Bullying: We choose to be who we are

One of the things I regret most in my teaching career is the way I made fun of students in class when I was a new teacher. I told myself at the time that I only picked on the students who could take it, and they even enjoyed it, but I now know better.

It wasn't difficult to do either. It is never hard for a teacher to get students to laugh at each other.  Students cannot fight back against that authority very well. Sometimes I did it to entertain, other time to discipline, but always to be superior, as all bullies feel the need to be.

Some veteran teachers at the time cautioned me against it, but they were old and I was young and hip. But I now see that it was cruel and that I was, in effect, bullying them.

Plato learned from Socrates that there was never a reason good enough to harm another person. Socrates felt it was better to be sinned against than to sin, better to be hit than to hit another, better to be killed than to kill, better to be bullied than to bully. He believed, as I do now, that we owe a basic level of respect to every human being for being human, and that cruelty and bullying make us less human.

Bullying has been given as the reason so many students nationwide hate school and why a few of them go so far as to attempt to kill their classmates. A few years ago, a Concord High School student was shot and killed by police after he brought a gun to school and threatened his classmates. Bullying is an issue here at Conval too, and the student handbook has a new definition and policy for dealing with it. The administration is resolute in identifying and eradicating bullying.

Yet, bullying is so endemic to society at large and schools in particular that it has become the fabric of most friendships. While the heavy-jawed thug still might bully unknown classmates for food money, most of the bullying goes on in peer groups.

A few years ago I had a student in class who sarcastically mimiced the way his classmates laughed. When I called him on it, he said, "No. It's all right. She's my friend."  The bullied student did not deny this then and there, but later confided in me that they were not friends and thanked me for intervening. There is no more personal attack than to make fun of the way a person laughs.

Earlier this year as I approached the school, a boy outside the main entrance yelled, "HEY JOE, YOU'RE A WHORE. JOE, YOU'RE A WHORE."  When I told him that was bullying he said, "No, no, we are friends." Joe came over concerned that his friend was in trouble.

While these examples may be a bit extreme, it remains that all too often friends are cruel to friends. All too often, students delight in seeing a friend embarrassed or caught doing something wrong. They will laugh at a friend when he answers a question wrong in class or when he asks a question they think is silly.

Many students learn slowly that people who laugh at you and enjoy your discomfort are not really your friends, but in the intense social pressure of high school culture, they dare not risk confronting that. Perhaps they feel that it is better to have a bad friend than no friend at all. Hopefully later, away from high school, they will learn to choose their friends based upon the respect they receive. But I suspect many will continue forming bullying relationships with others.

I feel for these students, and I am frustrated that they do not seem to be able to accept my help or to help themselves. In fact, the bullied often feel that they deserve to be bullied, that they are deserving of the scorn their bullying friends heap on them. As I look back on it, I am sure some of the students I bullied took it as their due as well, and it bothers me that I was a party to that cruelty.

Montaigne said that cruelty was the worst of all vices: "Among other vices, I cruelly hate cruelty, both by nature and judgment, as the worst of all vices." He said cruelty was the mother of cowardice. He cautioned mothers who laughed at their children's cruelty to others that they would grow to be cruel adults and bring their families shame.

He noted that those who as children first showed delight in the killing of animals were predisposed to be cruel to people as well. "At Rome after the people had inured themselves to watching the slaughter of animals, they went on to men and gladiators."

How students treat each other now will be how they treat each other when they are adults. When young, people practice to be who they will become.

If one laughs at his friends and takes pleasure in their discomfort while in high school, he will find a way to do that as an adult, and for that he will be known. Or, if one practices showing respect and cares for the well-being of his friends in high school, he will be known for that as an adult as well.

Our lives don't just happen to us; we choose to be who we are.