This year, over 13 million American kids will be bullied, and over 3 million kids a month stay home because they feel unsafe. Bully, a documentary that opens today in theaters all over the country, tells the stories of five bullied young people. While the stories examine the dire consequences of bullying, they also give testimony to the courage and strength of the victims of bullying and seek to inspire real changes in the way we deal with bullying as parents, teachers, friends and society as a whole. The movie’s website includes a host of resources that foster discussion and action around this difficult issue, including a conversation guide for parents on how to talk to kids about bullying.
In an effort to give voice to a problem that many have trouble speaking about, Max, a young man who experienced bullying throughout his childhood, shared some of his stories with our staff writer Allissa. We hope these stories can serve as a jumping-off point for conversation about this important topic in your own family, whether at the dinner table or beyond.
In weird way, I had a really happy childhood. I was very social, and I found my niche early on with my theater friends. That was a stroke of luck…finding theater, having a supportive drama teacher, and having an outlet to be myself – it served as a counter-balance to the bullying I experienced.
Really, most of the bullying happened in middle school. There was this boy, Steve, who was obsessed with making fun of me. I remember sitting on the street corner with my friend Megan, and Steve walked over to me and started saying, “You are SO gay. You are SO gay.” Stuff like that was pretty common.
The school bus was the worst. Once, in 8th grade, Steve stood up on a crowded bus and said, “Raise your hand if you think Max is gay.” I was sure—sure—that no one was going to raise their hands. But then…the entire bus did. Megan was the only one who tried to stand up for me, but of course, she was just one person. The bus pulled up to my house, and I ran inside and just started crying. I felt so ashamed and embarrassed. I didn’t know how to change myself and who I was.
Another time in middle school, I went to my locker, and in big blue Sharpie pen it said, “F****t.” I was horrified. I ran to my teachers and said, “There’s this word on my locker, I need it erased,” but no one cared. I was this 12-year-old kid, desperate to get this thing off of my locker, and not one of my teachers helped me. I think eventually I found a custodian, who was nice enough to remove it.
Honestly, I was made fun of so much that the memories blend together. What does stand out, though, is the feeling that no cared about what I was going through. Yes, my friend Megan tried to help, but I have absolutely no memories of any adult ever speaking up on my behalf. No one said that it was wrong, or even acknowledged what was happening.
Even in high school, people would harass me, despite the fact that I had lots of friends (I always got along with girls, and had my theater community).
Still though, it does get better. Maybe it’s an illusion, but I really do believe that it’s safer now than it was 15 years ago.
In terms of advice for kids who are experiencing bullying now, I’d say just keep searching for your niche. You’ll find it. At that age, I needed people to accept me, love me and give me a chance. I found my place with theater, which provided this inclusive, collaborative space where I felt celebrated and appreciated, instead of ashamed. But if theater’s not your thing, I’m sure there are other clubs, groups and understanding people out there who can provide that same haven. You just have to keep searching.
Unfortunately, I think that bullying is part of a widespread, cultural problem of intolerance. Until we really start celebrating diversity and difference, I don’t think this problem will go away. We need to understand that we’re all parts of a whole, and that we need each other to operate.
I think that art encourages authenticity, and as a teacher, I try to be that kind of person who celebrates difference. By showing people how to be true to who they are, I believe we can encourage them to be kinder to themselves, and to others.
For nearly a decade, Max has lead workshops and directed plays at numerous high schools and theaters around the Northeast. He is currently pursuing a Masters degree in theater education, and can often be found teaching acting classes, giving voice lessons, and belting Mariah Carey in the hallways.
Bullying comes in many forms and affects a wide range of students. Here are a few questions to begin a conversation about bullying at your dinner table tonight:
1) Nearly everyone encounters bullying at some point in their lives. Can you tell a story of a time when you or someone you know has been bullied?
2) What are all the different ways and places you see people bully others?
3) When someone is bullying someone else, why do you think they are doing it?
4) If you see someone bullying someone else, what can you do to help? How can your school, parents, or friends help?
For more bullying conversation starters, please check-out our post on the film Bully.