stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.
— Traditional childhood response to
Gov. Deval Patrick has
designated Jan. 25 "No Name Calling Day" as part of the state's
effort to combat bullying in public schools.
Students are being
encouraged to wear black that day to symbolize their commitment to
"black out bullying." This is part of "No Name Calling Week"
sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Educational Network (GLSEN).
Good for them. The
bullying issue has been with us since the beginning of history. The
youth version, that had long been taken for granted as part of the
growing-up struggle, is finally being addressed, and with such a
It was inspired in
Massachusetts by the suicide last January of Phoebe Prince, a
15-year-old Irish immigrant who was taunted by fellow students at
South Hadley High School, allegedly because of some dating faux pas.
Hers, of course, was an
entirely inappropriate response. A bullying-related suicide should
be discussed in the context of serious mental health issues, which
won't be fixed by student activism. Healthy youngsters don't kill
themselves because other insecure youngsters verbally bully them.
Violent bullying is
another matter. On the national level, bullies can get wars declared
against them or revolutions. With adults, there are 911 calls,
restraining orders and jail time for assault. The response when
children are attacked should also be swift and serious; this is what
grown-ups (and governments) are for.
But when the bullying
is nonphysical? Is there anyone here who has never recited that
little poem at the top of this column?
I hadn't realized until
recently that the poem itself is controversial. Some mental health
professionals argue that words can indeed hurt us, can damage
self-esteem at an age when it can have a permanent impact.
Well, yes, almost
anything that happens in our early life experience can have a
permanent impact; the environmental factor combines with our
genetics to create our uniqueness. The inclination of some children
to become bullies contrasts with the inclination of others to be
kind; the decision of some to be victims contrasts with the decision
of others to ignore or fight back.
Funny the things we
remember from long ago. When I became aware of the anti-bullying
campaign, I thought of a girl with whom I went to grade school. I
called some childhood friends to ask if they remembered her, and
they did, even though it was over half a century ago. They recalled
she was bullied on the playground, somewhere around the fourth
grade. I don't recall her after that.
She was a big-boned
girl, not overweight but tall, and from a different ethnic
background than other kids in the mostly German/Irish town. But I
was taller, with a Slavic name, and I wasn't bullied; I'm quite sure
I wasn't a perpetrator either. Yet my friends and I still feel bad
that we may have laughed as the boys taunted her, and didn't try to
discourage them. One of my friends recalls that she had poor hygiene
and a bad temper; who knows which was a cause and which an effect of
the cruel treatment.
So if we remember this
incident from our childhood, it's hard to imagine that the victim
herself forgot it. I wish I knew whether it impacted her entire
life, either by damaging her self-esteem, or making her stronger
because she survived it.
Reading about "black
out" Wednesday, I recall that during my high school years there was
something about wearing green on Thursday, which I think had
something to do with being homosexual, not that any of us girls knew
what that meant.
Well, it was generally
a time of innocence, especially in small towns. But what has changed
that allows some kids to bully in full view of their classmates,
I see the GLSEN
initiative, like the television series "Glee," as clarifying that
those who fight bullying are the good guys, which puts the bullies
in their proper place.
I just found a
wonderful piece of advice from the "Be Your Own Therapist" movement.
"Someone call you a
name? Whenever you hear such a name directed your way, thoughts
along the lines of, 'the name-caller is feeling weak right now',
will help prevent a possible hurt for you. Another useful
self-thought is, 'Whatever people say about me says nothing about
me, but a lot about them'.
"We would be happier,
feel more self-esteem and could change the world dramatically if we
all thought the following: 'If I get upset by someone calling me a
name, then I have given away my power and I need to make a different
This changes the
emphasis from trying to understand or change bullies to the easier
chore of addressing our own situation.
Take it from me,
ignoring those who call you names not only saves you psychic energy,
it has the added benefit of annoying them. Eventually, you might
find yourself prepared even for the adult political arena, where a
solid counterattack can be healthy, too.
I applaud the
initiative of Gov. Patrick and GLSEN for young people.
This adult, however,
won't be taking a "no-name-calling" pledge; for the purpose of
time-saving identification, I might have to call a liar a liar, an
irrational person an idiot, and ... a bully, a bully.