Math class. Eighth grade. He's at it again. It has been happening for several days, and there is no sign that it will stop any time soon.
I know that sound means that Hobart, the boy sitting two desks behind me is dragging the empty desk between us back towards him with his foot. There is a moment of silence. During the pause I brace myself.
He pushes the desk forward with as much velocity as he can muster. It slams into the back of mine, like a truck rear-ending a Volkswagen at a stoplight. My head snaps forward with the impact. The noise reverberates throughout the classroom, above the din of gabbing students. A few of them chuckle. One girl behind me says "That's mean, stop that!", but she's giggling as she speaks.
"He doesn't even care," says Hobart. "He never says anything."
To the contrary, I care deeply. I keep hoping that the old adage about "ignoring a bully" will eventually work, but it never does.
The teacher, a timid, soft-spoken young woman, doesn't look up from the papers she is grading, though there is no way she could not know what is going on.
My heart is pounding. I feel angry. Angry at Hobart. Angry at the girl and the other students who are enjoying my humiliation. Angry at the teacher who refuses to have the courage to gain control of her classroom. But most of all I feel angry at myself, that I neither have the tools nor the guts to confront the problem myself.
"Watch his head!" says Hobart.
I brace myself again.
The above story is true. Of course, I've changed the name of the boy and don't mention the name of the teacher, although their true names are etched into my memory. Although this is a mild example, I share this story because it has all the hallmarks of classic bullying:
1) An imbalance of power. Often, targeted individuals feel helpless to stand up for themselves or get help. In the story from my junior high years, although I towered over "Hobart," he was a tough kid and not afraid to get into a fight. I, on the other hand, had been brought up in a home that taught Christian values, and mistakenly thought that "turning the other cheek" meant allowing myself to remain in an abusive situation. I also knew that getting help from the teacher was not an option because she was too timid to confront the problem.
Finally, none of the other students were willing to come to my aid. There were only a few who actually seemed to enjoy the bully's actions, but the majority that might have been sympathetic to my plight were themselves too frightened to act or relieved that they were not the one in my situation.
In other words, for whatever reason, the abuse continued because the I, the "target" could not or would not do anything to stop it.
2) Cruel actions. In my situation, the cruelty was physical abuse, but this is not always the case. Bullying can manifest itself in a number of other ways, including cruel words, theft, manipulation, social exclusion, and on-line or "cyber-bullying." When establishing a definition of bullying, especially with children, it is important to be as vague as possible. You don't want to run into excuses like "You never said I couldn't ram somebody with my desk." When speaking to students I include in my definition that bullying is "being mean to someone..."
It must be noted that intent is an important factor. A bullying child is deliberately trying to hurt. A bully might stomp on the target's foot, but that doesn't mean that everyone who steps on someone else's foot is a bully.
3) Repetition. The actions of the bullying child continue or threaten to continue because of the imbalance of power. This is not to say that intervention is not necessary the first time the targeted child experiences abuse. On the contrary, the sooner intervention happens, the better. However, it is more likely that by the time the situation comes to your attention, a pattern will already have developed.
When I speak to elementary-aged children, I start with this definition:
"Bullying is when someone is repeatedly mean to another individual who can't or won't do anything to stop it."
I have tried to keep the definition something that students of any age can understand. I recommend that schools who wish to tackle their bullying problem hammer out a definition of bullying that teachers and staff members can agree on. Your definition should include the three "ingredients" I have listed above and be purposely vague. I would be interested in learning what others come up with.
References and additional informantion:
Here are a few bullying definitions from other authors.
“Bullying occurs whenever one or more persons enjoy using power to repeatedly and consistently harm another.” (Voors, 4)
“Bullying…is the repeated, malicious verbal mistreatment of a Target by a harassing bully that is driven by the bully’s desire to control the Target… typically (through) a mixture of cruel acts of deliberate humiliation or interference…” (Namie, 3)
“Bullying is a conscious, willful, and deliberate hostile activity intended to harm, induce fear through the threat of further aggression, and create terror… Bullying will always include:
1. Imbalance of power…
2. Intent to harm…
3. Threat of further aggression…
4. Terror… "
“Bullying is unfair and one-sided. It happens when someone keeps hurting, frightening, threatening, or leaving someone out on purpose." (Olweus, www.cfchildren.org/str_foundations.shtml#3)
Coloroso, Barbara. The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander: From Preschool to High School— HowParents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle of Violence. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.
Namie, Gary and Ruth Namie. The Bully at Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity On the Job. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2000.
Olweus, Dan. Bullying at School. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1993.
Voors, William. The Parent’s Book About Bullying: Changing the Course of Your Child’s Life. Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2000.