I actually didn’t want to blog about this. Partially it was because the Phoebe Prince story has received so much attention in the press. Partially it was because the subject is very personal to me and I don’t like to get too deep into myself here. I think, however, that even if only a handful of people read this, it might help.
Today, nine teenagers from South Hadley, Massachusetts pleaded not guilty to charges that ranged from simple assault to statutory rape. 15-year-old Irish immigrant Phoebe Prince, trying to fit in, was instead bullied mercilessly by this group of fellow students from South Hadley High School. She wasn’t just in a new town; she was in a new country, a place that has very different cultural practices and expectations. All it took was Phoebe catching the attention of a very popular senior football player. She dated him briefly and instantly drew the hatred of the popular group.
The advent of cell phones and the internet have made bullying much easier these days. At school, members of the in-crowd knocked her books out of her hands, threw all manner of objects at her (ranging from paper wads to small books and half-filled soda cans, which I can tell you from experience hurt when they hit you) and singled her out for verbal taunting in front of everyone. When I was a kid, it would have stopped there because we didn’t have the high-tech devices that are around now. Phoebe literally couldn’t escape. They sent her text messages, posted on her Facebook and Twitter pages, and sent emails. When I was a kid I could go to my room, pick up my guitar and mentally travel to a better place. Phoebe couldn’t do that.
I was always the ass-end of someone’s joke. I grew up going to different schools; consequently I never really had time to make friends. From a young age I was always a loner because I didn’t know how to act. I can still remember the sixth grade at Brookhaven Middle School, where bullying reached a new level. I remember a girl named LaTonya hated me with a passion I did not understand. I remember other popular girls who didn’t like me stoking the issues by telling LaTonya that I’d said things that I hadn’t said (particularly that I’d called her names, and when confronted with their lies the only response was some giggling from Marcia and Tara and a shrug from another girl named Allison).
That year was so traumatic for me that my parents decided to hold me back. I repeated the sixth grade at CD Landolt Elementary in my hometown of Houston. I’ll never forget Eugene Klimczak and Danny Sugasti; I spent two years in two different schools with them, and they were as cruel as they came. At Webster Intermediate School, the bullying became so intense that I became despondent and talked about suicide and I spent a month in an institution. It got out somehow, and within two days after I went back to that school the taunting started anew. Only this time they had a different kind of ammunition. I followed that at a private Christian school, Pine Drive Baptist. I was taunted there, too.
I was bullied at church. Nathan Hutchison, Jared Schorr, his sister Erin, Kelby Dennard – I still remember all of their names. Back then my family went to Grace Community Church. Most of the kids who bullied me at church were the kids of the heads of church leadership. Our youth pastor, Randy Woolstrum, did nothing to stop it. Even when those same people bullied other kids in the youth group, particularly at camp, Randy did next to nothing.
What turned it around for me were the few who accepted me, loser status and all. Kelly Henning became my best friend. Until he was diagnosed with cancer, Kelly was labeled a troublemaker, particularly for his penchant for getting back at the bullies. It was always the ones that were on the fringe, who weren’t accepted by the in-crowd (or just chose not to mingle with the in-crowd, such as Jennifer and Jeremy, who both to this day have hearts of gold) who gave me a reason to question what was going on. Home life wasn’t easy. Church could be a nightmare at times. School was absolute misery. It’s no wonder I grew up, got piercings and tattoos, played in hard rock bands and started trying to find the most dangerous job I possibly could.
The difference between Phoebe Prince and I was that I had an outlet, an escape. I also wasn’t completely hated. Even if the adults in my life barely did anything there were others who did. The mother of one of the girls charged with stalking Phoebe has incredibly defended her kid by saying that she never physically harmed Phoebe, as if that absolves her.
Which brings me to my final point. I don’t believe in legislating against hate. I’m not sure how I feel yet about legislation aimed at bullies because there hasn’t been enough of it for me to review. I believe with all my heart that stopping bullies starts at home. I will never understand how some parents allow their kids to gang up, lure a classmate to their home, and watch while they viciously beat her – then allow them to upload the video footage to YouTube. That has happened more than once. Some parents have even helped.
That would never have flown in my home. My parents were never perfect, but discipline was paramount, and if I’d been caught bullying rather than being the victim, I’d have paid dearly for it. There is no way my parents would have allowed me to behave in such an uncontrolled manner. If parents would stop thinking their kids are perfect, stop buying them video games and start pushing their kids to excel at school rather than surfing the web, we might actually find all that tolerance that liberals are demanding. Schools and churches bear some responsibility for intervening, but at the end of the day, the biggest responsibility rests entirely on the shoulders of the parents. You cannot allow your child to torment another soul and get away with sloughing the responsibility off on someone else simply because your kid swears they didn’t do anything. Joni Hutchison should have learned that lesson long ago, but she believed Nathan did no wrong, even after he beat me until I had bruised and bleeding welts all over my body. Were I to see him today, I might very well “nail him” as he tried to claim to my mother that day. When that’s your main childhood experience, it stays with you.
In the case of Phoebe Prince, I blame both the kids who knew better and the parents who allowed it. When the term “bully-cide” becomes an accepted term in the American lexicon we’re in a sad state, indeed.