Tuesday, April 10, 2012
Bully (R then PG-13)
“I define bullying as anything that makes someone doubt their self worth.” – Kelby
I’ve been “bullied” a few times in my life. Once in the middle school locker room, once in Current Events class in high school and several times in my early twenties. I put quotes around that word because these were all remote instances. Yes, each of these events frightened me at the time but none were daily occurrences. In middle school, a teacher handled the situation. In high school, the male teacher did nothing because most of the teachers were afraid of the girl causing the trouble. As a young adult I handled the problem myself. No violence was necessary on my part. Just a well-placed threat. I mention all that to say that I understand a teensy tinesy fraction of what this movie discusses. My fear lasted a few hours. A day at the most. I can’t even imagine living with that fear on a daily basis.
What does all this have to do with anything? I’m getting to that. I saw the movie Bully last night. It wasn’t as violent as I had expected but it wasn’t as tame as I wish the world was either. I managed not to cry but during a few scenes it took all I had to not loudly express my disgust (well, that and my great fear of public attention). I realize bullies have been around forever but it seems to be getting worse. Please be advised that I talk quite a bit about what happened in the movie figuring that this may be the only way some of you hear these stories.
Following is the synopsis as submitted by the writers, Cynthia Lowe and Lee Hirsch (also the director): “This year, over 13 million American kids will be bullied at school, online, on the bus, at home, through their cell phones and on the streets of their towns, making it the most common form of violence young people in this country experience. BULLY is the first feature documentary film to show how we've all been affected by bullying, whether we've been victims, perpetrators or stood silent witness. The world we inhabit as adults begins on the playground. BULLY opens on the first day of school. For the more than 13 million kids who'll be bullied this year in the United States, it's a day filled with more anxiety and foreboding than excitement. As the sun rises and school busses across the country overflow with backpacks, brass instruments and the rambunctious sounds of raging hormones, this is a ride into the unknown. For a lot of kids, the only thing that's certain is that this year, like every other, bullying will be a big part of whatever meets them at their school's front doors. Every school in the U.S. is grappling with bullying-each day more than 160,000 kids across the country are absent because they're afraid of being bullied-but for many districts it's just one more problem that gets swept under the rug. BULLY is a character-driven film. At its heart are those with the most at stake and whose stories each represent a different facet of this crisis. From the first day of school through the last, BULLY will intimately explore the lives of a few of the many courageous people bullying will touch this year.”
Bully tells the story of 5 kids who have had to endure daily abuse from their peers and had to watch as the adults who are supposed to protect them looked the other way. Sadly, two of these stories are told by the children’s surviving family and friends. The main story is about Alex, a 12-year-old boy who has to deal with daily torment at the bus stop, on the bus and at his school in Sioux City, Iowa. Because of problems at birth he looks different than most “normal” kids. Add to that the fact that he tries so hard to fit in, the other kids find him weird and, as we all know, anything different should be feared, or in this case, ostracized. That was sarcasm folks; not my real opinion. This kid had no one his own age to stand up for him. Not one friend. Kids cursed at him, threatened to kill him, walked up and punched him, slammed his head repeatedly in to the bus seat in front of him and he put up with it every day. Why? What else could he have done?
Another story involves a Kelby, a 16-year-old girl from Tuttle, OK. What? Stuff like that happens in Oklahoma? Ummm…yeah it does. And what happened to her and the reasoning behind it doesn’t surprise me at all. You see, this young lady came out as a lesbian while in high school. I love Oklahoma. When I moved overseas I was homesick for it. Despite that fondness, I am quite aware of the fact that we are one of the Good Ol’ Boy states, not to mention being the buckle in the Bible belt. This girl did nothing wrong but she was different. In one scene she mentions walking in to class and sitting in the only seat left. As soon as she sat down every student around her moved out of their seats. I’m still curious as to where they went since there weren’t other seats available. And what did the teacher do? Nothing. Kelby had to quit the basketball and softball teams because of the bullying and was even run down by boys in a minivan as she was walking back from lunch. Why? Because she likes girls. Oh well, okay then. Again…sarcasm.
Yet another story tells of a Ja’Meya, a 14-year-old girl from Yazoo County, MS who had been pushed so far that she took her mother’s loaded gun on to the bus and used it to scare the kids who had bullied her. Not a shot was fired, fortunately. It could have been so much worse. I am in no way, shape or form condoning the fact that she took a gun on a bus but what must her life have been like that she felt the need to put that kind of fear in to other kids? And how much differently would things have turned out if she had been pushed that one little bit further and shot someone? The director doesn’t go in to as much detail with her as he does with the others so you just have to take her at her word that it had gotten that bad. A law enforcement officer did come on screen and mentioned that short of being whipped daily there was no amount of bullying that should have pushed her to do what she did. Fabulous!
The 4th and 5th stories were about two boys, Tyler and Ty, who couldn’t take it anymore and sought the only escape they could come up with at the time. They ended their lives. The ages of these boys? 17 and 11. E-L-E-V-E-N!!! Not that 17-year-old Tyler’s death was less meaningful but 11? What kind of hatred did this boy have to suffer to feel the need to permanently end it? He hadn’t even hit the rough years yet. He still had the rest of middle school and high school to go and we all know how incredibly fun that was a good portion of the time. I imagine he pictured 7 more years of the same abuse he’d already been dealing with. Wanna take a guess regarding where he was from? Congratulations, Oklahoma, for being mentioned not once but twice in this documentary. And the 17 year old? He was almost done. He’d made it through most of his pre-college academic career in Murray County, GA. What on earth was he going through that even that goal seemed unattainable?
I said that this was the story of 5 kids but there was one more. Cole attended the same school as Alex and was also bullied. Sadly, his bullying wasn’t limited to other students. He received it from the Vice Principal as well. She pulled him out of class to talk to him and when he tried to explain what had happened she told him to try to get along with the bully. And, in another scene in which the students were walking in to the school, she pulled Cole and one of the bullies aside and asked what was going on in the school yard. Cole explained that the boy was calling him names and picking on him. The VP’s response? Shake hands and make up. The bully held out his hand but Cole did not. Would you? The VP told Cole that he was the one not making the effort. When Cole finally gave in and shook the boy’s hand the VP excused the bully and kept Cole so that she could berate him some more. Earlier in the film a young boy was walking down the hall with an ice pack held to his head. When the VP questioned him he explained that another kid shoved his head against a nail that was sticking out. She looked at the spot, said, “I don’t see a hole,” and sent him on his way. Finally, when Alex’s parents went to speak with her regarding his treatment on the bus she sat there and told them that she has ridden that particular bus and those kids were “good as gold.” Are you kidding me? Of course they were! The VP was on the bus! Any time this woman spoke it seemed as if members of the audience were going to come undone. We were all so angry. During the Q and A session after the film someone asked if the VP still had her job. She does! What’s even more disturbing is this woman KNEW she was being filmed and this is how she acted. How much worse was she when the cameras weren’t rolling?
I know I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the bullies and the bullied but there is one group of people that should really be singled out. The adults. Where on earth were they? How were your children treated like this day in and day out and you didn’t know? Now, that’s not a fair question but I know other people are going to ask it. In Kelby’s case, her parents knew what was going on. They told her they’d move out of Tuttle to a bigger city where she’d be more likely to fit in. She chose to stay despite the daily obstacles because she didn’t want the bullies to win. But, back to my question. Where were the parents? Why didn’t they know? Other than a couple scenes in Alex’s home, we don’t really hear about what the parents did to get their kids to talk to them or IF they even did anything. The VP mentioned above wasn’t the only adult I got angry with. Alex’s parents didn’t thrill me either. Let me take a minute to say that the director was with this family for about a year. There’s no way we can know what else went on in that house but in these two scenes the parents were not made to look good. It almost seems as if the bullying was continued at home. At one point the dad told Alex he needs to take care of his problems so that it doesn’t trickle down to hurt his siblings. His sister said that it’s already affected her and that the kids pick on her because he’s weird. The dad didn’t say a word in his defense. Come on, man! If children were meant to fight all their own battles we’d be set loose as soon we could walk and feed ourselves to make our own way in the world. But that’s not how human life was intended.
What, or more to the point, who, finally got Alex the attention he deserved? The director. Lee Hirsch. The last day Alex was attacked on the best was too much for Lee. Legally he couldn’t touch the kids but he had in his possession a means to display to the masses what Alex was going through. He showed the school administrators. He showed Alex’s parents. Where would Alex be today if not for Lee’s choosing him for this documentary? I can tell you where he isn’t. Sioux City, Iowa. His parents got him away from that state. Where did they go? Looks like Oklahoma’s going to be mentioned a third time. Yup. That’s right. I do get to say something nice about my beloved state. I can’t remember if they told during the movie what school he currently attends or if it was brought up during the Q & A so I’m not going to mention it here. I will say that when asked why this school district was chosen, Alex’s mom answered, “Any place where people lie to get their kids in to the school district must be a good place.” So true.
I realize this “review” has been long but I felt it needed to be said. Because of the rating most kids won’t be allowed to see Bully. It was rated R for language – and there is a LOT of it – but it’s been lowered to PG-13 with the emphasis that kids under 17 shouldn’t be allowed to see it. Excuse me? That’s basically the same as keeping it rated R. I was appalled by the cursing and strongly believe that the words could be bleeped out and the point still be made. There is still so much hatred spewing from the kids’ mouths that the absence of the F-word won’t hurt the message of the film. Alex’s mom brought up a good point. She said that if the powers that be keep the rating as R and make a big deal about kids not seeing it, a lot of kids are going to find a way to go anyway. But! Most kids will have to deal with any emotions themselves that this brings up because they know they can’t go to their parents with questions if they were forbidden by them to see it in the first place.
I get that many of you won’t want your children to see this due to the emotional stress and the language but I encourage you to sit down with them and explain your reasons instead of just telling them they can’t go and leaving it at that. More than that, I encourage you to either take your kids to see it or encourage the school system to show it. I don’t believe that any child should be allowed to watch this by themselves. I want so badly to say that only children of a certain age should see this but while reading the production notes on the Bully website I discovered that in looking for kids to film they heard about a 9-year-old boy who hung himself in the school nurse’s office. Obviously this is affecting young kids as well. I told my sister, Armat, about it and suggested she go watch it first and then decide if PT (her daughter) could handle it. At the very least parents could go to the movie and then sit down with their kids and have a nice, long chat.
For more information on Bully please click here.
I apologize if, at any point, it sounds like I’m telling you how to parent your children. That was not my intent. I just know that I never want PT to have to go through this. On either side of it. I don’t believe she would ever bully someone but I bet there are a lot of parents who feel the same way about their kids, nieces, nephews, grandchildren. You get the point. I do believe that if something happened to her or her best friend, or anyone in her daily walk in life, something would be said. Thank goodness for that. If you’ve never met my sister you don’t know the avenging force she becomes when her daughter is threatened in any way. And that’s how it should be.
P.S. Some of you may be wondering what my parents did when I was picked on. The answer? Not a thing. Why? Because I didn’t tell them. What would they have done had they been informed? Please see what I wrote about my sister above. My cousin sometimes says that, “God protects the stupid.” In my case, this was so so true.