So the sickening pattern continues. Last month, another child chose death over the hell of her own emotions. And with that one impossibly permanent decision, twelve-year-old Rebecca Sedwick’s short life instantly became another narrative to feed the victim-hungry news cycle. Her suicide has already sparked debates over everything from bullying (the question “are girls getting meaner?” got its own Today show segment yesterday) to freedom of speech (with shock jocks taking calls from the sheriff accused of violating it). But the same selfish thought keeps nagging me: if the Internet had risen to popularity just a few years earlier, it would’ve been my name in those headlines.
You see, I was a “twelve-year-old Polk County girl” too. And I was bullied into submission by my female classmates too. In fact, I can’t remember much about that year — still the worst of my life — that doesn’t involve crippling depression, boundless self-hatred, and blood-boiling anger. And if those Central Florida cliques and their particular brand of vitriol had come home with me — if those girls (and some boys too) had cast their judgments in pixels instead of passed notes, if their slander hadn’t been confined to the perimeters of our private campus — I don’t think I would’ve lived to see thirteen.
I think it’s only a certain amount of amnesia that allows adults to function. … The cruelty that kids can inflict on other kids is astonishing and heartless and ill thought out and occasionally brilliantly thought out. [Neil Gaiman, Poets & Writers (July/August 2013 Q&A)]
Throughout all the coverage and controversy of the past few years, one question keeps recurring about bullying and the suicides it stokes: are kids just being kids? It’s hard to find a single adult who wasn’t bullied at least once as a child, so it’s not a far leap to make the assumption that it’s just the same old cruelty that’s always dished out at “that age.” That’s a question I remember weighing during my Worst Year; I’d furiously scribble entry after entry in my diary — calling out my tormentors, yes, but directing much of my ire toward the adults who condoned and even incited them. The teachers who laughed at jokes that stung. The coaches who rewarded popularity with the team-picking power to create and maintain playground hierarchies (I was always, always last, if you couldn’t tell — teased all day for lacking athleticism, then training all night with my figure skating coaches, furious about the double standard as I shot across the ice). The parents who fielded calls from my mother (I learned pretty quickly to stop telling her), then armed their kids with the ammunition of her words, apparently forgetting that “tattletale” is to middle-schoolers as “snitch” is to criminals.
But I knew even then that adults preferred to ignore the ways children torture each other. Did they honestly forget the way it felt when they were younger? (I don’t have that luxury; my identity has been permanently altered by how my classmates made me feel all those years ago. Social anxiety still keeps me home on weekends; overheard insults still sting for days.) Did they want to stay in the good graces of the wealthy donors whose kids were the meanest by far? (The correlation was certainly never lost on me; my stepfather’s income as an ambitious small business owner was one of their favorite places to dwell, and their own parents’ paychecks were their go-to proof of superiority.) Did they think the bullies would “grow out of it” or the outcasts would “toughen up” long before anything permanent happened? Rebecca asked herself the same questions.
And Becca had written in a notebook: “Everyday more and more kids kill themselves because of bullying. How many lives have to be lost until people realize words do matter?” [Tampa Bay Times]
She didn’t get her answer; she joined the list of victims instead. I was much, much luckier. I wanted those questions written down for my future self, so I’d never dismiss my painful past as par for the course. I might have felt silent and powerless — actively ignored, even — at school, but damn it, my words were worth something too, and I had to get them out somewhere. I used my pen to declare a truth that seemed so obvious to me at the time, especially at a Christian private school that was supposed to teach “good morals.” It was this: evil is evil, plain and simple. My twelve-year-old peers might not have had fully formed cognitive abilities, but they were still capable of choosing to behave the way they did. I distracted myself from my depression by deciding not to forgive or forget.
I wouldn’t want to be the administrator at Crystal Lake Middle School who was informed about the problem but, according to Rebecca’s mother, suggested it would all get better if the girl got a little tougher. What absurd advice. [TBO columnist Joe Henderson]
I resented the implication that my bullies were “just kids” because it wasn’t simply dismissive of their agency; it was dismissive of my rights too. To blow off their actions was to blow off the consequences of those actions, and even at twelve, I fully understood that my pain was very real and very wrong. The fact that I was unusually sensitive, even for my age, didn’t lessen my suffering or the role my peers had in causing it. There’s adolescent moodiness… and then there’s the relentless desire to just die already. There’s feeling like an outcast… and then there’s entering a classroom to the roar of laughter from every single student inside it, young red faces twisted into evil joy at my latest embarrassing mistake. Yes, children tease each other — gossip almost always stems from insecurity, and who’s more insecure than a kid inside a changing body? — but there are certain children who take it too far. And how many suicides does it take for parents and teachers to put a stop to it?
My former middle school is situated right on the highway that takes me to my parents’ house, a sprawling campus bordered by wilderness. I’m 26 now, with a whole decade’s worth of self-confidence under my belt, and I still can’t drive past it without getting that sinking feeling in my gut. There’s almost always a shiny new building under construction, thanks to donations from the same parents who can easily afford its hefty tuition fees (I had a scholarship and help from my grandparents, and no one ever let me forget it). And for a long time, I observed a ritual that was immature to say the least; I’d roll down my windows and hold out my middle finger until that fence was no longer spanning my peripheral vision. Even at 60 mph, that’s a good three seconds of satisfying “fuck you”s that I never had the strength to say at the time.
I don’t flip off buildings anymore, but the memories are still there waiting for me on every drive back home. The chapel we attended every morning, where soulless little snobs were assured that Jesus loved them and the evils of abortion were given more sermon time than simple lessons like compassion and empathy. The newly constructed gym where we’d stand and sing our morning-assembly praises to Jesus and his inclusive, generous teachings, while the “just kids” behind me would snatch away my folding chair, oblivious to the irony of it all as they waited for me to fall. I still remember what it feels like to bruise my tailbone on an unfinished cement floor. And when that fence line starts and those familiar buildings emerge, I wonder which students’ personalities are being permanently altered this year… which children are suffering in the same classrooms and being ignored by the same staff members.
While bullies of previous generations had limited audiences, digital humiliation gets vast exposure. It can’t be erased, and it can be harnessed in ways bullies of another era never imagined. [USA Today]
And then there are the Internet questions. Is social media digging up a kind of childhood evil that’s never been seen before, or is it simply a bigger, more convenient way to carry out the same age-old taunts and attacks? Should children be held responsible for the consequences of what they type, or should we make sure their juvenile mistakes don’t follow them into adulthood (because ours didn’t)? Has bullying evolved into cyberbullying, a monstrous distortion of its more harmless origins, or has it always been this awful? It’s pretty obvious that the Internet is the sharpest, most effective tool that childhood bullies have ever had. Sticks and stones have nothing on social media; comments are far easier to make and far more difficult to forget. It took mere seconds for Rebecca’s two “primary bullies” to type each of the messages that are now being entered as evidence in the case against them. Smartphones and laptops are the coward’s playground; you don’t have to look into anyone’s eyes anymore to shoot them down with your words.
I’ll leave that analysis to the experts. But I do know that the Internet has always been a double-edged sword for kids. Our technology of choice in middle school was AIM (AOL Instant Messenger, for the kiddies). That bubbly little chat box — archaic though it may seem today — was already powerful enough to generate a whole lot of regrets. I remember my mother’s nervous fears about the way it was shaping my communication skills, and how easy it suddenly became to confess whatever popped into our still-developing brains. I almost always felt too exposed when the all-night chats were over and my words stopped flying and started sinking in; I can’t even imagine the impact Facebook and Twitter might have had back then. And new sites and trends are developing at a breakneck pace, raising the bar ever-higher and harnessing the potential of technology to destroy childhood innocence.
So if my own experiences were horrifying — if at 26, I still can’t visit my parents without getting upset about driving past my old middle school — then I can’t imagine the hell that forced Rebecca Sedwick to her death. If I was relentlessly bullied for being the shy, awkward, brainy, pimpled teacher’s pet, I cannot imagine how it would’ve felt to smack labels like “slut” on top of it all. If I went home every night genuinely wanting to die, I can’t imagine what would’ve happened if my classmates had spent the rest of the night encouraging me to actually do it (“drink bleach and die” and “why haven’t you already died?” were among the relentlessly poisonous messages she received).
But I won’t stop trying to imagine. None of us should. None of us should succumb to the amnesia of adulthood, because there are kids who desperately need us to remember, to relate, to take their pain as seriously as they do. Because Rebecca was right: words do matter.
Click here to contribute to the Rebecca Sedwick Funeral Fund and Anti-Bullying Campaign. Sufficient funds have already been raised to help Rebecca Sedwick’s mother, Tricia Norman, pay for a funeral that should never have been necessary. Anything you donate today will go toward the remarkable Jaylens Challenge Foundation.