Wednesday, June 27, 2018

On Bullying - Then and Now

You have enemies?  Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”  Winston Churchill

When I was a kid I was bullied, a lot.  In third grade I was placed in a special education program for blind and visually impaired students.  The program was housed in a public elementary school located several miles from my home and my neighborhood friends. This meant they attended our local neighborhood school, while I was bused along with other students with various disabilities, to a neighborhood I did not know and where the kids did not know me.

Yes, I rode what some now refer to as “the short bus,” but that wasn’t what kids called it back then.  In those days they called it “the retard bus” and I rode it to and from school, every day, for six long years.

My memory of riding that bus is that it felt like the elementary school equivalent of having leprosy.  It didn't matter who you were, what talents you had, what clothes you wore or what kind of house you lived in ... the minute a kid stepped off that “special” bus in the morning, he/she became instantly labeled an inferior being, who deserved relentless mocking, teasing and harassment.  Like now, this treatment was often referred to as “bullying,” but adults dealt with it differently back then. They told me I needed to ignore it, that such treatment was part of growing up and “besides,” they’d say, “everyone gets bullied sooner or later."  The few times one of my tormentors was caught in the act by an adult and disciplined for his/her behavior, I'd be teased twice as much the next day. As a result, I learned it was best to deal with things myself and keep my mouth shut.

According to a 2003 publication by the California Department of Education, bullying is defined as,

"... a variety of hostile acts that are carried out repeatedly over time.  The acts involve a real or perceived imbalance of power, with the more powerful child or group attacking those who are less powerful."  

Bullying may be physical, verbal or psychological and in my case I suffered all three. The bullies would call me names, push, punch and kick me, take my things, make threats, band together with other bullies to intimidate me, and so forth.  The playground during recess and lunch was where the bulk of the bullying took place and though I developed numerous close friendships with others at school, these classmates were not much protection or defense from the regular and random targeting we all received from these ruthless rulers of the schoolyard. 

I more or less learned to live with the bullying I experienced, finding ways to compartmentalize it.  I did my best to ignore this dreaded behavior and in some cases that worked because the bully couldn't get a rise out of me.  In other cases I'd use humor to deflect or act like I didn't care. I learned to never let them see me sweat and whenever possible I'd avoid places and/or situations where I might get caught alone in a bully's path.

But something happened as time went by .... I grew bigger, stronger and ever-more determined to find a way to stop being a victim.

One day in seventh grade, two boys cornered me on the way to gym class, demanding the bag I carried containing my brand new gym clothes.  They circled around me, called me names and told me that if I didn't give them my gym clothes they would beat me up.  Other kids saw what was happening and started gathering around.  A circle formed, with everyone watching to see what would happen next.  A couple friends in the growing crowd shouted to the boys to leave me alone, but they ignored my friends' pleas.  I just stood there, saying and doing nothing.  One of the boys suddenly reached out and tried to grab my bag. I instinctively pulled it out of his reach and with my free hand, pushed the boy back.  I pushed him hard and he lost his balance, falling to the ground on his rear end and landing in a puddle. The crowd started to laugh and the next thing I knew, I was standing over the boy, fists clenched.  The other boy could have jumped me then and there, but for some reason he didn't move.  I wasn't paying attention to him anyway.  Instead, I just stood over the boy in the puddle and glared at him while he looked at me in total disbelief. To my great surprise, he got up and quickly walked away.  Even more surprising, his friend followed him!

I learned something about bullies that day.  I learned they do not like it when someone stands up to them.  Now, as a grown adult, I know standing-up to bullies diminishes their power and that's what bullies fear the most.  At twelve, all I knew was these two bullies backed down and left me alone.  I don't condone pushing someone and I'm not proud of the fact that, even at twelve, I couldn't come up with a better solution ... but I am proud of standing my ground for the very first time and not letting bullies take advantage of me.

Why am I sharing all of this and who cares about an ancient story that hasn't seen the light of day in decades?  Here's the thing.  

Eventually we all grow up and while some childhood bullies do stop their malicious and destructive behavior, others do not.  Childhood bullies who become adult bullies, continue trying to exert their power over others in selfish, mean, destructive and hurtful ways.  

As Superintendent of the Ross Valley School District (RVSD), I can speak of this adult bullying from personal, first-hand experience.  Our district has been the recipient victim of long-standing adult bullying that makes anything I experienced growing up pale by comparison.  If you know our community, you are very familiar with what I'm talking about.  If you are new to Ross Valley, check out this list of articles our local paper printed since 3/30/17 about our tiny, high performing district.  The point is, adult bullying of our Board of Trustees, me, our colleagues and those who came before us, is purposefully designed and intended to silence our community's voice, diminish our families' choice and disrupt our students' educational experience.  

This is why, today, just as I did when I was twelve years old, I choose not to play the bullies' game. A vast majority of our community feels the same way.  We are no longer quietly tolerating threats, name-calling, social injustices, unreasonable demands, personal attacks, hollow promises, revisionist history, newspaper hit pieces, smear blogs and phony pledges.  The bullies hate this and like all bullies who have lost their power, they aggressively lash out to obfuscate, rationalize, shift blame and endlessly play the “victim.”  Their goal is to win the minds and hearts of those who do not see them for who they really are, thereby regaining the power they poorly deserved but richly enjoyed.  

Child or adult, standing up to bullies is hard.  It takes patience, determination, grit, courage and a very thick skin.  But not allowing bullies to continue taking advantage of us, our children and future children, is worth every bit of the effort.  I’ve been standing up to bullies all my life, even when the odds were strongly in their favor.  It’s what I do and likely one of the reasons my path led to RVSD, where I'm so proud our community is speaking out, voting their confidence in genuine education and re-balancing the power in support of our truly public schools.