This is a repost of an article I wrote for Amy Del Rosso’s Bullying Prevention Month.
Anna is a seventh grader in a public middle school. At her school, lunch is set up so that Anna cannot sit with her group of friends; she must sit at a table with her fourth period class.
In her fourth period class, there is a bully—Eric—who has an entourage of friends: a girlfriend he doesn’t treat very well, a best friend who magnifies his misbehavior by egging him on, and a couple other kids who we’ll call Chuckles and Laughs.
Anna sits by herself at the lunch table, but is within hearing range of the aforementioned “Cool Kids.” In recent weeks the Cool Kids have decided to pick on one kid in particular—Caleb. Anna doesn’t know why Caleb is their target, nor does she like the fact that the Cool Kids bully him. She hates that no one says anything about it. She hates that she can’t put a stop to it. She feels powerless and frustrated and angry by the bullies’ behavior.
Today the Cool Kids have come up with a scheme. When Caleb gets up to put away his tray, the Cool Kids are going to dump their food into Caleb’s backpack. They are—while Anna watches—piling all of their scraps onto one tray in preparation for this act.
Anna is the only one outside their circle who knows their plan.
If Anna were a character in a story and I could write the scene, I would have her switch backpacks, so that one of the bullies’ backpacks is the recipient of the prank. The bullies would get their just desserts and decide that bullying never pays. They’d get to know Caleb better and learn that he is an awesome person who excels at strategy games like Risk and is the star goalie for his city league soccer team. They’d become friends and lunch would be something that each of them look forward to every day, instead of dreading.
But Anna is a real person, and there are real consequences to whatever she chooses to do.
If she tells Caleb their plan, she risks becoming the Cool Kids’ next target. She also risks raising the stakes for Caleb; that the Cool Kids, angry that their plan was fouled, will engineer something worse for Caleb later.
If she speaks out against the bullies, they might also turn on her. They might do something mean to Anna, if only to prove she can’t tell them what to do.
If she does nothing, the bullies are empowered; Caleb is victimized; the injustice continues.
I don’t have the perfect solution for Anna. I this wasn’t a choice she had to make. I wish that every child felt so good about themselves, that they didn’t feel the need to belittle and demean each other. I wish that every child cherished their individuality and that of the peers. I wish adults felt the same way.
But it is a real decision that kids must make on a regular basis—whether to stand up against bullies, stand up for their friends and peers, or whether to remain quiet.
Speaking up takes courage. Anna is taking a very real risk. She is risking both her emotional security and her personal safety. She is going to have to interact with these peers for the rest of the year, and maybe longer. They can make her life a living hell as they’ve done to Caleb. They very well might.
And still, I would challenge Anna and those who find themselves in this situation, to say something. Not to Caleb, or to a teacher, but to the bully. Better yet, ask them questions:
“What are you doing? Really, why? Wow, I would feel terrible if someone did that to me. Are you trying to make Caleb feel terrible? Are you mad at him? Did he do something to you? Are you sure you want to do this?”
Like a science experiment, Anna is a variable that the Cool Kids didn’t plan for. Perhaps her presence, however she chooses to express it, will change the outcome of this experiment. Hopefully, it will encourage the bullies to reflect upon their own behavior. Maybe the bullies will decide against their prank, or at the very least, miss their opportunity. Maybe Caleb will realize that other kids, like Anna, are troubled by the bullying. Maybe he will realize that he is not alone and tomorrow, he and Anna will sit together at lunch, and the next day, another person will join them. Maybe they will outnumber the bullies.
Maybe they will win.