Monday, June 10, 2013

They push me so far that...that I...I want to become the bully.

Though I still have a hard time believing it, school's out. Despite there being a couple of times I didn't think we would, we actually made it. Mission accomplished.

This year, for the first time in my career, I actually attended a graduation comprised of former students. Of the seventy two graduates, I taught six of them all the way back when they were eighth graders. And by eighth graders, obviously I mean awkward, bumbling, thirteen year-old kids, doggedly unaware of their actions. And as they walked (well, sauntered) across the stage as fledgling adults, I was consumed with two feelings. The first, not too shockingly, was pride. But the second? Relief. Overwhelming relief.

Bully, at least early on, absolutely destroyed me. The documentary opens with a father looking directly into the camera and detailing the events that led to the suicide of his young son, Tyler. For at least the first half of the film, this overwhelming sense of sadness and anger permeates every aspect of Bully. It can be pretty tough to watch at times...

....which is why I showed it as the end-of-the-year film in my English class. It was seven-eighths something they needed to see with a dash of maybe they'll actually be quiet and listen. And outside of the occasional verbal outburst, this film succeeded on both fronts.

Bully tells six separate stories of varying intensity, some more effective than others. Here's a quick rundown of the first four:

Tyler: Perhaps most grueling, this segment details the suicide of a seventeen year-old kid after years of bullying. Tyler's parents seek justice from the school board and the district to limited results.Their story anchors the documentary.

Alex: The face and star of Bully, this story evoked the biggest response from my students. See, Alex is a painfully awkward kid trying to navigate the treacherous waters of sixth grade in Iowa. He's presented as a shy kid, a real goofball, in desperate need of a friend. Sadly, Alex appears to confuse bullying with his friends messing around.

Kelby: Your typically aloof sixteen year-old, Kelby just wants to hang out with her friends and maybe even play a little basketball. But, in her small town in Oklahoma, her homosexuality makes even the smallest task a borderline impossibility.

Ja'meya: After constant torment at school (and on the bus) in Mississippi, Ja'meya decides to do something about it. Though her intentions were to just scare them, Ja'meya ends up in a psychiatric facility awaiting trial for a sentence that could last hundreds of years. Keep an eye out for the response from law enforcement, as that sent my classroom into a frenzy of disgust and disbelief. 

Not to slight the other two stories, but in a potentially failed attempt at brevity, let's wrap this one up with an abbreviated Yays and Boos section.

Alex, the face of Bully.
  • There's a scene late in the film where one kid talks his about his past as a bully. Turns out, he used to be a real jerk but then he grew up and became a third grader. If only more kids could see the ridiculousness in that entirely true statement.
  • Though no adult in an official position comes off well, it's at least slightly refreshing to see that they too have no real answers for how to stop bullying. Trust me, it's damn near impossible.
  • Not that it's too hard when I watched it four times in one day, but the choral version of Teenage Dirtbag in the opening was all kinds of catchy.
  • And finally, I have all the respect in the world for some of the parents who tell their stories in this film. There's a moment where Tyler's mom vividly describes finding her son's body that I will never, ever forget. While a part of me thinks it's arguably gratuitous, it's impact is undeniable. I couldn't help but to put myself in their shoes and I found no personal evidence of a similar strength.
Kelby, left, and her four-foot-ten bodyguard/girlfriend.
  • Well, I guess I found another movie to never show my wife.
  • So, it's slightly awkward listening to numerous people look into the camera and stress that the atrocities could have been stopped had the teacher just done something. In a classroom. As the teacher.
  • Alex's little sister? Young lady, you're really not helping.
  • Speaking of Alex, there's the infamous scene on the bus. Regardless of what that high school kid said to Alex (he drops some pretty nasty f-bombs), my question is why? Clearly there's a camera pointed at you and you still go ahead and say all that mess? Ridiculous.
  • I know it's for impact, but funeral footage is too much. I'll leave it at that.
  • There's a town meeting and it gets pretty uncomfortable, to say the least. It seems that the overall consensus is that school's can't change the kids' behavior if the parents don't step up. In the film, this statement is in regard to bullying. In real life, it's in regard to everything.
  • And finally, of all the scenes that broke my heart, there's one with Alex that really hurt. After Alex's parents have seen some of the footage from the documentary they are floored with how far things have spiraled out of control. Alex says that the kids are his friends, and they're just messing with him. She tells him that no friends would ever do that. Alex's response? If you say these people aren't my friends, then what friends do I have?
As I watched my former students walk across that stage, the relief I felt was that those kids had, for the most part, made it.  School can be daunting for a host of reasons, bullying included, but knowing that whatever pressures and problems they went through weren't enough to stop them, made me exhale more than once.

The rest of your life won't be easy, trust me. But you owe it to yourself to find that out firsthand.


  1. This is a doc I keep meaning to check out. I can't help but think of South Park every time though. When they were in that huge argument with their rating from the MPAA, South Park made an interesting statement: "If you want everyone to see it, why don't you release it for free on the internet?" That distracts me a bit.

    1. I missed that South Park, but that's definitely a good point. The controversy was silly, to say the least. I was ordered to skip the bit with all the f-bombs, despite the kids protests.

      That said, give it a shot. It's heart-breaking, but probably worth seeing regardless.

  2. I plan to watch this, especially now that it's come to Netflix Instant, but it's going to be tough for me. As an aside, I have a kid with Asperger's (I heard one of the kids featured in this film also has that diagnosis). One of the reasons I started on this crazy homeschooling journey is that I was worried about bullying. I understand kids on the autism spectrum suffer a lot because of not fitting in and not "reading" social cues.

    My daughter watched another documentary, in a class, titled "Bullied." Apparently it was about a student who later successfully sued the school system because of his PTSD caused by severe, persistent bullying throughout the years. He was constantly abused because he was gay, and teachers and administrators actively refused to respond to the problem, saying "If he doesn't want to be bullied, he shouldn't 'act so gay'." Mind-blowingly infuriating.

    Kudos to your school administration for protecting your students from the dreaded "f-bomb." Ha ha! Not that I blame them. Who wants to deal with parent complaints?

    1. Despite being contrary my livelihood, I support anyone who decides to homeschool their kids no matter the reason. I would consider it in a second if I thought it would benefit my son.

      That documentary sounds interesting. Lawsuits are a slippery slope but might be the wake up call that school districts need. That quote is unbelievably absurd.

      Yes. I thought it was a silly battle to fight, but parents go nuts over the most random things.

  3. "schools can't change the kids' behavior if the parents don't step up. In the film, this statement is in regard to bullying. In real life, it's in regard to everything."

    Truth. Society seems to expect schools to "fix" everything from academic failure to adolescent addiction to school violence. I've never been a classroom teacher (I'm not that brave), but I worked in schools as a therapist and became painfully aware that many parents have just checked out.

    By the way, I found your review -- and your perspective as a teacher -- quite moving.

    Sorry for getting so carried away with the commenting. *LOL* Obviously this is a tough subject for me, on many levels. :-)

    1. It's strange. We'll see parents come in furious over the supposed mistreatment of their child and it's obvious that they're intoxicated or something. It's that moment when we realize that we are fighting the ultimate losing battle. At times, the job is incredibly depressing.

      Thanks for the support.

      It should be a tough subject for everyone.

    2. "We'll see parents come in furious over the supposed mistreatment of their child and it's obvious that they're intoxicated or something." Well, I can relate -- I used to be an adolescent substance abuse therapist. More often than not, the moment I met the family, I knew I was fighting the ultimate losing battle. :-(

    3. It's sad we have that in common.

  4. "It's slightly awkward listening to numerous people look into the camera and stressing that the atrocities could have been stopped had the teacher just done something. In a classroom. As the teacher."

    Yes, exactly. That, to me, is one of the most troubling aspects of bullying. Don't get me wrong, the responsibility in no way rests entirely on the teacher, but I feel like, more often than not, more can be done.

    1. You're right. More can be done. It's hard though, because the kids are borderline professionals at being little shits to each other.

      As a teacher, I feel that bullying isn't that much of a problem in my classroom.

      But that's probably what every one of us thinks.

    2. I suspect most of the bullying takes place outside the classroom, which is what makes it so difficult for teachers to get a handle on, I'm sure. And apparently, now they're taking it away from the school building and the school bus altogether and using social media. It's virtually impossible to monitor. The only teachers and administrators I blame are the ones who had concerns brought to them directly and actively decided to ignore them and/or blame the victim.

    3. Pure truth here. It's usually something that happened outside of school, like some issue with family members (it's always about cousins, boyfriend/girlfriend nonsense, or the dreaded Facebook.

      At least as far as my team is concerned, if we are told about something, we jump through hoops to squash it. Most of us are parents, too. Even if they drive us absolutely crazy, we'll protect kids like their our own.

  5. Good review M. It's a very important movie that all families should see and be of witness to, but it's handled poorly as if any of the bullies can't give their side of the story or anything like that.

    1. I'm with you, Dan. But...

      Did they approach the parents of the bullies? I feel like it's doubtful that any of them would want to actually go on camera and tell their side. Maybe, but I don't know. If they silenced the other side on purpose, that's shameful.

      Otherwise, I feel like they did the best they could with what they had...if that makes sense.

  6. That part when the Principle was telling the bullied kid that he was just as bad as the bully because he didn't want to shake his hand made me want to punch her. Actually, everything she said made me want to punch her. She was the worst.

    BUT, I totally understand that the teachers/principles/whoever can't really make any difference if the parents at home don't do anything, and beings that I was bullied at school, I have to say that many parents don't give a shit. Like, I literally had a student tell me that his father said I was a pussy for complaining about being bullied and that as far as he was concerned, his son could pick on me all he wanted...and I believe that.

    The movie is extremely important. Great breakdown, especially since you have insider insight too.

    1. Ah, I remember that. She definitely came off as a total moron in that scene. Like hesitating to shake the hand of someone who has been tormenting you is a crime. Grrrr.

      Principals, in general, seem to go to one extreme or the other. They either don't stand for anything, or they basically let everything go.

      Dude, your story is heartbreaking. As much as I wanna say F that kid, if his dad was really a PARENT that would say/believe that kind of bullshit....that kid was probably doomed from birth. Awful, man. Just the worst.

      I try to make sure that my kids know that if they don't have anyone...they always have me. And obviously... I'm pretty f--king rad, you know?.

    2. Yeah...I had the worst year in 5th Grade, which was really sad because my last week of 4th Grade I sort of thought I was going to get on better with everyone else (I was star in the school play, the kids seemed to love me) but walking back in the doors after summer was...just the worst.

      I hated school.

      But...being bullied and having no friends (there, since I had lots of friends outside of school, thank GOD), taught me to really not give a fuck and be who I am because conforming to be like those assholes would just make me an asshole.

      And you are rad...I'm sure your students appreciate that too. I can't think of one teacher that I really liked, since so many of them seemed detached from the students in the class. I mean, they liked me because I was smart, but that was about all. I distinctly remember one teacher telling me that one of my classmates was a retard (and she was mentally handicapped, so it struck me pretty hard at the time) and at that point I pretty much tuned them all out.

      LOL...I sound like such a school downer. You are awesome, my friend, so keep being that teacher who actually reaches his students! Schools need more like you (and Kevin, who seems like a fucking awesome teacher too).