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.
Michelle is our resident “middle school expert” blogging here on Fridays. Please also check out her website, Michelle in the Middle and “like” her on Facebook.
I wish I could have seen this with you! My child was in an interesting situation recently and the most eye-opening thing to me was that every single child DID NOTHING when it happened – the child being hurt publicly and the children who watched. They ignored the situation completely and acted as if nothing happened at all and carried on with their planned activity. I couldn’t believe it. I have failed as a parent – my child doesn’t even know how to stick up for herself at all. We’ve been working on it:-) Now I plan to take her to see this film (although my hubby has issues with the fact that at the end of the day, this movie was made to make $, do you know how much $ from the film is being donated to prevent bullying?).
Jen, I’m not sure how the film makers are handling revenue, although I suspect this won’t be blockbuster for obvious reasons (well, maybe not obvious – it doesn’t draw a huge crowd because it’s a tough subject and people often want to go to the movies for fun) so it won’t make a fortune. However, I do know that the film is done in conjunction with The Bully Project, an effort to educate and provide tools to stop bullying. This is done in association with the nonprofit Creative Vision Foundation.
PS: The situation your daughter experienced is so common. When something shocking happens people (kids especially) can’t react quickly so they just don’t react. It takes time to process. Good job revisiting the situation! She probably needed to process with you! At Athena’s Path, we give girls practice responding ahead of time so when the situation occurs they have a brain and muscle memory of what to do and can be more reactive than shocked. It works!
wow – its heartbreaking to read these stories and continue to loop through my mind your comment, “this is for real”. heartbreaking.
i know all kids are different, but in general, what’s the youngest age you would recommend seeing this movie?
Brooke, I think middle school is appropriate and I suggest getting a group together for the camaraderie of it. That would make it easier to watch an possibly more meaningful to have a group experience. My concern with younger kids is that I don’t want them to fear middle school. (There are so many things to love about middle school and I hate for kids to dread going.) I think just a talk with younger kids about what YOU saw might be better. Having said that, you nailed it when you said every kid is different. Some may be able to handle younger, and some younger kids may need to wait.
Beautifully written Michelle. I love: “dispensing dignity freely”.
Planning to see it and see you on the 10th. xx
I just saw the movie and I’ve decided to home school my children and release them at age 25. The end.
See you on the 10th, it’s going to take me that long to digest all of it.
My initial thought when I heard about the movie was, do we need to see a movie to educate our children about bullying? I won’t allow my teen to watch Teenage Mom or 16 and Pregnant to help her understand that getting pregnant is not a good idea for a teen. I hope as a parent I am able to convey that message. Bullying has been around forever and will continue to be around forever and it is wrong, sad, tragic and a hundred other negative adjectives… but is a movie showcasing a handful a horrifically sad stories going to put our children in a better position to understand it, know how to react to and and hopeful help prevent it? I have not seen the movie so I may be way off base but I don’t believe the movie addresses the fastest form of bullying, cyberbullying or provides a thorough understanding of all available resources that may or may not be in a local community and how a child, parent or teacher should engage these resources. It seems to focus on how kids, teachers and other authoritative figures dismissed people’s pleas for help. Did they showcase any stories where bullying was identified, addressed and dealt with properly and had a “positive” outcome? If not, why? Providing a good example is one of the best ways to teach our kids? There are several other questions I have that make me not want to see this movie. I would rather rally our local school PTA/PTOs and make sure bullying is talked about at school and enroll kids in programs like Athena’s Path and give parents resources to reference so they can teach at home than take my child to a movie to help understand it…
I’m with you on the fact that the movie doesn’t do much to show us the light. I left feeling a dejected about that and wondering how much the theatre would charge me to run a video about Athena’s Path before or after each showing. On the other hand, the movie does something very important in opening discussions like the ones we’re having here, will have The Wine Shop, and are similarly happening across the country. The movie is definitely a catalyst rather than a solution.