Bearing Witness

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[Content warning: This blog contains discussions of bullying.]

Nathan Phillips says Covington Catholic teens were disrespectful after investigation clears them (USA Today)

One of my primary motivators as a teacher, and something I repeat to myself every day I teach, is that I need to be the kind of teacher for my students that I needed when I was younger. This would be a difficult enough task on its own, but as I’ve often pointed out, anyone who gets into teaching because they think it will be an “easy” job has no business teaching, since those are the kinds of teachers who invariably shortchange their students of the education they need and deserve. Living in a culture that is increasingly making my work more difficult only complicates things for me even more, not only because my students need me to do even more for them to fill in the deficiencies of their prior “education,” but because I’m reminded even more of what I endured in school when I was younger, and it’s clear now that some of the wounds that were inflicted on me back then — by students, teachers and administrators alike — will never heal.

As part of my research for a couple of major writing projects I have coming up, I’ve been reading sociological studies of bullying and its effects, both on individuals and on society as a whole. That reading has been incredibly worthwhile, since it will inform not only my writing but also my teaching, but it’s been incredibly painful a lot of the time, simply because so many of the stories I’ve been reading invariably remind me of similar episodes I’ve endured. One of the books I’m currently reading explicitly ties the power relationships of school bullying to similar power structures in larger American society, and recognizing those similarities (at least to a greater extent than I have before) is chilling, especially as I’ve seen America get far, far worse on that front over the past few years.

This research (and catching up on lost teaching thanks to the weather-related issues we’ve been having up here) has kept me from following the news as much as I’d like; part of the reason I haven’t been blogging so much about political issues these past few weeks is because even though there are current events I want to write about, I don’t want to publish anything that I haven’t had the opportunity to thoroughly read about and investigate on my own. When that news story about those high school students at the Lincoln Memorial first broke, not only did I lack the time to navigate the seemingly-interminable series of twists and turns that resulted as more and more evidence about the encounter came out, but I was also hamstrung by the difficulties I had looking at videos, and even still photos, of what happened.

Those of us who spent our early years being systematically bullied often end up not only incapable of forgetting the faces of our tormentors, but even the facial expressions they had while they were tormenting and assaulting us. (Again, I endured those expressions not only from students, but also teachers and administrators.) People’s facial expressions have variations, but there is a definite range of those expressions that bullies use either consciously or unconsciously, conveying not just their disdain for their targets, but more importantly, their unflinching belief in their own superiority, and how that superiority enables them (through the power structures they take advantage of) to engage in their bullying without much, if any, threat of reprisal.

When I saw that first iconic photo from the Lincoln Memorial, my stomach churned as I recognized that all-too-familiar facial expression on the faces of one of those high school students. I had to look away whenever I saw any videos of the protest after that, and while I kept reading the news stories that came out about this incident and all the background details that didn’t get mentioned in the initial stories, I stuck to the text of those stories because I knew that I couldn’t see those facial expressions on those students without being vividly reminded of the things I had to endure when I was their age.

The subsequent push-and-pull of stories that came from different media outlets as those background details got filled in was almost dizzying, but what got lost in the ensuing hubbub is that even though no one deserves to have false details about themselves spread in media, an asshole who gets some details about their life misrepresented in the media is still an asshole. When other people who’d had bad encounters with these students came forward with their stories, I believed them not only because of my own experiences as a target of bullying, but also because I’ve studied the psychology and sociology of bullying enough to see how their experiences fit in with the stories of bullying targets throughout America.

It’s bad enough that our culture is already designed to put the story of any target of bullying, who’s brave enough to come forward and bear witness to their own experiences, under a miasma of skepticism. Between the entrenched power in our nation’s capital right now, and the right-wing media monoliths spewing out their sickening narratives to audiences conditioned to accept anything they say, it’s becoming harder and harder for bullying targets to believe that anything good could possibly come out of giving voice to their experiences. Worse yet is how conservatives’ continued attacks on education are trying to force many of us who work as educators to kowtow to their desires, to ignore the evidence of bullying, to silence the targets of that bullying, and ultimately even to celebrate the “triumphs” of bullying, using the same disgusting terminologies about “alpha” this and “will” that, and all that other pablum.

These attacks are nothing new, and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to tell you even more about them here soon, in venues with a much bigger reach than this measly little blog. Until then, whether I’m reading case studies of bullying in books, or watching news analysis shows talk about the effects of bullying, or hearing my own students’ stories of their experiences being bullied, I figure that I’m in for even more misery in the weeks to come as I work on these projects. Just like my own experiences being bullied, all I can hope for is that I can develop the skills — rhetorical, emotional and otherwise — to turn my misery into something positive, and do whatever small part I can to make sure that other young people don’t have to go through the hell I went through when I was their age.

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