Were you a Bully in School?

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Ben Cohen
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John Cook has penned a raw, and fascinating piece over at Gawker on a period during his youth where he mercilessly bullied several kids and teachers at his high school in a suburb of Washington DC. Cook had edited a renegade, underground newspaper he called 'Ramming Speed' that lampooned kids and teachers he and his friends had vendettas against. He writes:

Ramming Speed was filled with gutter racism, written by me, that turns my stomach to think of today. It directed at two young girls the same sort of highly public, humiliating sexual slander and innuendo that helped drive 15-year-old Phoebe Prince to kill herself in 2010 in Massachusetts, and it literally called on one of those girls to commit suicide. As much as it was an act of defiance against a school administration we perceived as wanting, it was an act of brutal and indefensible bullying against children we knew to be vulnerable. It was wanton adolescent cruelty of the sort that routinely makes headlines today. It was pre-digital, ink-and-paper cyberbullying.

Cook set out to find the victims of his bullying 26 years after the fact in order to understand the impact his behavior had on them - a brave task that cannot have been easy. The results were not what he necessarily expected. Here's what happened when he called 'Jenni' (a pseudonym), a girl he had accused of being promiscuous and urged to kill herself:

When I called her, Jenni was surprisingly serene about the whole affair. She remembered it vividly, but regarded it as one small part of a campaign of false gossip she had to contend with. "The thing you've got to understand, John," she told me, "is that I was not as promiscuous as I was rumored to be when I was in junior high. I didn't even have sex when I was in junior high school. And I heard about conversations that guys were having about the sex they were having with me. So when I read that, it was just more of the same shit. You guys just moved forward with a set of rumors that had already been established."

There are many twists and turns to Cook's story. Others he contacted were not as unaffected as Jenni, and it's worth reading in full. It's a stark reminder of the cruelty kids are able to dole out to one another during a sensitive developmental period in their lives, that if left unchecked, can wreak havoc that can easily spiral out of control. Cook's self-examination and apology is as much for the victims of his bullying as it is for himself, and it is clear from his tone that he has a hard time reconciling who he is today with the teenager responsible for labeling classmates 'niggers' and accusing others of sexual promiscuity:

I honestly don't know what to make of the racism. My racism. My immediate reaction upon reading it was to simply dismiss it as the mind of a different person. That's not me, it's a stupid kid. I don't believe in the Tooth Fairy any more, either. But in the same paper there is evidence of traits that I regard as central to my identity even today.....

I don't remember ever feeling that way, or thinking it's OK to address people in those terms. Nor do I remember outgrowing, or renouncing, those views. I had black friends at the time. I can't imagine how I faced them.

Chez Pazienza has a great piece exploring the alleged rape in Steubenville Ohio, where members of the high school football team publicly drugged, severely abused and raped a 16 year old girl while taking photos of it all - an extreme case of bullying that went way beyond name calling to imprisonable crimes. Of course this is an anomaly, but it goes to show how far teenagers are capable of going when it comes to impressing friends and victimizing others. Back in the 80's, it took some serious entrepreneurialism to publish a paper (and sell it) to have such a profound effect on other people's lives, but with social networking sites and mobile phones, extreme bullying is immediate and viral.

There are certainly episodes from my own childhood that I am not proud of, moments where I exploited weakness in others to make myself feel big and popular - moments that could have been devastating to the people I made fun of and affected them later on in life. I was by no means a bully (I actually did my best to stop a lot of it at my high school), but I was by no means a saint either. I have a close friend who was the victim of bullying when he was at high school, and when he recounted episodes that didn't seem particularly bad to me, the pain he expressed was quite shocking. It was only then that I truly understood how seriously even minor bullying can affect kids, particularly during teenage years when the opposite sex comes into the equation. Snide remarks, put downs and silly rumors can devastate a teenagers life, and make their development into young adults a painful one.

Teenagers are largely unaware of the effects of their behavior on others, in large part because their brains are not yet developed. If they don't understand what they are doing, it is the role of parents and teachers to explain it to them. Because if they don't, it might take decades before they are aware of the pain they cause others. Writes Cook:

Though my mother forced me to write apologies to some of the teachers we mentioned (though not Mrs. Landrum), no one asked us to apologize to Jenni and Holly. And both of them told me that no one from the school ever reached out to them to talk about the attacks. No one ever tried to make me acknowledge the gravity of what we had done to them. No one dressed me down for calling my classmates niggers.

If they had, maybe Cook's apology wouldn't have taken 26 years.