We tell kids these are the best years of their lives. Maybe we do our kids a disservice when we reminisce about the good old days of our childhoods. We say “Wait until you’re adults and have to face real problems.” My parents used to say these things to me. You want to see how bad life can be, they said, try being an adult. I know they were talking about hard jobs, debts, mortgages, sick children. I know they had forgotten what hell adolescence can be. At least, I know all that now. Back then, those words sometimes made me re-evaluate the whole want to grow up thing. Because life as an adolescent was hard enough.
How many of us continue heading for work every day knowing we would spend eight hours being laughed at, spat on, made jokes of, have foul language used to us and about us, told we were subhuman and deserved to be dead, hit, tripped and knocked down – and all in eyesight of the bosses who did nothing to make it stop. And then knew that when we went home our day would be on the news, for the world to see. We would sue or quit and refuse to return. Most middle school and high school students don’t have that option.
In fact, bullying begins in grade school. And with the internet and cell phones and the advent of cyberbullying, the torment doesn’t end when kids leave school. For better or worse, the online world is a part of today’s experience. Ask the adults ticketed because they just could not put their phones down or stop texting while driving. For many of today’s youth, the internet is the method of communication. And that means many of the bullied find themselves being just as tormented inside the supposed safety of their own homes.
And then there are the suicides.
Adolescence and young adulthood are times when we experience our strongest feelings and passions, while still having a minimum of life experience to draw on. Kids haven’t lived through enough disasters to know that things really do get better.
Earlier this year I had major surgery, a hysterectomy to remove a cancer in my uterus. I woke up in indescribable pain, with doctors and nurses treating it like it was nothing. My recovery took time, and as hours and then days passed, I remember being willing to do anything to have it end. Had someone walked into my hospital room with a gun and offered to shoot me to put me out of my misery I would have had to think long and hard before refusing what could be called an act of kindness. But I would have refused. Because, after more decades on Earth than I want to admit, I knew that no matter how bad the pain was, it really was temporary. As one of my favorite authors, Robert Heinlein, had my all time favorite character, Lazarus Long, say “These things pass…the trick is to live through them.”
But do people really know that fundamental rule of the universe, deep down in their guts, when they are eighteen, or fifteen, or eleven? Because those are the ages of the kids killing themselves over bullying. Those kids still believe that life is supposed to be fair, making it all the more bewildering for them that they are treated so badly. Its easy for adults to say that suicide is a cowards way out, but can we really expect these young people to have the life experience to know that? Any more than they know that …these things pass? And in the end, does it really matter what the bully’s motive was? If the victim is just as damaged, shouldn’t the perpetrator get some kind of punishment? Just wanting some amusement is no excuse for harassing others. In the adult world, we would call it what it is, harassment.
That’s why I’m with the “It Gets Better” campaign. Because for most kid, adolescence is not a fun time. A lucky few are happy, some get by, many are bored, and a startling number are damaged. Statistics say that 25-30% of kids in the U. S. are involved in bullying, either as bully or victim. And that, in spite of the recent publicity about kids being bullied because they are gay, most are not. Research says that all you have to be is “different.” Kids with emotional problems are heavy targets; they have fewer coping skills and are usually the last ones to tell anyone. Other sins that set bullies off can include being too tall, too short, first to develop or last, being skinny, fat, having an accent, or just the wrong taste in clothes – all make you a possible target. Even the sanest and most well-grounded of us can be irrevocably damaged after months and years of torment. Let’s do more for our kids. I taught Sunday school recently and learned that several youth in our church were being bullied, or had been in the recent past. In one case a child got no relief from the school, even though he was being bullied on school grounds. Teachers look the other way or don’t believe him.
It’s not just in the papers, or somewhere far away. With suicide the number three killer of youth aged eight to twenty-four, it’s time we woke up, looked around, and did more than just feel sorry after they have found the only escape available to them.