Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Tunnels of Darkness and Gasping for Breath

Weeks ago, we rode through Monroe County, Wisconsin's bike path -- the Elroy-Sparta Bike Trail, which was the first "rails-to-trails" conversion in the United States.  A railway becomes a bike trail: technological-regression and eco-progress.  3 tunnels mark this trail, the last of which is a long, dark rock-tunnel of nearly a mile.  We were advised to walk our bikes through, turn on our "head-lights," and walk along an uncertain path.  Some riders did not heed this warning and charged through.  It might have been thrilling for them to ride blind, but I could do no such thing.  I carried no lamp or light and the ground fell quickly off a central, narrow corridor.   Cautiously, I walked my bike along, though every step seemed unsupported, and there was little means to discern the walls, floor, ceiling, or end to that dark.

Is such a confinement similar to the psychic terrain of the bullied?  Bullied by body, by rumor, by on-line attack: it must all seem without perimeter, without light, without end.  I have been trying to imagine the thoughts of a thousand girls and boys under such duress, but it's akin to holding a crashing wave with fisher's net.  Still,  I need to hear such thoughts -- the thoughts of teens who dread waking each day for fear of what might happen in class, or traveling a long-leg of hallway, or surveying an unwelcoming lunchroom, or merely booting up and logging onto their computers.   I worry such darkness turns to self-torment, and these kids, bullied as they may be, become masters of avoidance, of hesitation, of the suppressed voice.  They become a sketch of what they might be, a slighter version of their true-self.  And I worry that they may feel that it would mean nothing to leave, to exit. 

Kids like Amanda Cummings, a Staten Island teenager who was bullied for her dark-dyed hair, her nose-piercing, her differences from the norm, who had hinted at suicide on-line, and who one day threw herself into the path of an NYC bus.   Or 12-year old Joel Morales from East Harlem, who hanged himself after being physically bullied for months.  Two kids who had been perceived, by friends and family, as lively and happy.  Did the perimeters of their lives become so dark as to be unbearable? Did they view their actions as the solution to unsolvable problems? Or did they see it merely an escape from unrelenting pain?

One rider on the trip, a kind-hearted man, told me this high school bully-story; Over 40 years ago, he had been transferred into a new school and, at just over 5 feet, was one of the shortest, if not the shortest, boy in his class.  He was also slightly built -- an easy target for bullies.  He recalled how one boy repeatedly made his life hell: 

He wouldn't stop and I knew it would continue unless I did something.  But the only thing I could do was swim, and the one thing I did better than anyone else was hold my breath underwater.  So one day in swim class, I dragged that boy down and held him on the pool's floor.   I held him there a long time, long enough to see him struggle.  Beyond the surface of the water, I saw the gym teacher, his hands folded across his chest, doing nothing.  Watching.  I eventually let that bully go, but not before I told him that if he or anyone else ever bothers me again, I would drag him under again and not let go.  

No one bothered him again.

Part of me cheers the underdog victorious; part of me feels that turnabout is fair play. 

But the teacher intervenes.  And I want to figure out some non-violent means to a peaceable end.  And I know that there are a thousand girls and boys who can't fight back and who can't hold their breath 'til they breathe again once more safe and sound and whole. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Part 3 of 3 -- The Flip-Side of Interdependence: Mean Girls and Prank Boys

So we form tribes and establish relational interdependence; and while such reciprocity is predicated on equity, shared gestures, shared work, they are tempered by judgement, judgements which weigh human distinctiveness against equity.

In cycling and other team sports, the tribe bands together for a mutually beneficial effect.  But the school tribes of lockers and staplers, of hallways and paper clips are different.  Presumably, school is a place for academics, in which kids drive themselves (or not) to succeed, and as a teacher, I grade and, sad to say, "rank" kids by their performance.  But there is a second school within each school -- a school of cool, with classes on social standing, and  bookshelves with thousands of pages of "like."  Kids are cued to this at a very young age and are driven to achieve (or perhaps rebel against) social rank.  Robert Wright writes that the pursuit of social status is a zero-sum game.  Not every kid can claim cool or popular.  And to capture such a title is to take it from another.  To this end, kids jockey for social order, and the means to do so can be, well, just mean.  And this is the flip-side of the interdependent tribe: the individual who bands with others and by any means necessary, captures the flag of cool and medal of power.  When bad boys and mean girls plan and plot, this initial, individual urge of self-interest is magnified exponentially:  the end, social slaughter for the victims and social currency to the victor. 

I once tutored a bright, young Park Avenue girl.  The mother felt ambivalent about the tony girls' school her daughter attended and confided to me that her 8th-grade daughter was caught in a complex web of social politics.  8th grade, mind you.   So I sat with this clever, quick girl and asked her about her courses and interests.  At one point, she turned to me and made the following admission: 

When I first get to school on Monday, I meet with my friends for coffee in the cafeteria.  Each Monday.  Early.   Other girls are there as well.  Each of us finds out from the others just what happened during the weekend, and then my friends and I meet and discuss just how we can use this information to our advantage.   

I was speechless.

Her mother, a very good parent, pulled her out of that girls' school and enrolled her into an experimental school downtown.  Her daughter balked, "The kids are sort of weird - really creative.  I don't know if I'll fit in."  I thought, sure, those kids are "weird," if we understand weird to be kind and silly and gifted and strange -- a tribe to redesign a brave, gentle world.   In this new world, she would be far, far away from the coffee-clutch of hounds fighting over the same boney-bit of gossip.  

So when my students tell me that middle school or high school is hell, I no longer doubt them.  

In this tale, a mother saved her girl from the fashionable trend of becoming cruel.   But other kids don't have anyone looking out for them.  Some are raised on entitlement and conformity and secure their power by taking out anyone who might upset the order.  They fight for power and the status quo; and it's not always a fair fight.

When I began to write this entry, I was 54 miles away from The Cranbrook School, the Michigan prep school Mitt Romney attended in 1965.  Cranbrook was the site of his "hijinks and pranks."  Upon his return to school, Romney took note of a new student, John Lauber, who had bleached his hair blond and cut it to fall over one eye asymetrically.  One of Romney's friends recalls the future republican front-runner commenting, "He can't look like that.  That is wrong."   Soon thereafter, Romney huddled together 5 friends to pursue, tackle, pin to Lauber to the ground, as Romney, scissors in hand, sheared Lauber's hair.   These five men, a judge and a lawyer among others, each regretted the incident separately.  But Romney, the pack leader, told a different tale.  At first, he denied the incident, and then, after media pressure I suspect, he offered a vague, generalized apology.  

As many have commented, this was years ago, when such "hijinks" were considered a part of the rites of initiation in schools across the country.  Bands of brothers ganged up on other boys to reconstitute a social order they determine to be "right."  And, of course, these boys could rule the school and elect a governor's son king-of-the-hill.

But none of this would fly today.  My hope is that teachers would see it, hear about it, and question it.  My hope is that other students would report it.  My hope is that a parent would intervene.  My hope is that those boys would be punished, regretful, and reformed.  

It is said of John Lauber that he never reported this incident to his family.   Of course, he didn't.  And it is said that he continued throughout his life to bleach his hair that same blond.  I guess he knew it looked "right."