Saturday, October 9, 2010

Is it enough to make it better?

It Gets Better...

Really? Dan Savage started the "It Gets Better" campaign shortly after the fifth in a series of publicized suicides of kids who were bullied for their sexual orientation. However, I wonder, as one who was bullied for being from another town originally and dressing differently, is "It Gets Better" enough to give children in grammar and middle school and young adults in high school and college the courage and the stamina to live with daily taunting and threats to not at the least consider physically fighting back if not taking their own lives to escape this? Mr. Savage and the rest of his organization need to understand that this constant derision can set off triggers in kids that lead to clinical depression and knowing that, on average, 180 days out of every year they must face this treatment is more than enough to set off a reaction that does not appear rational to a mentally and emotionally healthy person but seems like the only response at the time to some suffering from depression or other neurosis.

Today I read of another series of tragedies that has taken place over the past four years in the same town, Mentor, OH. One child harassed for being a Croatian immigrant, one for a learning disability, one for being assumed gay and the fourth a combination of social awkwardness but also fueled by a poor home situation. The last one experts are not stating was based on bullying but did nothing to investigate the family issues and over the next two years both remaining children in the household also took their own lives.

While the results of bullying are finally making headlines, we are sorely pressed to go back over the numbers and determine how many young people found the predatory nature of school social life so overwhelming that suicide became more and more inviting every day. As a mother of a child who was not only bullied but put in a different school system due to a letter that was added to his school record by the principal when he was in fifth grade based on requirements of the anti-bullying protocol set out by the local board of education, I speak from experience. My son was the victim of a typically cagey bully, female I might add, who timed her verbal attacks so that she was not the one caught when the teacher rounded the corner. It was my son who was heard saying, "Leave me alone or I'll kill you." The principal ignored the "Leave me alone" part and focused on the "I'll kill you" based on the lies spewed by the girl that she had never harassed or threatened my son.

The bullying escalated to racist slurs when my son moved to a middle school in a nearby city where white kids were the minority. Fortunately some administrators and faculty members were more astute than the principal and put kids in their places when racial slurs were heard. He also still was taunted for being overweight, from out of town and overly sociable. Finally came high school where the racism was far more blatant and not only condoned by the principal, she herself participated in it. She also did nothing to protect LGBTQ kids in an ARTS HIGH SCHOOL!! One of my son's best friends was an out queer and a drag queen at the age of fourteen. Add to this my son being cyberbullied? "It Gets Better"?

I believe the only reason my son made it through was the fact that I was observant and he likes to talk. I made myself available to both my kids from the beginning so they generally came to me with things. When his sister left for college and their father moved out, the signs of a growing depression I'd been vaguely aware of since he was about eight became more prominent and I offered the option of talking to a therapist. We did a few sessions together and he did a couple on his own. Between that, getting out of this town, finding three excellent mentors in his new school and one in high school, my son grew a relatively thick hide. However, he did come home often and share the pain of being a target.

If the "It Gets Better" videos had been around then would they have made it easier for him? I don't know. I know as a college freshman he has watched some and they have affected him. He has a very tender heart and so some of them have brought tears to his eyes and broken that heart some. As someone who aspires to work in the entertainment industry it does mean a lot to him to hear celebrities telling him to "hang in there".

However, I think it takes more. "It Gets Better" is a great message but when you are in the middle of this day in and day out, what you want is for it to stop. When you are trying to validate yourself and determine who you want to be when you grow up, it's really hard when people are constantly telling you that your broken, a freak, fat, ugly, stupid, the "wrong" color, or the "wrong" sexual orientation. And now with the internet, the harassment doesn't stop after the kids get off the bus. It comes via Facebook, Myspace, Twitter and text messages. Providing bullies with media that they can be practically completely anonymous and attack at all hours of the day or night has only made this problem worse. It's also easier for kids who wouldn't normally do so to join in because they too can disguise their identities.

For It To Get Better will take more. It always has. We need to get back to the days when parents taught their kids that being a bully or just making a single unkind remark to someone who is different is not socially acceptable. Parents need to get back to parenting and teach kids about respect. Parents need to monitor their kids on line and on the phone. If they discover their children using the Internet or their cell phone to harass another child...TAKE THEM AWAY!! It is not going to put your kid in the state mental hospital if you lock up the laptop, pull the plug from the desktop or take away their cell phone. "But Sally needs the computer for school". So? She can still use all the word processing, presentation and spreadsheet programs if you unplug the modem and the router. Make her go to the library and use their Internet. Or start small and buy some Net Nanny software and block social networking sites. Seriously, you're the parent...grow a pair. As for schools? Most have sites blocked that kids shouldn't be on at school anyway. Administrators need to monitor themselves, faculty and security to insure that they are not protecting bullies...and YES that does happen. Think about it. Example-a meathead rent-a-cop who couldn't make it into the police academy already has that chip on his shoulder. Give him the gum machine badge and uniform and put him in the hallways of an urban high school. He witnesses kids picking on the girl with braces, the short African-American boy or the overweight guy that's kind of flamboyant. Who do you think this guy is going to side with? If he defends the kids getting taunted he feels that the perpetrators are going to see him as weak. He wants to be tough like them. So he lets them go and may even laugh at their victims along with them.

Kids need advocates in the schools. In a time when boards of education are worried about budget cuts, how hard is it to accept parents or other adults willing to volunteer a day or two every month to patrol the halls and come to the aid of the victims and/or hold meetings with students to first explain to them about respect, treating people the way they want to be treated and loving themselves? Allow outside adults who offer the chance to be advisers so the students can start a SAGA chapter in their school. If there is one and has a faculty adviser, then the rest of the staff needs to support it and publicize it and back their events. Provide for other social organizations that improve self-esteem for various groups whether race related, interest related, etc. Don't put such an emphasis on athletics. I'm not saying don't provide sports teams but offer other options for kids who just aren't jocks. Chess club, math club, drama club and then help them thrive so that the members can go to events outside of their school. Also allow them to create events that they can invite outsiders to to show off their accomplishments. Being a nerd can be really cool. Being Asian can be beautiful. Being a skateboarder can be exciting.

It can get better but I believe it takes a lot more than external videos by celebs most of these kids will never meet. Yes, Neil Patrick Harris, Tim Gunn, Chris Colfer, Ellen Degeneres, etc. are fabulous role models to LGBTQ kids. Personally I'd also like to see some entertainers I'm aware of doing vids on being picked on for being the smart kids, the fat kids, the wimpy kids and the kids with glasses/braces. There are some great Hispanic, black, Asian and East Indian role models who can do these videos. But it takes more. It takes people coming into schools and being with students one-on-one to make it real for them. It takes parents listening and talking to their kids. It takes social workers and therapists giving victims tools to fight back without becoming bullies themselves. It takes someone to make the bully look inside himself or herself and face the weakness they are hiding by projecting it on to someone else.

We all have fears. Most of them are unwarranted. Just yesterday I dealt with mine of people who look different. As one who was bullied I'd never demean them for physical or mental challenges but it is hard for me to treat them just like I'd treat myself. I worked hard on getting past that. And then I noticed that the mentally challenged woman who bagged my groceries did a far better job then most of the able-minded high schoolers who normal pack my stuff. It humbled me. It raised a bit of shame in me as it should have. We all need to teach each other that the proper way to deal with fear is to educate ourselves. If you can't bring yourself to talk to that person, just don't say anything but still nod and smile. It's a start. If you don't agree with someone's opinion don't yell them into submission, talk to them and find out why they feel that way and why you don't. If someone is different don't physically assault them to make yourself feel somehow superior. Tell yourself it's ok to be afraid of things you don't understand. Ignorance is not bliss especially if you follow a theological tradition of a deity that created people in its own image. If you use that "god" as your weapon of choice to assault people with, it is the supreme act of disrespect of that divine being who gave you a working brain and hopes that you'll use it for something more than a hat rack or an engine to conjure new manners to spew hate.

So Dan? My hat's off to you for coming up with another weapon in the newly growing arsenal against hate and harassment. But understand it needs more substance behind it. For sexual orientation issues GLESN has come up with curriculum addendum to teach students about sexual orientation issues. Other organizations to check out:

Make It Better
Not In Our Town

Stop Cyberbullying

And here is the homepage for Dan's It Gets Better YouTube Channel:
It Gets Better