On January 6, 2011, the governor of New Jersey signed a new anti-bullying law into effect. The law, which was sponsored by my local state senator, requires public school personnel to be thoroughly trained to spot bullying, and it mandates the establishment of a "school safety team" to investigate complaints about bullying and to take action against bullies where warranted. It has been hailed as the strongest anti-bullying legislation in the nation.
In the mid-1970's, when I was a student at the local public elementary school in my hometown, my older sister and I were bullied mercilessly. In the beginning, my sister took the brunt of it. (Dear sister, I hope you don't mind that I am sharing this.) Back then, there was a pervasive blame-the-victim mentality about bullying. If you were hurt in school and had the audacity to alert an adult to the situation, then your parents were called in to meet with the school psychiatrist to try to determine what it was about you that made you a target for bullies. Perhaps you weren't athletic enough, or you wore uncool clothes, or you had a weak personality, or you were unnaturally interested in academics. Steps would be taken to make you more acceptable to your peers. In extreme cases, you yourself would be called in for counseling, and if that didn't help, your parents might be advised to enroll you in a private school for your own safety. Under no circumstances were there ever consequences for the bullies. Bullying was considered normal social behavior for young people. In fact, I admit that I would have given anything to be accepted by the bullies and to join them. I seized every opportunity to pick on someone else.
My sister was run through a battery of academic and psychological tests, and it was determined that her uncoolness was the result of superior intelligence that could not be accommodated in the public school. She was immediately enrolled in a top-notch private school nearby, and her life improved. Instantly and significantly. My parents were roundly criticized in the neighborhood for failing to support the local public school system.
Things got worse for me as soon as my sister, a primary target, was removed from the scene. By the beginning of seventh grade, I was threatened daily (by peers whose parents were friends of my parents; two of them were actually in my Sunday school class), and once I was physically beaten up. The girl who struck me informed me, shortly before my beating, that the outfit I was wearing that day - comprised of recognizable hand-me-downs from a cooler girl - was "gay."
I feigned illness in order to stay home from school, which worked for a short time. My mom is a lot of things, but she's not stupid, and the repeated negative mono tests finally made her suspect that something else was up. She quizzed me about what was going on at school, but I refused to tell her. My uncool clothes and my penchant for reading were not things I could change easily, and I knew my parents could ill afford to have two daughters in expensive private schools. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, I refused to believe that this was my fault, and I did not want to be counseled as to how I could make myself cooler. I spent a lot of time in the library at the middle school, where I befriended the librarian. I sat within her line of vision at every lunch hour and read things like David Copperfield and a biography of Golda Meir that she had recommended. As long as I wasn't on the playground, no one could hurt me. This strategy, of course, made me nerdier and less athletic, but at least I still had all my teeth.
And then, miracle of miracles, as if by answer to my prayers, my dad got a job at a private girls' school in Manhattan. A prestigious, academically-demanding sort of place, where everyone wore uniforms and there were no boys. With the help of my librarian friend, I did some research about this school. It sounded like a good place, a place where I could thrive. I raised the possibility of applying at dinner one night, and to my great shock, my parents did not dismiss the idea as nonsense. In fact, they were intrigued by it. I took the entrance exam and scored well, and by eighth grade, I was commuting to work with my father every day, and my bullying problems were over. My younger sister followed in my footsteps the next year.
How different would my life have been if I had grown up in the current era of outrage against bullies? I suspect I would be a completely different person. For one thing, I would not suffer from my deep-seated suspicion of public schools, public school teachers, cheerleaders, and PTA presidents. I know that my approach to child-rearing would be very different. I watch my children closely for signs of bullying or of being a victim. I intervene when necessary. My Girl Scout troop had three members who emerged, around fifth grade, as the bullying type. I came down very hard on them.
There will always be kids who are different, or uncool, or quirky. Those of us who have survived such conditions, with the support of our parents or other understanding adults, owe it to today's kids to make things better for them. New Jersey's new anti-bullying law is a great first step. I look forward to seeing it in action.