The right to be normal

I was sitting on the subway in New York last week, reading my book, pretty much in my own world, and trying to ignore the bodies that were pressed up on me from all sides, when I noticed a pale little red-headed boy, probably around eight or nine years old, sitting across from me, looking scared, and crouched up close to his mother, who had her arm around him. Neither of them were talking. Near him were two other kids, maybe age 11 or 12, who were being noisy. I didn’t really give the scene much thought.

When my stop came, the boy and his mother also got off. They were walking ahead of me on the platform, and the boy looked back with a terrified expression on his face, so I looked back too. That’s when I realized that the boy was being bullied, in front of his mother, during that 15-minute train ride, by those noisy kids. As we were getting off the train, those kids were still on the subway, but they were hanging out of the train doors, taunting the boy, yelling things like, “what you gonna do little white boy,” “you’re so ugly and skinny, I could kick your a$$,” “your mamma can’t protect you,” etc. Then the doors slammed shut. The boy and his mom were out of sight. And it was all over.

That boy was on my mind when I went this weekend to go see the critically acclaimed documentary Bully, which was released in a limited number of theaters last week. The movie, like the subway scene, was tough to watch. Weaving the stories of five bullied children into one another, the film is relentless in depicting senseless child-on-child cruelty, the suicides that can result from it, and the heartbroken parents who are helpless to do anything about it. Bully is a damning indictment of the adults — particularly school officials — in these children’s lives, who are absolutely clueless and inept in handling bullying and, in the case of a girl named Kelby, even complicit in it.

Kelby, a 16-year-old lesbian living in Tuttle, Oklahoma, is one of the five youth depicted in the film. In one scene, she explains that she was sitting in class when her teacher called roll by sex. The teacher first called the girls’ names. Then she called the boys’ names. Then she called Kelby’s name, which elicited the laughter of the students in the class. A few minutes earlier, when Kelby came into the classroom and sat at a desk, the students sitting directly next to her ostentatiously got up and moved seats.

As bad as Kelby’s story was, it wasn’t worse than Ty and Tyler’s, who were 11 and 17 when they committed suicide after being tormented, day after day, by their peers. In its first few moments, the film plays the song “Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus, which was a hit when I was a teenager and evokes that adolescent state of mind of feeling lost and worthless, a feeling that runs throughout the film, and climaxes in the stories of Ty and Tyler’s suicides.

As tragic as the bullying-related suicides are, it should be noted that they are incredibly rare. The number of adolescents (aged 15 to 24) who committed suicide (of various causes) in 2004 was 4,000. Bully estimates that 13 million children will get bullied this year. Assuming that the youth suicide rate has not drastically changed, then even if all youth suicides were caused by bullying, the number of victims of bullying who committed suicide would still amount to less than one percent of the total number of victims of bullying (0.03 percent, to be exact).

That doesn’t make those suicides any less tragic, but it does show that the fervor surrounding the anti-bullying cause — the latest addition to it being this film — is a phenomenon whose moral and political reach transcends the actual harm caused by bullying. Since the mid-2000s, it has become a moral crusade so universally lauded, as I’ve already written about, that nearly all of our leading figures on the public stage, from President Obama to Lady Gaga, from Ellen DeGeneres to the ACLU, from critics at NPR to the Wall Street Journal, are either devoting their resources to it or speaking out against bullying.