Don’t be silent, friend
by Kelvin Wade
In junior high there was a group of kids who bullied other kids. They seemed to thrive on being jerks. They were the kind of kids who would snatch a kid’s lunch, knock their books out of their hands or beat up a kid just because they could. Naturally none of the victims went to the principal because that was only inviting a future beat-down.
One of the kids had a physical disability that would’ve made it tough for him to fight other kids one on one. But with his cohorts, he had no problem manhandling other kids.
The insidious thing about bullying is that it makes accomplices out of bystanders. Often other people will ignore the victim being bullied for fear they themselves will become victims. At worst, they join in the bullying with taunts, once again to deflect any possibility of becoming a victim themselves.
The kids at my school nicknamed the group of bullies B.U.S. for “Beat Up Squad.” They’d say, “Here comes the BUS.” Some of the kids who were bullied by BUS became friends of mine. Once they became friends of mine, they weren’t bullied anymore. Why? It’s the same reason that lions eat gazelles instead of elephants. An elephant would be way too much fight. And since I was a big kid, I guess BUS decided it wasn’t worth finding out if they could take me.
But bullying isn’t just about being physical. While they didn’t challenge me physically, they did spread a rumor that my best friend Dan and I were gay lovers. Dan was so bothered by the rumor that he simply stayed home from school for a week. While I don’t blame him for taking it that hard, his sudden disappearance gave the appearance that the rumor was true. For a week, I walked around school with people whispering and others outright laughing at me and taunting me.
Fortunately, it blew over.
Last year I was driving and thought for sure I spotted one of the former members of the Beat Up Squad walking down the street. For a brief moment I was back in junior high protecting my friends from those lowlifes. For a second I thought about stopping the car and finding out how tough he was one on one. But I’m not that guy. Still, it’s been over 30 years and I can see the misery in the faces of the kids they bullied. I can hear the taunts of people who believed their rumor about me.
There are those who say that bullying is normal. They say it’s a rite of passage that’ll make kids stronger adults.
What about the kids who kill themselves? How tough did it make them?
I understand teasing and trash talking. Guys horse around like that growing up and I do think that’s normal. But when we’re talking about systematic daily abuse that follows kids home through Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, affects their schoolwork and makes them feel unsafe just being a kid, that’s wrong. We do them no service by just telling them to man up and that it’ll make them stronger.
And the recent viral video of the harassment of 68-year-old bus monitor Karen Klein should remind us that it’s not just kids. That could easily have been someone’s grandmother on a city bus. It could be your mother at the shopping mall. So don’t think it just happens on the playground. It happens in the boardroom and the bedroom, too.
In retrospect, I understand the kids who looked the other way when the BUS was roughing up kids. No one wants to be the victim of abuse. But if someone is being abused in my presence and they look at me and I’m pretending to not notice, they will remember my cowardice. They’ll remember me as an additional abuser. I’ll remember it too.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”
I can’t be silent because my conscience is too damn loud.