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The Reducer, Week 33: Hysterical Blindness

The Bully Project

A teacher puts Lee Hirsch's new documentary in context

Part One: Bully As Phenomenon and Film

The audiences around the country who saw Lee Hirsch’s documentary Bully on Friday night probably looked pretty similar. At the 7:30 screening I caught at the Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis, Minnesota, members of the sizeable-but-not-sold-out crowd included three or four parents who’d brought their kids, a few gay and lesbian couples, some elementary and middle school teachers, some concerned gray-haired men and women, and a balding dude sporting a Goonies T-shirt.

Bully hype has died down a bit now that it’s been recut, granted a PG-13 rating, and given a wider theatrical release. (That ratings controversy between distributor Harvey Weinstein and the MPAA ratings board already feels like a publicity stunt, although given the idiocy of the MPAA, you never know.) After a successful limited release in New York and Los Angeles, Hirsch’s film is now playing at 158 theaters nationwide, including three locations in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area; a wider release is forthcoming. The reams of advance press and positive reviews have certainly helped Bully‘s box office take, but The Hunger Games, Cabin in the Woods, The Three Stooges, Titanic 3D, and American Reunion all had better per-screen averages on Friday. On the other hand, Bully is not a movie most people would choose to see as a way to kick off their weekend. The crowd at the Lagoon felt somehow determined; they knew what was in store for them, they were ready to have their hearts stomped on, and they were ready to get mad.

Hirsch’s film is ambitious; in 95 minutes, it tries to tell five different bullying stories. The scenes featuring Ja’Maya, an athlete and honors student who spent time in a Mississippi juvenile detention center for pulling a gun on a school bus, and 16-year-old Kelby, who’s trying to survive as an openly gay teenager in rural Oklahoma, possess a lyrical texture reminiscent of the childhood scenes from Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life or the documentaries of Errol Morris, but they’re almost too elliptical for their own good. In contrast, Alex, a gangly 12-year-old from Sioux City, Iowa, who endures daily abuse on the school bus, is the film’s “star.” Alex’s trials and agonies are intercut with scenes from the shattered lives of two couples, David and Tina Long and Kirk and Laura Smalley, who grapple with the suicides of their kids by organizing an anti-bullying campaign.

The film’s villains are not necessarily the bullies themselves; in every case but Alex’s, the kids’ tormentors are either nameless or altogether off-screen. Hirsch instead looks to indict whole schools (and by extension, whole communities). Kim Lockwood, the staggeringly clueless assistant principal at the middle school Alex attended, is the film’s clearest villain. In one scene, she dresses down an obviously upset kid who won’t shake hands with his tormentor by saying “You’re just like him.” ” ‘Cept I don’t hurt people,” the kid shoots back. In another deeply surreal scene in her office, she tries to empathize with Alex’s family by showing them pictures of her granddaughter and saying, “See my baby? HUH?”

The film ends on as optimistic a note as one could hope. The Smalleys, self-proclaimed “nobodies,” start up a successful anti-bullying Internet campaign; Ja’Maya returns home to her family; Kelby stops attending her local high school and finds strength in numbers at a rally in Oklahoma City; and David and Tina Long speak at an anti-bullying rally. But I left the film unsatisfied.

Let me explain. Eleven years ago, I began writing about movies for the Memphis Flyer about the same time I started teaching high school. I taught for two years in small-town Minnesota before landing my current job in Roseville, a first-ring suburb of St. Paul, nine years ago. Through the years, I’ve developed a particular sensitivity to movies that deal with schools and education. Whenever I see teachers or students on-screen, I always hope for either some degree of realism or some other form of truth. I’m often disappointed; most movies about school are ridiculous, and not in a fun, 21 Jump Street sort of way. My frustrations make me wonder whether other people get frustrated by the way the movies distort their profession. Do police officers wave their Tasers in despair when they see the way movie cops are portrayed? Do doctors and nurses give their patients an extra whack with the reflex hammer after they watch an episode of Grey’s Anatomy?

Documentaries about school, though, are a different matter, particularly documentaries that seek to change social policies and institutions. Bully clearly wants to play a leading role in eliminating the practice of bullying. As a human being who believes that the world could be more compassionate and tolerant, I support the film’s agenda. As a teacher who sees kids every day, I’m somewhat alarmed by the information the filmmakers left out or just decided not to deal with. I liked Bully, but I wanted it to be both more expansive and more focused.

Part Two: Bullying As Perennial Problem

If you’re wondering what the difference is between bullying and, say, a fight between two girls that starts on Twitter and ends with a catfight in the cafeteria, here’s a helpful definition from Scientific American‘s Hogan Sherrow:

According to psychological sources, bullying is a specific type of aggression in which (1) the behavior is intended to harm or disturb, (2) the behavior occurs repeatedly over time, and (3) there is an imbalance of power, with a more powerful person or group attacking a less powerful one. This asymmetry of power may be physical or psychological, and the aggressive behavior may be verbal (e.g., name-calling, threats), physical (e.g., hitting), or psychological (e.g., rumors, shunning/exclusion). The key elements of this definition are that multiple means can be employed by the bully or bullies, intimidation is the goal, and bullying can happen on a one-on-one or group basis (Nansel et al, 2001).

Hirsch’s film is at its most distressing when his cameras record these instances of repetitive abuse stemming from “asymmetrical power”; as the attacks on Alex escalated, Hirsch eventually chose to share his school-bus footage — with school administrators like Kim Lockwood. As many other critics have pointed out, though, Hirsch doesn’t (or perhaps couldn’t) interview any of the bullies who’ve made his subjects’ lives miserable. We never hear more from the noxious little sociopath with the fuzzed-out face who threatens to “end” Alex during one morning bus ride. Nor is there any further word from the Oklahoma teacher who allegedly mocked Kelby’s sexuality in front of her classmates. The lives and thoughts of the bullies are at least as important as the suffering they inflict on their targets; without trying to understand them, any preventative measures or attempts at reforming school and community culture are destined to fail.

Moreover, bullying may not be merely a school or community or even a cultural issue. It may be an evolutionary trait. Here’s Sherrow again:

No matter where you go in the world, from the Mbuti of Central Africa (Turnbull, 1961) to Suburban children in the United States (Wang et al, 2009) there are individuals and groups that target others with tactics designed to intimidate, coerce or harm them. In some cases bullying is used to maintain social order and ensure that no one acquires too much dominance, status or personal power. In other cases, bullying is harmful and used to injure others physically, emotionally or socially. These scenarios are two sides of the same coin, and one can easily metamorphose into the other if the power dynamics become skewed in one direction or the other. Despite the variation in the amount and intention of bullying across human cultures one thing is clear, bullying is everywhere. The universality of bullying across human societies indicates that this is a species-typical human behavior that has little to do with the cultures people live in. Bullying, it seems is part of our normal behavioral repertoire, it is part of the human condition.

As Sherrow says, when a behavior has roots this deep, “Addressing bullying through culturally based social programs is like taking the flowerhead off a milk thistle. You will slow the growth and spread of the plant, but not for long. It is only through incorporating a deeper understanding of the antiquity of a behavior like bullying in our policies that we can hope to alter its impact on society.” It is an almost galactic irony that Alex is most often seen in Bully wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers pullover. This poor kid, who at one point admits that he’s so frustrated with his situation that “I want to become the bully,” rocks the gear of an NFL franchise praised and admired for its toughness, savagery, and colorful linebackers. After all, in some walks of life, the bullies prevail.

Therefore, any nationwide anti-bullying mandate has to succeed where most nationwide education mandates routinely fail: It needs to be flexible — both broad enough to implement from sea to shining sea AND malleable enough for individual school districts to tailor to their needs. (To put it very mildly, the equity and non-discrimination policies of my school district would not be as readily accepted in Tuttle, Oklahoma, where Kelby once attended school, or somewhere much closer to home.) If our society stayed relatively stable and unchanging, then ending bullying might be a less impossible task. But if, in any meaningful sense, schools are a microcosm for society at large, then their cultures are so fluid and mutable that even the most tech-savvy school officials struggle to keep up.

At Roseville Area High School (RAHS), bullies who matriculated at the Scut Farkus School of Physical and Psychological Harm don’t show up much anymore. But none of the students, teachers, or administrators I interviewed believed that bullying in other forms has declined dramatically. According to RAHS associate principal Ted Ihns, the relatively new phenomenon of cyber-bullying — that is, bullying aided by social media like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter — has been on the rise since 2005. When it comes to bullying, Ihns’s wish is that students would “leave all electronics out of it.” That’s not going to happen, though, so Ihns and school administrators everywhere are now grappling with a new, more frightening expression of a human evolutionary trait that nobody’s really figured out how to handle.

For many high school kids with cell phones, Twitter and Facebook are as vital as energy drinks or ADD medication. For students, to furtively check a cell phone nestled in their lap or hidden behind a propped-up book is to find a momentary distraction that will help them endure the drudgery of a typical school day. I hate policing cell phones, but I’m not loony enough to blame any student’s personal or academic failures on text messaging. What I am saying is that, at our own peril, we often underestimate boredom as a key motivation for mischief.

This is where Facebook and Twitter (and, to some extent, YouTube) come in. The great, vague benefits of social media have brought some unexpected side effects as well. For example, it would be tough to design technology that was more tailor-made to update bullying for our super-connected age. As a glimpse at the comments section of even the most innocuous article can show, social media allows its users to launch personal attacks and start petty fights at a safe distance with minimal fear of reprisal. In the process, it unleashes the destructive power of language like never before. Giving this power to millions of teenagers who (1) struggle with writing, and (2) are supremely and acutely sensitive to their own sense of self is an act of unintentional madness.

In addition, the ubiquity of social media now means that, unless they were to take the almost unheard-of step of deleting their Facebook and Twitter accounts, there’s nowhere student targets can hide from today’s bullies. While nobody is nostalgic for the good old days when bullies stuck their targets’ head in toilets, one student pointed out to me that, with social media, it’s now possible for bullies to harass targets at all times of the day. A bully could thus cyber-chase kids home and pester them no matter where they went, making them feel like they’re being given swirlie after swirlie in their own toilets.

Plus, there’s the little matter of the teenage brain. As David Dobbs points out in his National Geographic article, the teenage brain is a remarkably adaptive one that’s characterized by decision-making more motivated by reward than conscious of risk. Or, put in a slightly less scientific way, kids can make risky, thoughtless decisions that strike teachers and parents as crazy. That’s why they do things like ask porn stars to prom and keep detailed blowback-by-blowback transcripts of illegal drug deals on their cell phones.

And let’s not discount some teenagers’ inherent (and not altogether unwarranted) distrust of authority figures. You might be the coolest teacher or most enlightened parent in the world, but sometimes kids simply won’t do what you want them to do. Edgar Allan Poe, in his short story “The Black Cat,” defined this stance as “The Spirit of PERVERSENESS”:

Of this spirit philosophy takes no account. Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart — one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such?

As long as there are adults admonishing kids about the dangers of bullying or trying to give them advice on everything from compound sentences to college choices, there will be kids who will ignore that advice and do the opposite thing because they think adults are always full of shit. The feeble “kids will be kids” defense offered up in Bully is insulting and inadequate. What those administrators are saying is that because kids are kids, there is a much greater likelihood of what adults perceive as risky and damaging behavior among them.

Near the end of Bully, Ty Smalley’s father, Kirk, who’s marveling at the success of his Stand for the Silent campaign, says, “The Internet’s an amazing thing.” It certainly is. But it’s a significant flaw in Hirsch’s film that the online world gets next to no mention. Maybe that had something to do with the rural communities where he set his story; if nothing else, though, a greater exploration of the positive connections offered by social media should have been addressed.

As a film, Bully didn’t make me cry. What got me bawling last Saturday morning was this video made by Jonah Mowry, who uses his computer monitor and some old-fashioned note cards to get across his message. Mowry’s film is an impressive (if accidental) critique of cyber-bullying because it dares to connect language and text (misspellings and all) to a real, live human face. The positive responses made by others are as impressive and compassionate as the nasty responses to his message are predictable and mortifying. They don’t offer the deep structural solutions Sherrow advocates, but Mowry’s clip and similar ones like the “It Gets Better” campaign do offer some measure of hope.

Part Three: “Life Starts After High School”

Although the relatively liberal school district where I work might not have much in common with some of the red-state districts depicted in Bully, it’s safe to say that parents everywhere want their kids to be safe. So I figure that maybe if I share some events that happened a long time ago at the high school where I now work, I can encourage other communities to work together and reduce the possibility of these terrible incidents.

Robert Rygh, our district’s human resources director, was the principal at RAHS from 1991 to 2003. In the early days of his career, he and his staff dealt with an unprecedented hazing crisis. For years, RAHS’s Homecoming Week activities probably resembled the “Air raid, freshmen!” scene from Dazed and Confused. A key part of RAHS’s homecoming ritual was the “sophomore kidnap,” which had been going on in Roseville since at least the early 1970s. (It may have started as a youth group activity, complete with sing-alongs.) Before the night of the sophomore kidnap, seniors would tell the parents of certain sophomores that they were going to abduct them. The seniors would then submit their captives to any number of initiation rituals as a way of welcoming them into the broader culture of the school (I guess). As Rygh said, it was almost an honor for the chosen sophomores, and “parents always gave [their kids] permission to go.”

In the early 1990s, though, these initiation rituals grew more severe. Upperclassmen broke eggs on kids’ heads and doused them with syrup; in 1993 or 1994, one kid was allegedly sprayed with lighter fluid. What was once considered a harmless tradition within the community morphed into a virulent strain of hazing, which is predicated on the kind of organized humiliation that perfectly matches up with Sherrow’s definition of bullying. In 1991, RAHS administrators sent a letter to parents informing them that sophomore kidnap was not school-sanctioned, but it didn’t matter.

In 1995, a transfer student named Nikki Cosentino was one of the sophomores chosen for this new version of sophomore kidnap. Unfortunately, her admission into the popular kids’ circles went horribly wrong. This 10-minute video from the RAHS archives tells Nikki’s side of the story, which not only describes the humiliations she endured but ends with her helping to pass an anti-hazing bill into Minnesota state law. (The video also features some badly dated music and terrible dramatizations to marvel at if you’re into that sort of thing.)

Meanwhile, the hazings continued. In 1996, local television cameras recorded numerous instances of homecoming-related madness. Rygh, who had attended previous homecoming festivities but was not present on this particular rainy day, did not see the footage until sometime later, when the TV news reporters showed him images of his students mummified in shrink-wrap. “I was like … ‘Shit. Nobody told me about this crap,'” he said, his shock and anger scarcely diminished after nearly two decades.

After vowing that hazing would never happen at his school again — a vow that he says he would never take now, because “You can’t guarantee that; that crap goes on” — he worked hard to change the school’s culture. He reached out to the community, encouraging parents to be present in the RAHS hallways during Homecoming Week. Rygh and the rest of the school benefited from what he called his “steadies” — parents who hung out in a high school every fall over four or five years to reduce the chaos. After about five years, Rygh and the community had dramatically changed a toxic aspect of its culture. Since I started working at RAHS in 2003, we haven’t had anything like the problems Rygh and his staff faced. In that respect, the school is a better, safer place. The senior girls still stay up all night braiding each other’s hair into cornrows before embarking on a procession through the main hallways on Friday morning, but the high jinks stop there. The first 1:30 of this student-made video shows the 2011 homecoming procession; the last minute and a half just shows a bunch of teachers gamely but grimly going through some dance steps during the Homecoming Pep Fest, which you should watch at your own peril.

The story has a happy ending for Nikki as well — or, as she’s now known, Nicolina Royale, former Project: Accessory contestant and current jewelry designer to the stars. She’s designed pieces worn by Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Adam Lambert, Jaden Smith, the casts of True Blood and Glee, and American Idol judges Steven Tyler and Randy Jackson. Nicolina spoke to me after I asked her to watch the video of her teenage self. “At first I didn’t think that that was my voice,” she told me, but she remembered everything else about her brief time at Roseville (she transferred to another school soon after the hazing incident). Nicolina’s decision to speak out against hazing was not well received by the student body. She had a security guard escort her from class to class, and she eventually left every class five minutes early to ensure that nothing bad would happen during passing time. “I couldn’t escape it anywhere I went,” she said, noting that former RAHS students harassed her even while she attended the University of Minnesota. On the bright side, while she was at the U of M, she did get an apology from one of her former tormentors.

Yet when recounting the “terrible, horrible” incident, she also told me, “I wouldn’t change anything about it,” and asserted, “I’m a really strong person. I stand up for myself.” When asked about what she would tell anyone who’s enduring bullying, she urged them to “think bigger than high school,” echoing a statement I heard from a couple of current students who’ve endured some torments of their own.

Nicolina was proud of the work she and her mom did to reduce hazing in Minnesota, but she wanted to urge everyone out there who’s been hurt by a bully to find someone to talk to (“even if it’s one friend”) and to remind them that “Life starts after high school.”

If students can make it that far, those are words to live by.

Addison Engelking is a high school English teacher and freelance film critic.

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