"It's funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen."

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Bully and Tomboy

I saw Bully as a PD activity for teachers last week.


Maybe I've lived too long and seen too much, but it wasn't nearly as shocking as I expected to be.  It was real, though.  I could easily identify with the targets - why they laugh when they're getting hit.  I could also identify with the parents and the pain we feel at every bit of suffering our children have to endure.  But I could also identify with the bullying children who are so desperate to fit in, they'll do anything to distance themselves from difference.  Difference actually makes them angry.  We'll do anything to keep from being at the bottom of that pecking order.  It gets easier as we get older, but, for many people, not by much.  It just gets more subtle.

I couldn't, however, understand the school administrators - at all.  I hope they were made to appear horrifically incompetent, but I'm afraid they were all too real.  The fact that the principal allowed herself to be filmed dealing with these kids indicates to me that she thinks she's doing an admiral job.  People in that position don't invite a film crew in unless they expect praise, or at least understanding.  But I don't understand at all.  I don't understand why she wouldn't punish every act of violence the way it was done back in the day.  I don't understand how she could insist that a victim shake hands and "try to get along" with a perpetrator - then take the victim to task for having issues with the process.

Well, I do understand; I just don't like it.  I wish our administrators, and we teachers, were a braver, more dedicated lot willing to punish every transgression regardless the paperwork and hassle AND the fact that many strong-willed kids who enjoy the power play with a victim, sometimes also enjoy it in the office with an adult.  It's not rocket science here.  This problem is not so complex we can't solve it.  Like many huge issues of the day, we just need the collective will to say, "Enough."  But it's a whole lot of work.

"Why don't bus drivers pull over and stop when someone's acting up like they used to do?"  That's a really good question.

The film made me really proud to be in Canada in our city at our school where kids just like Alex are befriended in the halls or at least tolerated then politely asked to leave when they've clung on too long to one group.  They're acknowledged and talked to, and we know some of the kids are strikingly different, but they're no less worthy of polite discourse.  .... except when they are.

It should be noted that Alex wasn't a passive part of the dynamics.  He wanted attention.  He bugged the other kids on the bus to interact with him over and over.  Then they hit him and choked him and stabbed him with pencils, and he laughed.  He later confided, "If those aren't my friends, then what friends do I have?"

His problem isn't so much bullying as it is profound loneliness.  Reprimanding the bullies alone will not solve this problem.  They all need to be taught appropriate social skills.  And Alex needs to be overtly taught how to notice and read social cues.  It's hard for some kids to learn that, but it's not impossible.  And it didn't feel like it had ever been discussed with him.  He will never make friends without some instruction.

And I have to say, having just read Thinking Fast and Slow (and Margaret Wente's column), that we'll be remiss if we blame the rash of teen suicides entirely on bullying.  People have been bullied for decades without resorting to self-harm.  Part of the problem is that we've lost our resiliency.  Mental illness is a much larger and more insidious problem screaming for attention.  In my city, people without benefits can wait for over a year for help unless they're actively harming themselves or others.  But I can only have a limited effect on that battle.

Then I came home from all that to watch Tomboy.  (Don't watch the trailers; they ruin it!)  Some reviewers suggest it's about a transgendered kid, but I'm not convinced.  It seems to me that the 10-year-old girl sees some benefits to being a boy, and identifies, not necessarily because of an internal identification, but because boys get to wear more comfortable clothes and do more stuff.  But maybe I'm projecting.  I didn't willingly wear a dress until my late 20s.

Either way, the film is a delight. It's reminiscent of Small Change - another sweet coming-of-age film that explores an authentic and natural loss of innocence.

My son pointed out to me how much I love movies with characters who don't quite fit in.  It's true.  Movies help us connect with people we're like or who we wish we were like.  It can help to watch movies with characters who have struggled with the same things we've endured, to watch how they got to the other side and then steal their attitude or specific lines that help us traverse similar terrain.  In Tomboy, the characters get to that other side.  They figure out how to manage difference.   In Bully, we're left floating in the mess of it all - or sinking.  

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