The situation is Chardon is all too familiar: a bullied outcast with a troubled home life snaps. If TJ Lane had broken in the usual manner, he might have committed suicide. But TJ snapped differently and took a gun to his tormenters. In an instant, any sympathy for his situation is gone and he’s just a thug, maybe a psycho, and the words “Columbine,” “Goth,” and “Dark Side” start getting thrown around.
Bullying has always been a fact of life in the US–now it’s commercialized and glorified as entertainment. A lot of people turn in to American Idol and other reality shows not for the great performances, but for the truly dreadful ones and the cruelty that follows. The losers tuck their tails between their legs, cry for the camera and their supporters and go home to face down the humiliation.
That’s what the victims of bullying are supposed to do: suck it up.
But victims fall into three categories: the A Victims, those who put up with it until they can get away from it; the B Victims, those who break and turn on themselves; and the C Victims, those who go all Carrie on the world.
Most victims of bullying are A Victims. Some A Victims can let the experience roll off of themselves, but many of them carry the experience with them in some way, a little extra insecurity, awareness, or caution. I’m in the A category. I developed a very thick skin, a callous on my sensitivity. Ten years teaching freshmen in an all-girls school? Piece of cake. Of course that callous works both ways–it can make me a bit insensitive at times (but I try to be aware of that).
The B Victims? We’re all more aware of them now after the Phoebe Prince suicide in Massachusetts, and far too many others. We’ve been on a mission at my school this year to address bullying through the Olweus program out of Norway. Is it helping? I don’t know. We’ve named the elephant in the room. But the elephant is still there. One of the teachers got up last year and addressed the slur “retarded” with the students. The one we haven’t addressed here, except in one sign with a quote from Eminem that has disappeared, is “gay.” If I were a betting person, I’d put money on that being one of the words thrown at TJ. Some people out there defend bullying of LGBT teens as justified because fear might keep them straight. But not everyone can let the abuse go, some people believe it or just can’t take it.
The C Victims turn on their tormenters. The movie Carrie came out when I was in high school and I went out and bought the book (I still don’t do blood and guts movies). It was the first Stephen King book I ever read. By the end of the book, I was cheering Carrie on. I don’t know whether Stephen King intended that reaction or whether he meant it as a cautionary tale for the bullies in the audience. Or maybe he only meant to scare the crap out of people. It has been reported that TJ tweeted his intent to bring a gun to school and posted information on his Facebook page that should have warned people. It’ll probably come out that some people knew or suspected what was going to happen (a number of students who were out “sick” showed up around town as word was breaking).
I never would have taken a gun to school–I’m opposed to violence and it’s not in my nature. But if I had been given supernatural powers, might I have pulled a less fatal version of Carrie or at least a Harry Potter (and dissolved the glass window to the snake enclosure), I don’t know. I’m just glad I didn’t have the option.
The teacher/coach who chased TJ from the school is being hailed as a hero. I’m glad he did what he did. But what does he do on a daily basis when cruelty happens in front of him? Does he act with equal valor? Do any of us? Or do we turn a blind eye? I’ve got to admit to doing that sometimes. I had a student in my advisory who was bullied and she reacted by becoming a bully herself. She verbally trampled on everyone in her path. Yeah, I called her on it. But eventually I was exhausted by it–nothing that I said or tried to do changed her behavior or got though to her. Two years later, she finally seems to be on a different path. But what will she take from the experience?
Some people will conclude that we’ve learned nothing since Columbine. I think we’ve learned a few things, at least in some places. We still haven’t figured out how to help everyone (not that such a goal is realistic). We certainly haven’t figured out how to deal with the readily available arsenal in this country. At least we now have widespread recognition of the possibility of this happening and people looking for warning signs. I’d like to think that there is more that can be done, but I don’t have a better solution.
I do know, however, that it’s a fine line between victim and perpetrator.