characters who get so upset over a mom who tries to save her child?  We're supposed to see the child with a birthmark as a victim of bullying, but I'm seeing the adults as much more bullying than the children.  Maybe I'm supposed to see it that way.  I'm not sure yet.  It's getting late in the book for me to be unsure.

I had really hoped that this book would be akin to the experience I had in the past year reading Laura Lippman.  Her books have characters that aren't quite as richly drawn as I might like, but they have compelling plots ripped right out of the headlines.  And they're dealt with imaginatively.

No, if I had to recommend a book I'd been reading it would be Jennifer Haigh's Faith, a story about the family of a Boston priest accused of child sexual abuse.  I wasn't sure how it would turn out, but the characters had depth and interested me.  In many ways, it has a subtheme of bullying too.

But if you really want an imaginative approach to the topic of bullying, watch Let Me In.  Oh my heavens.  It's a vampire movie, it's an intriguing re-spinning of Romeo and Juliet, it's about children on the cusp of adolescence and all the ways they torture each other and save each other.  It's fairly graphic, not suitable for children.  But the scenes of the vampire attacks freaked me out less than the bullying scenes.  The main character is so scrawny, and his torturers so powerful.  And where are the adults?

It makes me wonder how much I'm not seeing as I go about my regular life.  Surely I would notice if people were mistreating each other, wouldn't I?  Surely I would intervene?

The movie is set in 1983, which is a time period I actually lived through.  I didn't have trouble in high school.  I wasn't bullied, just largely ignored, and that was fine with me.  In 7th grade, I was bullied (the year was 1977, not 1983).  We had a student who had failed 7th grade numerous times, so she was 15, when the rest of us were 12.  She was huge, both in terms of height and weight.  She called me Goldilocks.  She threatened to get me--but she threatened to get everybody.  There were afternoons I would scurry to my bus taking different routes, hoping to avoid her.

My encounters with her came to a head when I called her Papa Bear as she called me Goldilocks.  She threw a pile of Math books at me, and we were sent to the principal's office, where she accused me of bullying her.

However, she had a track record of bullying, and I didn't.  It just happened that I was her final offense, and she got sent to a juvenile facility.  I felt kind of bad about that, but more, I felt relieved.  I worried that she'd get out and come looking for me, the kid who had her sent away, but happily, that didn't happen.

As I watched the movie, and I watched the kids being brutal, I felt like I had escaped a much more horrible fate.  My bully could have made mincemeat out of me if she had wanted.  I had been taught that the best way to deal with meanness was to ignore it.

If I had children, I'd enroll them in self-defense classes early.  I want to believe that times have changed and that administrators don't have a "let the kids sort it out" philosophy. 

In fact, if I was in charge of schools, I'd change PE classes to self-defense classes of all sorts, along with some gun safety.  Clearly, I'll never get elected.

But honestly, how often in grown up life have you needed to know the rules of volleyball?  How often would some self-defense training have come in handy?  Self-defense would be more valuable, especially for our female students.

My cynical self would say that we don't want to train women from childhood to protect themselves, because then society would change radically.  My rational self says that most people approach school from the way they were brought up, which is why things never seem to change.  We're not good at envisioning new ways of doing things.

But today, I need a break from the bullies that seem to be haunting my pop culture intake.  Today, I'll dust off Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA and feel gratitude for that music and for Clarence Clemons.  I've gotten through many a rough patch in my life with music to cheer me up, to remind me of what's important, to inspire me, and to give me courage.  Bruce Springsteen's music has never been far away.  And Clarence Clemons was an essential part of Springsteen's creative team.

I have a vision (inspired by the episode of The Simpsons where Bleeding Gums Murphy dies) of Clarence Clemons having a jam session with so many of the musicians that I've loved who have died before I wanted to let them go.  If Joe Strummer, Clarence Clemmons, Kate McGarrigal, Kate Wolf, John Lennon, George Harrison--this list could go on indefinitely--formed a band, what kind of songs would they create?

1 comment:

Kathleen said...

So sorry about your own experience with a bully. It makes me think of the book and movie Bridge to Terabithia, and I recommend both if you haven't read/seen them.

We saw the Swedish film, Let the Right One In. Very powerful indeed! Haven't seen the English-speaking version yet, but when I do I will keep your thoughts in mind.