“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me.”
Despite the assurances of this old schoolyard verse, the truth is that words do cause harm; terrible, lasting harm. Words can also be precursors to physical assaults or to rape and—as we’ve seen reported in the news far too often—words can also lead to retaliatory shootings or to suicide.
Bullying is not a new phenomenon. That rhyme has been popular since the nineteenth century, and probably earlier; a rather obvious indicator that bullying is a prominent feature of childhood, even in the most civilized of societies. Tragically, until someone dies, bullying is rarely discussed openly; not by our teachers who observe it every day, not by parents who tend to remain blissfully ignorant of their children’s’ daily torments, and not even by our young people whose lives are changed forever by bullying.
But an eye-opening anthology, Bullying Under Attack: True Stories Written by Teen Victims, Bullies & Bystanders (HCI Teens, 2013) takes an important first step: it raises public awareness of bullying whilst sharing the viewpoints of bullying’s main players: individuals who are bullied, their bullies, and the many (often overlooked) bystanders watching passively from the sidelines.
Each chapter in this collection explores bullying from a particular perspective and examines some of the methods employed, such as social isolation, verbal assaults, cyberbullying and physical harassment, and the excuses used for selecting specific individuals as targets, such as race, gender, and sexual orientation.
But this is not a scholarly investigation that is emotionally removed from this sensitive subject. Instead, this book goes straight to the source; through the voices of its teen-aged authors, this book explores how bullying feels to those who experience it. The essays, poems, open letters, photography, and drawings present raw and unvarnished accounts that captivate the reader, so we too are enveloped by social isolation, we too hear verbal assaults echoing inside our heads and we too endure the physical harassment alongside those who are bullied. Each voice adds to the painful chorus of those whose inner selves have been dismantled by their peers.
I’m the smallest
Star in the night’s sky.
My only reason
For being is
To make the
Brighter stars look better.
(“The Smallest Star” by Summer Davis, from Bullying Under Attack, p. 101)
We experience first-hand the insidious and abiding psychological damage inflicted since many individuals internalize their bullies, as contributor Shefain Islam observes: “Maybe, we think, if we find our faults first, it won’t hurt us as much if someone laughs at us or insults us. We become our own worst bullies, even if no one is actually mocking us” (p. 214).
We feel, as exemplified in the compellingly evocative essay, “King Worm,” how lack of trust and self-esteem work in tandem as some bullied children emulate their persecutors, seeking acceptance from their peers by heaping abuse upon vulnerable others.
But unlike most adults, the book’s youthful contributors don’t shy away from discussing the tragic consequences of bullying. For example, we sit tensely on the edge of our seats as one young man listens to his bullied friend talk openly about suicide in “The Bullet.” In “90 minutes,” we accompany another student to a school assembly, sit next to him, and listen with him to a grieving father talk about his son’s suicide that resulted from bullying.
The essays reveal some common misconceptions about bullying. For example, some parents may believe that if their child has friends, they are somehow protected from the perils of bullying. But they would be wrong: bullies may in fact pose as a child’s closest friends, as we learn in this poem:
The worst thing about
Bad name listing —
The tiny words that
Worked like piranhas
Swimming through sound waves
The worst of my dreams.
The worst thing about
Is that they
(“The Worst Thing About Bullying” by Rachel Chevat, from Bullying Under Attack, p. 129)
However, there’s also plenty of hope to be found in this anthology. For example, the poignant essay, “How Are You?” shows how one person’s simple, and probably soon forgotten, act of kindness can make a world of difference to a bullied child. Other essays tell of how a bully and his or her victim befriended each other and through their new-found compassion for the other, found new and lasting strength. Additionally, the short biographies for all of the contributors in the back of the book provide powerful real-life examples that there is a better life waiting after graduation.
In addition to the collected short essays, poems, and open letters, drawings and photographs are interspersed throughout the book’s pages. The afterword shares useful advice for helping young people with parents, educators, and others who work with children, particularly those who are being bullied. The book lists numerous resources, such as web sites and organizations, films, and books, to assist with bullying. To encourage young people to share their experiences and feelings through writing and art, the editors of this book share information about the not-for-profit Young Authors Foundation, its writing programs, courses, and contests, and how to submit works to Teen Ink magazine, where these collected works were originally published.
This book is a vital wake-up call to parents, educators, and school officials, providing an insider’s view of bullying and the issues surrounding this destructive and anti-social behavior. By reading this powerful book, the reader is alerted to the subtle warning signs that a child close to them may be the victim or observer of bullying—or might even be the bully. By identifying the problem, they can follow up and change the lives of these young people before it’s too late. For these reasons, this is the most important young adult and children’s book I’ve read in my entire life. Although I hope a day comes when such a book will not be necessary, I think it should be required reading by school officials, parents and students, and included as an essential part of anti-bullying programs in schools. Further, now that a new school term is underway, this book would make an excellent gift for your student and for your local school and public libraries.
Reprinted from The Guardian.
GrrlScientist is an evolutionary biologist and ornithologist who writes about evolution, ethology, and ecology, especially in birds. She sometimes lurks on social media such as Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Twitter. She also blogs.