Bullying permeates all aspects of schooling. We can only overcome it when we work together.
Through A City Education, City Year corps members share their experiences working as tutors and mentors in schools in hopes of closing the opportunity gap and ending the dropout crisis.
I made the decision to go to a high school where I knew almost nobody. It was the largest school I had ever seen. The buildings were huge and beautiful and there were hundreds of students. I thought I’d find myself and where I fit in. I thought that high school would be just as fun as it seemed in the movies.
But I was invisible. No one spoke to me and no one showed interest in being my friend. I found myself at the wealthiest school I had ever seen, and as someone who had almost no possessions, this was terrifying. I became fully aware of what I lacked and realized how unlike my peers I was. Eventually I stopped eating lunch, because I lived in fear of the day that others might find out that I got my lunch for free.
I sported the "goth" look, which caused me to become popular amongst my peers. Not popular in the way I longed for—I was ridiculed. My classmates' interest in me was solely to find new things to mock. They would ask me about the music that I was interested in, and then they'd laugh about it. There was one girl that would actually follow me to my locker so she could make fun of my acne. Sometimes she'd be waiting there with friends. I dreaded those days.
Bullying permeates all aspects of schooling. From a young age, students feel pressured to look and act a certain way—any sort of difference is threatening. Being bullied is difficult not only because of the actual act, but also the residual effects. It made me feel powerless, like nobody would help me even if I cried out for it. I felt weak because I couldn't stop it, and I thought the things they mocked about me were true.
As a City Year Orlando corps member, many of my students have shared their experiences with bullying with me. One of my students talked about being in fifth grade and moving to a new apartment complex. "There was a taller boy who lived there who bothered me regularly, calling me short, pushing me around, or kicking in my door," he said. "One day, other kids were playing football but I didn't want to play, so that same boy started throwing rocks at my head. This caused us to fight, and during this fight I was dropped on my back. I ended up in a back brace for some time afterwards," he said.
My student is now a leader at school—a participant of many clubs and organizations—but he still faces insecurities due to his height. His peers know that all it takes to hurt him is to call him "tiny" or "short."
Another student I work with also faced trouble in fifth grade. He described two girls who he believed were trying to get him suspended. "Eventually they got the entire class to call me gay," he said. "They would call me this when I walked by, as well as saying stuff like 'he touched me.' My friends told me that when I wasn't there, they'd put notes in my desk accusing me of touching them. I eventually had to go to the principal because of this, but the principal didn't believe me, so I had to transfer classes," he said.
This student, while certainly very bright, still has behavior trouble. He's a self-appointed class comedian, but many times he jokes to hide his insecurity. Alexy Santos, a City Year corps member serving at Orlando's Walker Middle School, held an assembly to address bullying with students. Each grade discussed and defined what bullying was, and then watched a powerful video by spoken word poet Shane Koyczan. The video highlighted multiple types of bullying and how we can find the inner strength to overcome bullying together.
Signs are now visible on the walls of the school. The words "I promise" appear in bold and the signatures of every student from each grade represent a promise they're making to unite against bullying. A united effort is the strongest ally we can have against bullying, and since bullying is often learned, changing our behavior is necessary. It doesn't just affect a few students with similarities. Most people at some point in their lives will experience ridicule or bullying. The assembly at Walker Middle School is the first step in a long journey. Education is the most important tool to help our students learn to accept others.
Sometimes, when I find myself discouraged about bullying, I remember my students that regularly stand up for people they don’t know. They call out disrespectful comments and keep each other in check. Moments like these remind me that the cycle of kindness and acceptance is alive and capable of continuing. Moments like these remind me that I'm going to learn so much more from these kids than I thought I would—and that sometimes it's good that high school isn't like the movies.
Do this: Confront bullying and raise awareness about the long term impact it has.
Unhappy girl being bullied in class image via Shutterstock