Monday, October 25, 2010

Finesse Bullying

A friend whose daughter is applying to college this year shares this chilling tale:

As they compiled a list of schools to visit she suggested that her daughter check out an all-women’s college. Her daughter has been attending a co-ed, public school.

“I told her that many women have chosen all-female colleges because they feel they offer an empowering, supportive environment. I mentioned that often, women feel constrained from speaking out in classes where often the boys/men dominate the discussion.”

Her daughter snorted. Contemptuously, I might add.

“Yeah, right. Let me tell you something, Mom. Guys don’t care if girls raise their hands in class. Other girls care. Guys don’t put you down and shut you up. It’s the other girls in the room, who want to keep you in your place.”

According to my friend, her daughter, who is a good student and speaks up in class frequently, has been getting hisses, catcalls and exaggerated “eye rolls” from a cadre of girls who sit behind her. One girl in particular … who, ironically, is a straight-A student who affects the look and language of a character right out of the CW … will often mutter, “Just. Stop. Talking,” whenever my friend’s daughter participates.

The friend’s daughter (let’s call her Jane; not her real name) has gone to the teacher and asked, “Do I speak too much in class?” and been assured she does not. The teacher has been made aware of these behaviors and is on the lookout for them, but it’s a big room and she herself has not heard these comments. Jane doesn’t want her seat changed, because that would require moving someone else and possibly calling attention to the situation. Jane certainly doesn’t want her mother intervening by calling these girls’ parents. She wasn’t even happy that her mother told the teacher what’s been going on. So … the status quo prevails. At this point, Jane still speaks up in class and takes the hits.

But for how long?

If the only result of all this is that Jane doesn’t apply to Smith this year … well, no biggie. There are plenty of colleges out there and at most of them women outnumber men anyway. If another result is that Jane learns to distrust girls … well, that’s unfortunate, especially because as an adult, womens’ friendships with each other can be such a lifeline.

But there’s another part of this that has such far reaching implications for Jane. Because when her mother discusses this situation with her, Jane isn’t angry. Jane isn’t wheeling around and telling these girls to f*$# off. Instead, Jane is ashamed. Jane doesn’t want anyone to know it’s going on. Deep down, Jane is wondering what’s wrong with her, since these girls are criticizing her.

Basically, Jane is being bullied, but with such finesse and subtlety that it’s hard to pinpoint or punish. The bullies themselves would probably be shocked if anyone told them that’s indeed what they’re doing. These are girls who in fact think very highly of themselves. One has actually been known to comment, “I mean, don’t you think we’d be a great subject for a T.V. reality show?”

Meanwhile, every time Jane absorbs a comment and does nothing, it’s like drinking a slow acting poison that you gotta know has a corrosive effect on her self esteem.

Jane will probably never jump off a bridge or hang herself in her dorm room, but she’ll learn to question herself. She’ll eventually learn to shut her mouth. And she’ll learn to turn her pain inward, instead of speaking up for herself. And that’s going to have implications for all her relationships, both male and female.

We think of the bully as the big mean kid on the playground picking on the skinny shy guy. Or the Regina George “Mean Girl,” who is blatant and over-the-top grotesque in her cruelty. Or the college student posting intimate videos of his gay roommate. We can identify and punish and fight back against that “big” stuff.

But there’s a subtler game being played here which only the kids are fully aware of, and it’s no less damaging.

1 comment:

  1. The little stuff adds up. My children say that most of the bullying happens online these days, and that's even harder for schools to monitor.

    Research shows that smaller class sizes and learning environments help to build community. Unfortunately economic pressures lead to bigger schools and class sizes.

    My heart goes out to "Jane." I hope she keeps participating. I did even though others snickered.