A sincere word of caution to my fellow parents and to the genuinely well-meaning media: We need to be very careful how we frame this discussion about bullies. In particular, one thing about the discussion needs to change immediately, or some teenagers are very likely and literally going to die.
Without going into too much detail, I have some experience on this matter. I was a pallbearer in the eighth grade for a friend who committed suicide.
Depending on who you talk to, my friend killed himself for a variety of reasons. If you go by his very lengthy suicide note, he killed himself because of practically everybody around him including me. Teenage love triangles, social rivalries, underhanded tricks, name-calling – it was all there.
Which piece of it caused him to kill himself? Was it all of them? Or none?
I don’t know – nobody does. It’s like when a kid would listen to a heavy metal band in his room for three months and then kill himself. Was it the evil heavy metal music?
Doesn’t seem likely, when millions of others listened to the same heavy metal music and survived. Similarly, although there is no doubt that bullying is a big issue, it’s well worth keeping right at the front of our minds that when it ends in suicide, there were almost certainly other factors involved.
In my friend’s case, there was definitely a lot of social bullying. He was getting some of it, and he was dishing some of it out. I was right there, and all I can tell you is, I caught it a lot worse than he ever did. You want to know why he snapped and I didn’t, I’ll tell you it was because I was stronger. That’s it.
Bullying is a fact of life, an extension of the same struggles for dominance that you see everywhere else in nature. Because we’re rational, we can do something about it.
But it’s not a war on bullies. There is a bully and a victim in every single kid out there, and just like the old Indian proverb about a good dog and a bad dog fighting in your soul, you know which one wins, don’t you? It’s the one you feed the most.
It’s not just our responsibility as parents to be aware if our children are being bullied. It’s our responsibility to be aware if they are the ones who are bullying. We’ll never rid ourselves of the concept of bullying. Some of it is ingrained right there in the school experience – Seniors vs. Freshman, girls vs. boys, school vs. school.
I go back to that time and find fresh, aching memories all the time, every time I see a story on the news about a kid who committed suicide. And it gives me chills because I’ve been sitting around thinking about this for over twenty years, thinking about what goes through a kid’s mind when he gets to that point.
I’ll never know what my friend wanted, what he seemed to think would happen once he printed his note and pulled the trigger. But I know that getting his note out to the rest of the kids – to the rest of the world – was his primary goal. He did it, too. He hid backup copies for his friends to find after the cops and psychiatrists had gone. They didn’t want the note out, and he knew they wouldn’t want it out, so he was able to make sure that it got out – a smart kid.
A real waste.
All I can tell you is what I believe he wanted, and that was to be on the news, and to be famous. He thought everyone would see what he had done, and then they’d punish all the people he told them to. That the whole world would join hands and say, “Look what they did to this boy, these horrible, horrible people.”
And there would be nothing we could say.
It seems like a common fantasy, doesn’t it? I’ll show them, I’ll make them all sorry. They’ll wish they never messed with me.
And I’m very, very afraid that we are playing into it. That we are flirting with the glorification of suicide. That thousands of lonely kids who are already thinking about it are watching right now, watching another kid who did it, seeing her picture on the news. Watching her receive the sympathetic attention of the entire world, and coming down hard on the kids who were picking on her.
In no way am I suggesting that the conversation about bullying should end – I think it’s essential. But we have to be careful before saying that the bullies are causing the suicides, because if we aren’t, a lot of kids who are right on the edge are going to think that being bullied justifies the barrel of a gun. It does not.
What to do about bullying isn’t really my point. My point is a very specific one – there has to be a way to create a meaningful and constructive dialogue about bullying without turning a handful of kids who made horrible, deadly choices into martyrs for the victims of bullies to look up to. It seems statistically quite obvious that some of them are going to follow suit.
Just a sincere observation from a guy who remembers how an eighth grader’s casket handle feels against the palm of his hand. This topic could not possibly get any more serious.