The Bully, the Victim, and the Bystander: Thoughts From the Threshold of a High School Reunion

This week I’ll be heading to my home town for a visit.  Although it’s not the only reason to subject myself to a week in the tropical heat and humidity of a midwestern summer, I plan to attend my high school reunion while I’m there.  The last reunion I attended was over a decade ago so it’s been a while and I have a few jitters.

As my departure approaches I’m drawn to Facebook posts of my former classmates.  It’s amazing what many of us have experienced and survived – weddings, funerals, illnesses, losses of spouses, parents, or siblings, career shifts, unemployment, wild success, crushing disappointments, relocations, world-wide adventures, and angelic, challenging, and sometimes seriously ill children or grandchildren.  Our experiences run the gamut and I wonder how time will have softened those sharp edges we had when we were younger and thought the world was ours for the taking.

Over the years my thoughts have often wandered to a few particular classmates who attended elementary through high school with me. They were not well-treated by most of the kids in my class and were taunted and left out on a daily basis.  Although I didn’t participate in the bullying, I feel badly that I didn’t step up to stop it or defend them from it.  My passivity has haunted me for years.

Through the magic of social media, I’ve gotten in touch with several former classmates.   I’ve engaged a few of them in online or in person conversations about how they now feel about the kids who were bullied in our school.  Without exception, they’ve expressed regret similar to my own and one person was very candid about his remorse over bullying other kids in high school.  That’s a softened edge if there ever was one.

If you cruise the internet, you’ll find all sorts of reports about the long term effects of bullying on both the victim and the bully.  The effects on victims can be horrible, sometimes even fatal.  And today’s technology can take bullying to a new level – between Facebook comments, Instagram, and other social networking, we’ve all seen stories about ostracized kids who are hurt, or worse, by cyber-bullying. 

Besides addressing the reasons why someone becomes a bully, most of the literature and research on the long-term effects on bullies points to a tendency towards future problems with drugs, domestic violence, other crimes, and mental illnesses.  But there’s very little in the literature about the long-term regret and remorse that can settle into a (non-sociopathic) bully – or a bystander – once they’ve matured enough to empathize with the impact of their actions or inactions.

Developmentally speaking, childhood and adolescence are self-centered stages of life and pecking orders can spring spontaneously out of the milieu with the seemingly confident at the top of the food chain and the not so confident and often sensitive kids at the bottom.   Although some kids are naturally empathic and compassionate, most aren’t. Even if a particular child does not have the emotional maturity at that moment to feel what a bullied classmate would, he or she can know that it would feel bad for that person and understand right from wrong by first grade.  That’s a pretty good place to start taking steps in the right direction.  A child who isn’t naturally empathic will need the guidance of an attentive and attuned parent or teacher to help develop the transition from knowing the right thing to feeling the pain another may be going through.

Since my childhood, much has been learned about the effects of bullying, and schools and communities have implemented a variety of programs toward education and prevention around it.  Anti-bullying education now starts in elementary school and continues, age appropriately, through college. Programs like these attempt to help victims speak up and allies step in.  They also attempt to deter bullying through empathy development, helping kids to understand the impact their behaviors can have on others.  With an “it takes a village” mindset, all of us can help influence our kids to be more compassionate as they mature.

The good news is that the nation’s consciousness has been raised around this issue.  If schools, communities, and parents give consistent messages about being kind to one another, our kids stand a better chance of avoiding the terrible consequences of being a party (any party) to bullying.  More good news is that the kindness of just one or two classmates can go a long way towards mitigating potential damage from bullying.

There are a multitude of great programs circulating out there and available to schools and even individual kids!  One that caught my attention recently was this:

There are also many, many anti-bullying pages on Facebook, easily accessible to our social-media savvy kids.

Meanwhile, my childhood classmates remain in my thoughts and prayers and best wishes.   As I prepare myself for my visit home and the reunion with old friends, I’m packing up memories of my childhood days – friendships, adventures, and, yes, regrets – along with my week’s worth of clothing and accessories.