The Phoebe Prince bullying case headlines are still trickling in up here in Boston. Recently, Governor Deval Patrick spoke out about the case, predictably blaming the parents and teachers who failed to intervene.
Gov. Patrick is outraged just like the rest of us. It’s easy to feel this way and it’s easy to point fingers, either at the kids or the adults. But I also think it’s appropriate to reflect on our own experiences, identifying the times when we were bullied and, perhaps more importantly, the times we were guilty of bullying someone else.
Where were the adults when I was a teen? Where were they during freshman initiation, when new students roamed the halls with male genitalia crudely drawn on their foreheads in black Sharpee?
Where were they when Tom, the kid with the ankle monitor, kept shoving Chris into lockers every day after gym class? Or when the jocks collectively conspired to shove Tom off the side of the bleachers during a pep rally (funny how the role of victim and perpetrator can shift so easily)?
An adult entering scenes like these always came as a sort of shock. They seemed to exist on the periphery of our world, always going about their mechanical, grown-up business, oblivious to what was really going on in the real world – our world.
Sometimes we would purposely bring them running by gathering everyone together in a big circle and chanting, “Fight! Fight! Fight!” The adults would come barreling through the crowd, bursting into the center of the ring only to discover Paul and Bob thumb-wrestling. Then we all would have a good laugh at those stupid adults and send them on their way.
We used to play a similar trick on underclassmen. We had a friend, Mike, who did a hilarious imitation of our lunch lady’s thick, New Jersey accent. Her pronunciation of the word “meat sauce” was particularly amusing. Mike used to shout it randomly at people with great laughter always ensuing. This somehow evolved into an elaborate prank in which 30 or 40 guys would slowly surround some poor soul in the Freshman hallway (why did they give them their own hallway?). Mike would start pacing back and forth, huffing and puffing and pounding his fist into his hand. The poor, trapped kid would look around, terrified of what was going to happen next. Finally, Mike would rush toward him, grab him violently by the collar and holler “meat sauce!” in his face. Everyone would laugh and then disperse.
This seemed to be a relatively harmless bit of fun (in fact the degree of its harmlessness was the main source of its humor), but the prank always needed a victim. Someone had to be the butt of the joke and, in retrospect, I have to admit that it wasn’t a nice thing to do.
This brings up a question that will become more and more important as the North Hadley case sets the precedent for bully prosecution: Where do you draw the line? What’s the difference between pranking and bullying?
I think it’s part violence (emotional or physical) and part repetition. To my knowledge, we never “meatsauced” the same kid twice. But we might have if the surprise wasn’t the heart of the joke. I doubt that I could have been prosecuted for taking part in a “meatsaucing”, but what about the times we made Freshman Tim from the track team dodge shotputs from all the starters? Or the time I helped cover Mark’s windshield in Cheez Whiz?
I don’t think any of these incidents approached the systematic and repeated hurt intentionally inflicted upon Phoebe Prince. And I’m not suggesting that we let her bullies off the hook. But as we get ready to cast our stones, it’s worthwhile to pause and reflect on our own actions – to see the bullies inside ourselves.
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