Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Guest Blog: Bullying Has No Value

Curtis is the author of the blog The Importance of Being Curtis. Curtis's blog is honest, hilarious and often teaches a worthwhile lesson. He was kind enough to share his writing skills with me on the subject of bullying in school.

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When I was a kid, I was bullied pretty consistently through school. In elementary, my nickname was Wayne the Brain. You would think that would be a compliment, but for some reason, children who raise their hands and answer questions correctly are viewed as nerds or know-it-alls. Now I realize it came from a place of jealousy and feelings of inadequacy, but it still stings.

In the 5th grade, I played the trumpet in band class. I was actually really good, the best in the class, and I had a lot of promise. When I showed my skill during class, the bitchy girls in my grade would mock me, call me names, or say mean things about me within earshot. The bullying got to the point where I no longer wanted to be a part of the band, even though I really loved music and enjoyed playing my instrument. I went to my mother crying one afternoon and told her I didn’t want to be in band anymore because of the evil flautists (not my exact words, but the gist). What I didn’t realize at that time was that my parents had been making payments to purchase the $800 trumpet outright because they knew I was good. When I gave in to the bullying, we lost a lot more than just face.

My mother marched me up to the school to face the band director. Nannie was the human embodiment of the wicked octopus witch Ursula from Disney’s The Little Mermaid. She wasn’t mean… unless she had to be. Her cigarette stained teeth and leathery skin made her look menacing, and her smoker’s hack and raspy voice made everything sound like a spell book’s incantation. When we found her sitting on a stool in the gymnasium, I told her I was quitting band and of course had to explain why I wanted out. After a deep sigh and look of utter disappointment, she said something that has stuck with me ever since:

“Curtis, you’re gonna have to grow some thicker skin, or life is going to be really tough for you.”

How right she was.

Middle school was sheer hell. Every day I was confronted by numerous people who would not only sling slanderous, disparaging names at me, but would constantly ask me if I was, like they had screamed previously, a queer/fag/homo. A few of their names and faces still hold a special place in my mind as people I will never forgive/forget.

Terry was a kid who I believe had been held back once or twice. He had what I now realize was a blatantly clear case of ADHD, and was extremely hard to handle. In the 5th grade, he was sent out of the class for goofing off by the most terrifying teacher we had, Mrs. Ramey. Outside the door, Terry pulled his pants down and began pressing his bare cheeks onto the slender rectangular pain of bulletproof glass. So as not to draw complete attention to it (though Terry had already accomplished that,) Mrs. Ramey walked over and stood in front of the door while she continued to lecture us on the planets’ orbits.

He was always very physically developed for children our age. I remember at one baseball practice when he decided to take his penis out of his shorts and play a game he liked to call “helicopter.” Let’s just say the blade was big enough to take flight.

Terry didn’t really focus his bullying on me, but instead spread it around to the whole elementary school. I remember one day in middle school when, for sheer pleasure, he forced Robert, one of my friends, to face the wall as he reached down and grabbed Robert’s foot. He then began to twist it to see how far he could get it to turn around before Robert began screaming in agony and he was forced to stop by the attention it caused.

Terry was to be feared for his sheer size and complete spontaneity of his terror. Hank, on the other hand, was a skinny, buck toothed, white trash kid with as much class as he had intelligence (neither of which were excessive.) But Hank was well-learned in the ways of the bully, no doubt taught by his massive, heathen family.

Hank would pick on me daily, either about my then-supposed sexual orientation, or about being an “egg head,” or any of the 10,000 things that could be wrong with you in middle school, all for absolutely no reason other than his ability to do so. It got so bad at one point that my teacher/neighbor Mrs. (then) Swanner (once Potter, now Trammel) pulled me aside, looked straight in my eyes and said, “Curtis, if you want me to, I will walk out of this classroom, and whatever happens while I’m gone - never happened.”

My teachers loved and supported me, but were basically helpless to aid me in my battle with bullying. When I made it into high school, the relentless tormenting had taken such a toll on me that I contemplated suicide. I’m not proud of it, but I own it. I look at all these kids who see no way out other than a quick, painless death and I remember what that was like: to wish for an end. Because to me, there was no escaping it.

But I’m here. I made it to the other side. I’m ridiculously more successful than the fools that once bullied me, and I’m not saying I’m all that successful. But I’m happy with who I am and what I’ve become. They barely graduated high school; I have my master’s degree. They live in the same run down dumps in Podunk, Kentucky; I live in a brownstone in Boston. They work for minimum wage; I work for incrementally more. It all worked out.

(Some details were purposely left out of that paragraph to make me feel better about myself.)

Since this blog is being shared with my teacher friend, I will dole out some advice. If you are a teacher, or you work with students on any level of development, and you know there’s bullying going on in your classroom/campus, you MUST take a stand. It’s quite easy to make excuses, to say, “Oh, he needs it. It will toughen him up.” No, what he needs is to feel like someone is in his corner; like he’s not alone in the world; like everything that he believes himself to be isn’t wrong. You are the ruler of that classroom. Tolerating intolerance is simply unacceptable. If you want each and every student to adore you and don’t want to ruffle any feathers, you’re in the wrong field.

My friend titled her blog “Teaching Ain’t for Heroes” because of the mindset so many students have when they’re learning how to be a good teacher. Teaching isn’t just the lesson plans on which you spent the last near-decade of your life. It’s not about “teaching to the test,” or trying to make sure that your 8th grader is functionally literate by the end of the year. It’s guiding children and young adults through the hard lessons that will shape the rest of their lives. It’s taking a stand for someone whose legs are too weak from the weight of the burden they bare. It’s doing what is right.

That’s pretty damn heroic, if you ask me.

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