Back in my childhood, which thankfully happened before the Internet explosion and before everyone was “connected” online, bullies were few and far between. I vaguely remember each class having usually one bully, and the bullying happened in person so that other students were witnesses and so that few secrets were kept from teachers or parents.
I remember being pinched on the cheek for calling someone by their full name instead of their nickname. The teacher and my mother found out about it. I remember being “called out” for wearing clothes that weren’t “cool” enough or for being a teacher’s pet from time to time (because I did all my homework). But the bullying happened at school, and I went home to my own dis-connected world, where I could interact with my parents, my sister, and my friends in a safe environment that helped rebuild my self-esteem.
During those days, it was always understood that the class bully had something wrong at home, something that caused them to be a bully, and usually they had appointments at the counsellor’s office regularly. Witnessing bullies helped me realize that not everyone is kind and well-intentioned and that not everyone has a stable life at home.
But then in middle school, an event happened that left a scar. A school bully—someone with a notorious reputation and an intimidating physique—took the phone from me. Yes, it was the days of pay phones. I had been a spectator at a sports game (basketball, maybe?), and it seemed half the school was there. I was never a fan of sports, so a few moments before the last play, I snuck out to use the payphone to call for a ride home: I anticipated (correctly) that there would soon be a long line.
A few others had the same thought, and I was maybe the fourth person in line. It didn’t take long for the rest of the school to line up, with the queue stretching down several hallways as all the middle school kids called their parents to request a ride home. When my turn came to use the phone, the school bully—we’ll call her “X”—showed up. She took the phone from my hand, but I wouldn’t let go. The adrenaline rushed, and I knew this was a moment I would never forget.
“You can wait like everyone else,” I said.
X turned to the rest of the line and laughed. “Look at this,” she told the rest of the school. I’m holding the phone in my left hand, and she has to use both of hers!”
I stared up at her. Of course I had to use two hands. I was a tiny sixth grader, and X was already in eighth grade, with the rumor that she had been held back at least once. She could eat me for dinner.
I knew I would have no chance in a fight. I would be left bruised and bloodied. I would probably not get even one hit in. I had never been in a fight before, but that evening I was ready to take a beating. I was ready to stand for a cause. I thought of how proud my parents and friends would be. Here I was, standing up to bullying, standing up for all those students who were being honest and waiting their turn in a very long line. But something happened that deflated the heroic moment.
I turned to my friends and asked them to get an administrator. It made sense to me: I was brave enough to “hold up” the bully, buying time for an administrator to come and rectify the situation. Justice would be restored. All I needed were a few brave friends to get someone from the office.
That didn’t happen. My friends were cowering in a corner, near a plant by the main office. “Just give her the phone,” I heard someone whisper.
Really, honestly, no one was going to get a principal or teacher. They had all accepted that there was a bully in the school and that she had a “right” to take the phone at any moment. It was a battle already lost, one no one wanted to acknowledge.
I gave up. What kind of world was it that no one—not one person out of several hundred—was willing to take a stand with me? What kind of world was I even fighting for?
And I was lucky: bullying was limited to the school grounds when I was growing up. Today, it’s literally in everyone’s pockets. With the Internet and the prevalence of cell phones, students feel anonymous and empowered. Students I taught admitted to me that they have said terrible things to each other from behind a computer screen. They have taken pictures of each other in compromising positions, such as when a classmate bent down to pick up a pencil, and posted them online with funny captions. No, not funny—demeaning. Bullying.
And yet, from the safety of the screen, students don’t quite feel that they’re being a bully. They simply hit “send” and wait for the “likes” and comments to follow.
What they don’t see is the ramifications of what they’ve done. Suicide rates are on the rise among young people. In part, I think social media isolates them and makes it more difficult to find an in-person network to rely on. In part, social media gives everyone the opportunity to become a bully.
Bullying takes away rationality and forces people to act out of fear or hate or disgust. When “X” took away the phone, she also took away everyone’s ability to live in a society with rules: the earlier you get in line, the earlier you get to call home. Unless you are a bully.
With social media, bullying forces students to react emotionally. Logic is thrown out the window. What about the girl photographed while bending down to pick up her pencil? Her underwear was showing. It was neon pink. The students acted like this was the end of the world, and they made her feel terrible about something that literally took five seconds of her day. How many times was she forced to relive that moment?
Thinking rationally: if most people bend down far enough, their pants will start to slouch. And pink underwear? Who cares? Doesn’t everyone wear underwear? The bully who pinched my cheek in kindergarten took away the opportunity for a rational discussion about why she preferred her nickname rather than her given name. But instead, I lived in fear of her for the rest of the year, keeping clear of her as much as I could.
The sad reality is that with social media, the lack of rationality is compounded: emoticons and memes and .gifs encourage emotional reactions that don’t involve thought. If someone posts a funny picture of a friend bending over, I can simply click on a laughing emoticon and then move on with my day. I gave my reaction maybe two seconds. The person pictured now sees a laughing emoticon and is the butt of a joke: and she has to relive that moment over and over.
In writing The Scarred Letter, I wanted to imagine what would happen when a main character—someone with the spirit of Hester Prynne—decided to stand up for the truth regardless of social ramifications. Could it be done?
Could you live an entire day standing up entirely for what you believe in? Did you buy a cup of coffee? Do you know where the coffee came from? What about the cup? Is it recyclable? If you tossed it in a recycling bin, did you follow up to make sure it actually does go to a recycling facility? Did the cream come from cows that are treated right? What about the taxes you paid on that cup of coffee? Do you know where each penny of your tax dollars goes? Do you agree with all of those costs? I think it’s almost impossible to live completely truthfully: it’s much easier to ignore and move on.
Heather Primm in The Scarred Letter stands for what she believes in, and the entire school turns against her, some adults included. She is left to determine which path to take: to stand up for the truth or to give in and live an easy life.
Bullying is a horrendous problem, and solutions include teaching compassion, empathy, and coping skills. I hope in writing The Scarred Letter that I reach readers and help them to consider the ways we are all connected and that our actions and interactions matter more than they would have ever thought.
And if you’re looking for ways to combat bullying, check out these sites for great resources on what to do if you are being bullied and how to help others: