On March 24 of this year, The New York Times ran a front-page article on a boy from Fayetteville, Ark., who has, since the age of 12, been the repeated victim of physical and emotional attack by his peers at school. The young man, Billy, tall and lanky, became the target of bullies when he was beaten up in a middle school bathroom for telling his mom he had received a prank call. That attack was followed by another beating on the school bus, and another in woodshop in which, his mother says, “he kept spitting blood out.” A student in Spanish class punched Billy so hard that “his braces were caught on the inside of his cheek.” Bullies moved on to creating a Facebook page for “Every One That Hates Billy.” School officials have largely ignored these incidents, according to the article, or have named Billy as part of the problem. In the face of school system inaction, Billy’s parents have sued the bullies themselves and are considering legal proceedings against the district.
The Times reporter is noncommittal about the reasons for targeting Billy: “Maybe because he was so tall, or wore glasses then, or has a learning disability that affects his reading comprehension. Or maybe some kids were just bored. Or angry.”
How are we to understand this boy and his plight? What should be “done” about Billy? How are we to make sense of incidents of egregious violence against a child in a school system that surely considers itself “safe”?
Looking around the blogosphere for reaction to Billy (the article almost immediately became one of the top most e-mailed articles on The New York Times Web site), I found at least 40 Internet sites where the article was being discussed live. Such blogsophere responses run the gamut, but there was a recurring theme in some responses, many from individuals who were formerly bullied themselves. Said one: “Sounds like time for self-defense classes to me. … Break one or two elbows and they’ll lay off.” Another posted comment read: “You set Billy up with classes for a martial art that fits him personally, and then you take him there religiously and work with him at home. You teach that kid to kick the holy living crap out of those little punks, and then you tell him that if they start @!$%# he doesn’t back down till it ends with the other kid in a cast.” One blog commenter said simply, “This is why God made 2 x 4’s.” (www.newsvine.com)
Several dozen posts looked at the role of parents in bullying, and were deeply disturbed by the school system’s lack of effective response. A strong majority, however, recommended that the victim strike back. “Billy needs to be a bit more proactive. He should hunt the thugs down and beat the sh** out of them with a baseball bat.” (www.freerepublic.com)
One post noted that time itself would take care of Billy’s bullies. “This is what school was like for me, almost the entire time, from kindergarten up. I took a lot of beatings, gave a few back. … If I could talk to this Billy kid, I’d tell him: Dude, Google these assholes in a decade. They won’t be there. They will have made no impression at all on the world, or any world that matters. … You will win, dude. Eventually.” (www.zenarchery.com)
Having just read a wonderful, although largely undertreated book by Clive Harber called Schooling as Violence (RoutlegeFalmer, 2004), in which the author makes a scholarly, straightforward case for the fact that schooling itself is often responsible for violence—it initiates violence and reproduces and naturalizes violence, he says, through its authoritarian power structures, oppressive pedagogy, constant control and surveillance—I wondered about the lack of this particular critique on Internet sites. (Perhaps I didn’t find it.)
School bullying is not new, as we know, and is a chronic institutional problem leading to psychological impairment, depression, and suicide. (See the site bullyonline.org for a definitive look at the ongoing effects of bullying on schoolchildren.) On the other hand, in a recent Education Week Commentary, Colby College professor Lyn Mikel Brown warns against the labeling of individual kids as “the problem” in incidents of aggression in school systems, and emphasizes how important it is to build coalitions of non-bullies and allies against cruelty. (Brown also notes that bully prevention is a huge for-profit business.)
What if we were to look at bullying as an expression of violence not just of individuals, but also of systems of individuals caught in an institutional order?"
Beyond our sense of sickening unhappiness with the particularities of the Arkansas student’s case—being attacked while working on a miniature house in woodshop, unable to accurately recall the names of all his attackers because there have been so many—what if we were to look at bullying as an expression of violence not just of individuals, but also of systems of individuals caught in an institutional order that can be psychologically alienating, disrespectful, and oppressive? That bullying is not just hostility and anger among individuals gone awry, but also an expression of the shadow side of schooling?
In Jungian psychology, our “shadow” side is the energy we repress when parts of us are rejected, controlled, hidden. The shadow can be personal or collective—shadow energy can emerge in great bursts of destructive force that can be personally annihilating when negative experience is not acknowledged. When children in school feel the need to victimize, torment, and attack each other, what institutional cues are they responding to? Where does all that negative energy in the system come from? In the case of Fayetteville and Billy, what makes boys want to approach someone waiting at a bus before 8 a.m. and punch that kid’s face, film it on their cellphones, and then watch it with friends at school?
While some psychologists make a case that bullying is a transaction between individuals, bullying is also a systemic problem, arising out of a culture of hostility, fear, shame, excessive competition, and lack of respect for difference. If we create school systems in which compulsion, coercion, hierarchy, and fear of failure are central features of the academic experience, and essential to motivating and controlling students, then the energy from those negative experiences will seek expression. In Billy’s case, parents and administrators have seemed unable even to agree that harmful psychological experiences are occurring. Do we, collectively, have that essential problem, too? Are we denying reality in our school systems?
One of the great obstacles in reforming American education has been our difficulty, as educators, in “owning” the negative aspects of schooling: the ways that, historically, schools have diminished students, denied them their individuality, forced cognitive conformity, and profoundly punished difference. Shadow energy can only be owned and made generative if it is seen and acknowledged. Bullying can be regarded as the shadow side of compulsory schooling when it fails to serve students with affirmative support, engaging pedagogy, and a sense of relevancy of instruction. The case of Billy may be an opportunity for us to look at the negative effects generated by some of our schooling methods, and to own and change them, for good.