By Kelly Huegel, author of GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens
Last night I watched a John Hughes movie, which it turns out is perfect preparation for writing about GLSEN’s No Name-Calling Week. Hughes’s teen-centric movies remain relevant because they so brilliantly capture some of the enduring struggles of adolescence, such as fitting in and defining your place in a world that doesn’t make sense.
In this case, the movie was Pretty in Pink—the story of a wealthy boy and a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who fall for each other and attempt to start a relationship in spite of relentless criticism from their friends. Words like “richie” and “trash” are bandied about in reference to one or the other. In the end, our Romeo and Juliet cast aside the judgments of others and decide to go for it, but not before our meanest villain—the leader of the über-mean rich clique—gets his comeuppance. At the culmination of the movie, he’s told by his best friend that he’s, well, excrement. And we cheer and generally feel pretty great about this because, after all, the guy was a creep, and everyone likes to see a bully put in his place.
Most of us have experienced teasing at some point, and some of us have endured worse. Fortunately, awareness of bullying and its sometimes devastating effects is on the rise, and that’s good news, especially in an age of smartphones and social media, which make it easier than ever for kids to gang up on one another.
GLSEN’s (the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network’s) No Name-Calling Week (Jan 19–23) is an easy project to get behind. It’s a no-brainer that we need to be aware of name-calling and its detrimental effects on the social, emotional, and learning environment for all kids, not just those who are the targets. When we abide the harassment of any student, regardless of the focus—whether it’s over sexual orientation, gender identity, economic status, physical or mental disability, or any of the myriad ideas of differentness kids can zero in on—we send a message that if you don’t blend in, you could become a target.
But in looking at this issue, I wonder if we’re leaving some kids behind—the kids who bully. One of the reasons we feel so good at the end of many teen movies is that the mean girls or guys get put in their place, with bonus points if it involves public humiliation.
To me this begs a question: Are we closing the door on redemption for kids who make the poor choice of harassing other kids? Are we, either intentionally or not, creating a culture where it’s okay to bully the bullies?
My partner’s buddy Zach is a psychotherapist who specializes in working with teenage boys, and he shared with her that some of his clients are jerks. Not that he thinks they’re jerks—that’s the role they’ve fallen into, and it’s what they’ve come to believe of themselves. Certainly, these kids have made some bad decisions about how they treat people. But now so many people have told them that they’re a bully or a jerk that they’ve started to create a lasting identity around it, and they don’t know how to change. In their minds, they’re bad kids, no longer worthy of love and acceptance—and that shift is where deep and lasting shame takes root.
Think back to your elementary school years. Chances are you can easily recall the name of a kid you’d now characterize as a bully. For me, it was Paul. Paul’s appearance ranged from unkempt to dirty, his hair usually uncombed, his clothes often wrinkled. As an adult, I now realize that Paul’s family didn’t have much money. I don’t know his home situation, but it was evident that for whatever reason, he didn’t have someone there making sure he was clean and fed and ready for school every day. It’s not a stretch to speculate that he was abused.
Paul wasn’t a mean kid from the start, but regular teasing—the kind that most adults would overlook as “normal kid stuff”—started to make him mean. First he withdrew, but when that didn’t work, he started to fight back. Then he started to preempt the teasing by attacking first. It was classic fear aggression. By fourth grade, Paul was our official bully.
When I heard about Zach’s work, I thought about Paul. I wonder if anyone ever materialized in his life and offered him redemption—if anyone showed him a road home and told him he’s still worthy of love. Or did he just permanently adopt the role of the jerk that we created for him?
So as we observe No Name-Calling Week (and beyond), I ask us to be truly inclusive and to be aware of all name-calling, including our own labeling of others as “bullies.” Let’s keep our focus on labeling behavior, not people, and on emphasizing that all kids are worthy of love and acceptance.
Kelly Huegel is a freelance writer. Previously, she worked for the Metropolitan Washington DC chapter of PFLAG, where she helped provide support and educational services for GLBTQ people and their families. The author of two books and more than fifty published articles, Kelly has a special passion for working with teens and holds a degree in secondary education. She lives in Maryland with her partner, Margaret. Kelly welcomes readers to follow her updates on GLBTQ politics and people or message her direct via Twitter at @GLBTQguide.
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