I just watched the ten-minute video going around of a few kids on a school bus taunting a bus monitor mercilessly. She starts to cry within the first minute or so, and they just keep going. I made myself watch the whole thing, although it was hard, because in those first few moments I recognized something. I recognized an amplification of what I saw other kids do, and what I even engaged in to some extent, when I was in middle school and high school.
It’s easy to watch this video as an adult and be horrified by the cruelty of the children. It’s harder to remember back to being a child and admit to yourself that you’ve done similar things to other adults. To remember that those adults were people like you are now, and to think of what that must have meant to them.
And so, I’d like to apologize.
I’m sorry to my sixth grade science teacher. Not because I did anything to him directly, but because I had a crush on and thus egged on the class troublemaker, who one day overflowed the sinks and got the teacher so mad that he threw a test tube onto the ground and was fired.
I apologize to my eighth grade math teacher, the third teacher in one year to have to try to deal with my class after the first quit (had a nervous breakdown? I don’t remember). I don’t remember his name. We called him Jesus. He had long hair and a beard, and obviously hadn’t done much teaching before, and we were ruthless. For some reason I particularly disliked him. I’m sorry for organizing a book drop that one day, and for being the kid who would stare at you wherever you went in the room while we were supposed to be working. I’m sorry for cruelties whispered and passed in notes that I’m sure you weren’t oblivious to.
I’m sorry to the boy past whose house we would run every day on the way to the bus stop because we’d decided that he had somehow infected it. I’m sorry for the time I brought in an Oreo with filling made of cream cheese and toothpaste for April Fool’s Day and gave it to someone who gave it to someone who gave it to him. I may never have been directly mean to him, but I didn’t do much to be nice, and he ended up transferring schools.
I’m sorry to my high school physics teacher, who had never taught before and whom we frankly disrespected. I’m sorry for plotting with the other kids to derail lessons when we realized how easy it was to get him to go on tangents; for the manipulations we would pull to get him to answer test questions on the board; for casual insolence and sarcasm; and for my one misguided attempt at standing up for myself at his expense. I knew better, and I used my cleverness and my position in his class to point out the holes in every new attempt to impose discipline instead of helping to keep my classmates in line or even just helping them to see that we were talking to and about a human being.
Why are kids cruel? People blame their having not yet developed morality, their brain development, their limited life experience. Based on what I remember, it was about power. So much of childhood was about not being in power–not being able to transport yourself somewhere, to pay for what you wanted to do or buy, to decide your schedule, even to pick what you learned about and how. A chance to take back power from an adult was welcome. A chance to build myself up in the eyes of my peers–to get a laugh out of them, to seem cooler, to not be perceived as the straight-laced teacher’s pet goody-two-shoes–to break out of the “smart kid” mold so they could see that I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, be contained in one stereotype. Or, more likely, to try to change my stereotype to something closer to class clown and rebel than nerd.
At the time, I remember thinking that adults who came in unprepared to deal with us somehow deserved what they got. Have a backbone, I thought, learn how to laugh things off and how to relate to us and how to scare us just enough to keep us working. I didn’t know how much that was asking of a teacher, who is a performer and educator and improviser and disciplinarian all at once. I thought that all teachers (all adults, really) had tons of training, had wanted to be teachers their whole lives, had been internalizing lessons about how to be effective from a young age. I had no idea how hard it must be to stand up in front of 25 kids all waiting for you to fail, all watching for one slip of composure. I had no mental image of the lives of our substitutes, who we ridiculed and teased or pulled pranks on or completely disregarded. I never thought of what it was like to be them, and I was someone who spent the good part of her time imagining what it was like to be other people.
Now I’m someone who has struggled with being an adult and dealing with other people herself, who had a hard time with a waitressing job and has been in nervous breakdown mode before, where washing the dishes seems overwhelming. I can’t imagine facing a hostile class under those conditions.
Watching that video, it’s clear to me that these kids are performing for each other, trying to raise themselves in the eyes of their peers by tearing this woman down. It’s a one-sided game of The Dozens, made easy because no one ever lands a hit on you or threatens you with anything that could hurt you. One of the kids sounds about eight years old, and you can hear the eagerness in his voice to be as cool as the others, to be included in this. They’re so caught up in who they are, they’re completely missing who Karen is and what the things they’re saying might mean to her. The ironic thing is, I would bet they’re all trying so hard to be cool to each other that none of them really registers how cool the others are. It probably seemed to each of them that the other kids were secure in their positions in the group, and they were the one who needed one more zinger, one more barb a bit meaner than the last to lock down their place, even if that place was at the top.
Does that make it okay? No. These kids should learn–should KNOW–that this behavior is unacceptable. They should know that it makes them smaller people, and that bullying is a position of weakness. They should know, or should be taught, that continuing to act this way to other people will lead them to a life of sadness and insecurity and loneliness and anger. Maybe they’ll learn it on their own. What I want, however, is just to point out that these kids aren’t remarkable. For everyone who sees an example of bullying like this and thinks, Wow, how horrible, what has happened to kids these days, I want to say: Kids are kids, and if you don’t remember doing this at one point, in some manner, or standing idly by while someone else did, you’re not being honest with yourself.
It’s ugly. It’s also who we were, and had some bearing in who we are. And it’s what we can hope and try not to be, and not to let our kids be.