Trying to process to the movie Bully is like trying to take a sip of water from a fire hydrant. There is so much to take in, and I’m afraid I’m going to make a big, fat mess before I can quench my thirst. I want to do and say so much after seeing this film. This is just a start.
First, a summary for those who haven’t seen it:
Spoiler alert, I’m about to describe a few key scenes from the movie. There is no plot to be ruined, but the impact of seeing these stories on the big screen is powerful and if you plan on seeing the movie and don’t want to diminish the shock value of these moments, skip the summary.
Bully is a documentary following the stories of five kids from different small towns across America, although each town appears very similar in terms of education and socio-economic level, both apparently very low. The downfall of this is that it will be easy for people to watch this movie and think “these people live in trailers, they’re undereducated, they don’t have the same options I do. Surely it’s not that bad here.”
The Kids Featured in the Documentary:
Tyler was 17 when he hung himself in his bedroom closet after years of being tormented by kids at his school. The film follows his parents’ journey as they try to make life comfortable for their other children after Tyler’s death and as they fight, in Tyler’s memory, for other bullied kids.
Alex, age 12, was born at 26 weeks and you can see by looking at him that he developed differently in this world. When filmed alone or with his youngest sibling he appears to be a strong and kind caregiver. But because he has always looked different, he has been treated as an outsider. Alex is repeatedly stabbed, strangled, and punched on his bus. In one heartbreaking scene, even his little sister calls him “creepy” and says she doesn’t want to be go to middle school where she will be known as his sister. At one point, Alex mumbles, “They punch me in the jaw, strangle me, they knock things out of my hand, take things from me, sit on me. They push me so far that I want to become the bully.”
Ja’Meya, age 14, is spending time in a juvenile detention facility for bringing a loaded gun onto her bus to “scare” off the kids who bullied her on the hour long ride to and from school each day. She is visited frequently by her adoring mother, and she clearly tries to stay strong but longs to go home again.
Ty was 11 when he shot himself after years of being shoved into lockers and humiliated at school. His best friend shows the film makers their secret fort, remembering nostalgically…“We could spend five hours here and it would feel like 30 minutes.” (That quote crushed me.) In a later scene we see that same friend, a boy pallbearer among five men, helping them carry Ty’s casket after his funeral.
Kelby is a 16-year old lesbian who, since coming out, has been ridiculed and ostracized by students and teachers at her school. She tells the film makers about her teacher calling role, first the boys, then the girls, then Kelby in a separate category. A group of boys in her home town purposely struck Kelby with their car as she was walking down the road.
The stories are painful and important but the most compelling moments of the film are those when we follow the assistant-principal at Alex’s school in Iowa. This woman could be none other than the strange love child of Delores Umbridge and Sue Sylvester. People in the theater with me were actually throwing their hands in the air in utter disgust at how she treated the kids in her school.
Responding to Alex’s parents when they described his treatment on the bus she cooed, “Noooo, those kids are good as gold!” In another scene she tries to settle a fight between two boys, telling them to shake hands and get past it. The bully quickly stands up straight and offers his hand for a shake. The victim cannot look him in the eye and holds out a half -limp hand just to get it over with. The AP won’t have it. She pats the bully on the back, tells him good job, and sends him on his way. Leaning in the little boy’s face she asks why he can’t be man enough to shake the other boy’s hand. Choking back tears, he tells her that every day that kid punches him and calls him a “p-u-s-s-y.” He says he can’t take it anymore. She tells him if he can’t shake hands like a man and let it be water under the bridge, he’s “just as bad” as the other kid.
You need to see it to believe it.
School and youth groups need to see it, too.
Yes, you will cry at some parts but it’s not emotionally manipulative. You can handle it and I think you’ll feel proud that you watched it. I was scared to go, but I left so glad I saw it. You will be, too.
What I Told My Kids
I needed to talk with my kids right after seeing the movie. Watching the security footage of Ja’Meya pointing her loaded gun on the bus terrified me. None of the passengers ducked! They all sat still, stunned, and just stared at her.
The first thing I told my kids: If someone has a weapon of any kind at school, tell an adult. Even if someone is joking about a weapon, tell an adult. And if you EVER see someone with a gun get on the ground.
The second thing I told my kids: I have expectations about your grades at school and I also have expectations about your behavior. I expect that if you see someone being harassed or humiliated at school, you will say something if it is safe to do so. If you don’t think you will be safe when you speak up, it is my expectation that you will go tell an adult. You have a voice and you are strong and you have every reason to be a leader.
This is For Real
After I spoke with my kids about the film, my daughter told me that last week some boys at her school were making fun of an overweight girl. They kept asking her how much she weighed. One boy asked his friend, right in front of her, how much weight she would have to lose for him to date her. “60 – 70 pounds”, his friend said. (These are 6th graders.) To her credit, my daughter said, “That’s mean.” Apparently the boys rolled their eyes at her. I asked what the girl did. “She just laughed,” she said. (Until she got home and cried, I thought.)
Last night I worked with a charismatic 8th grade girl who loves dance and math class, and whose classmates bullied her so badly she switched schools last year. But those mean girls called some friends at her new school and told them not to speak to her when she transferred in. Her main torment these days: “No one sticks up for me.”
I am working with a boy who is teased endlessly by his team mates for having a learning disability and though his parents suspect much of the teasing is “normal boy stuff”, the boy being teased can’t take the constant flow of insults without internalizing them.
A woman I met at the Bully movie has a daughter with a mild facial deformity from having cancer as a child. A boy on her school bus stood up and announced that she is a freak and belongs in a circus. When this girl’s mom approached the boy’s mom to get him to stop, his mother replied, “What do you want me to do? Send him to cancer camp?! He’s just a kid. He doesn’t know any better!”
A 7th grader brought a gun to a nice, suburban school in our district last week. Someone brought a taser to my daughter’s school.
It’s bad here, too.
Watch The Movie…And Then What?
Here are five things you can do to make an impact:
1) Set the right example. Don’t dismiss this one as obvious. It’s actually much harder than you think. We judge people, out loud, in front of our kids all the time without even realizing it. I can’t explain this any better than Rosie Molinary did in her article “And If You Care, Here’s What’s Up.” Please take a side trip and read her post to better understand how we can make our world more judgement-free.
2) Model empathy. Importantly, let your kids see you helping people who are different than you. I know you bring a casserole to your neighbor when she’s had a baby and you hold the door for the family who enters the restaurant behind you, but do your kids see you interacting with people of different races, sexual orientations, socio-economic backgrounds, religions, and weight, with or without varying coverage of piercings or tattoos? Our kids need to see us walk through life dispensing dignity freely.
3) Set expectations. Your kids should know that you are aware of what happens in school (and out, for that matter) and that you expect them to be a leader not a follower. Kids rise to the level of our expectations, not just when it comes to grades and chores, but socially as well. Give them the words to use if they see someone begin harassed or humiliated. Some options: “Cut it out.” “That’s not cool.” “Wow, you woke up in a bad mood today.” “Stop.” “Leave him alone.” “That’s enough.” “Do you need help?” “Are you okay?” “I’m sorry they said that.”
4) Give kids tools to manage their social scene. Work to change the system by requiring schools to respond appropriately to bullying situations, but more importantly, give kids tools to respond with strength and confidence to bullies. I work with schools to implement social leadership curriculum, host summer camps to help kids navigate the middle school social scene, and coach kids privately via Skype. I also recommend Soul Shoppe out of San Francisco, CA for in school assemblies that really make a difference.
5) Keep the conversation going. If you’re in Charlotte, NC, I’m organizing a meet up to talk about the film, bullying issues, and what we can do as a community to help.
When: Thursday, May 10th 6:00 pm – 7:30 pm
Where: The Wine Shop at Foxcroft, 7824 Fairview Road
Who: Whether you are a parent, a teacher, or an interested community member, let’s spend some time in good company talking about what we can do to make this right. Come one, come all. I’ll buy the first few bottles of wine and some appetizers!
Where To See The Bully Movie
The film is showing in limited release around the country. Check here for a listing near you. If you are in Charlotte, here are your options:
At Park Terrace, show times are 2:20, 4:40 and 7:00.
At Concord Mills, show times are 11:55, 2:30, 5:00, 7:30 and 10:00.