Guest blogger Bob Balaban on the documentary Bully and bullying prevention.
In my new children’s book series, The Creature from the Seventh Grade, protagonist Charlie Drinkwater is mercilessly taunted by his oversize nemesis, Craig Dieterly. Although much of the book is inspired by my own childhood experiences, I am happy to say I was never bullied. Even though as a kid growing up in Chicago I fit the definition of underdog to a T—short, skinny, big-eared, awkward and brainy—I was never bullied. I had the good fortune to attend a tiny private school where I was in the mainstream and the kids on the football team were, ironically, far more likely to be considered outsiders than I was.
Until I saw Lee Hirsch’s deeply affecting documentary Bully last year (now available on Netflix), I was convinced that there were two types of bullying: the time-honored innocuous kind in which stupid overbearing lugs with names like Moose and Biff made a harmless nuisance of themselves as they tried to assert their authority over the weaker, smarter members of the class, and the much rarer, more destructive kind, in which sadistic pain-loving monsters destroyed the childhoods, and occasionally the very lives, of their anointed victims.
Bully obliterates the line between the two and makes it perfectly clear that zero tolerance is the only way to go. It tracks the cases of five abused kids, including two who committed suicide. Bullying is bad. It is never justified. And it isn’t a matter of “kids will be kids.” Its effects range from damaging to fatal. And it’s on the increase. See the movie. Show it to your teenage kids and their teachers. Tell your friends. You’ll be moved. You’ll be shocked. You won’t forget it.
Bullying often goes unreported and frequently survives the scrutiny of even the most well-meaning parents, teachers and guidance counselors. It is impossible to legislate against. It is considered by many to be a bogus issue invented by wimpy parents and their cry-baby offspring. Much like sexual harassment, it thrives on ignorance and apathy, and the commonly held notion that it’s a natural part of life and its victims are as much to blame for their horrific treatment as the perpetrators themselves. Throughout the documentary well-meaning parents advise their bullied children to “toughen up.” They tell them that they are encouraging the situation by not fighting back, that they have a valuable life lesson to learn by standing up for themselves.
The parents of one particularly abused child, cruelly nicknamed “Fish Face,” are brought to tears when finally shown documentary footage of their child being brutally assaulted on the school bus. They had no idea how serious his problem was. He had complained frequently, but he stopped reporting the incidents after his guidance counselor called him and his parents in to her office. She explained that she had ridden the bus specifically to look for signs of bullying and reported that the other students were polite and well-behaved, and that the victim was obviously confused. Or lying. Kids everywhere are facing the same reluctance on the part of their teachers and parents to take the problem seriously. And yet it is of epidemic proportions.
Bullies don’t exist in a vacuum. They echo the attitudes and prejudices of their parents, friends and teachers. The kids who are witness to their cruel behavior are generally too afraid or too complacent to say anything about it. Their silence is tacit approval and encourages bullies to keep on bullying. But like the little boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” one lone protesting voice in the crowd really can stop a bully in his or her tracks.
We’ve got to encourage our kids to be that voice, to speak up if they’re witnesses to an incident. We must let them know that when we don’t say something, we become de facto bullies. That, as well as making our school and elected officials and public opinion makers aware of the seriousness and the urgency of the problem, are our best and only lines of defense.
Here is the trailer for Bully. I hope you’ll take a few minutes to watch it. If it moves you, watch it on Netflix, you’ll be glad you did. It’s far more eloquent than I could ever be.
Bob Balaban is an actor/producer/director/writer who has appeared in over a hundred movies, including the recent Moonrise Kingdom. He produced and co-starred in the Academy Award–winning movie Gosford Park, directed the award-winning off-Broadway play The Exonerated and is currently writing the Creature from the Seventh Grade series for Viking Children’s Books.