When I was eleven years old, my morning walks to the bus stop were filled with trepidation. Depending on her mood, my bully greeted me either with a false smile and cold shoulder or an arsenal of nuclear insults and physical threats. A favorite in her armory was to assert that her lackey, Jenny, would kick me in the stomach after our bus ride home. To offer such a promise in the morning guaranteed my bully that I would be tied up in a sweaty anguish all day long, while dissecting sentences in language arts or running laps in gym. These threats produced the desired psychological torment because my bully always made good on her promises; she pulled no punches.
Although I have the bile-in-the-throat memories to prove it, and can still, decades later, conjure with unnerving clarity the abuse I incurred as a child, it is not in memoriam to my personal experience of bullying (one shared by thirteen million American children today) that I recommend director/producer Lee Hirsch’s 2011 documentary film, Bully. Hirsch’s depiction of bully brutality is spot-on, and the emotional evisceration of each victim as he or she lives out personal tragedy in front of the cameras is affecting in its honesty. That said, it is in my role not as a victim, but rather as an educator, that I am most intellectually and emotionally propelled by Hirsch’s Bully. For the victim of bullying, this film serves as a heartrending and cathartic documentation of the plight of the underdog. For the educator, however, this film is a call to action.
The phrase “the bully, the bullied, and the bystander” was popularized by author Barbara Coloroso’s 2003 book of the same title. Since that time, many educators nationwide read, or were directed by their administrators to read, Coloroso’s treatise on the responsibility of adults to break the cycle of violence perpetuated when bullying is allowed to continue within classrooms and communities. In a similar vein, Hirsch uses the medium of documentary film to display the ineptitude of those in charge—most notably school administrators, but in some cases also the parents and community members—whose refusal to step in for the victim is made strikingly obvious through the ostensibly objective eye of the camera. Of course, no message is untainted by its author, but Hirsch’s hand is light and the absurd immaturity of many of the adults responsible for creating a safe space for the children and students in their charge is all but crystal clear to the viewer. In some of the stories, the adults revert to a “blame the victim” mentality, much to the chagrin of the viewer, whose empathy Hirsch has deftly ensconced with the cast of victims. In my theater, the gasps and “tsks” of the audience were audible, and the shaking of heads in disbelief over the inanity of the adults in charge was visible in the light of the big screen.
It would be easy, here, to stamp this film as yet another piece of evidence documenting the brokenness of the public school system in North America, and perhaps Bully serves this function. The bullied eleven-year-old within me agrees with this portrait of our world, one in which most of the adults remain passive as the children and youth in their charge dismantle and dismember each other in the classroom, in the hallways, on the buses. In fact, Bully truly is cinema verité, an honest picture of our failed institutions and broken communities, a rendering of the lives of those children whose worlds have been indelibly imprinted with the mark of our failure as parents, educators, administrators, and human beings. The film could stop at that message and would remain both provoking and provocative, as good documentaries should be. But Hirsch doesn’t stop there. Instead of treading water in a sea of nihilism, Hirsch pushes his audience to believe that bullying truly is a problem that, if honestly addressed, can be stopped. This is a bold move, as it would be much simpler to leave his viewers swallowing the pain of the bullied protagonists, easier to send his viewers away with the black truth that yes, “boys will be boys” and kids will be kids, and maybe the nasty and brutish life of the bullied child is just an inevitable mechanism of social Darwinism, but Hirsch doesn’t do this. Instead, his portraits of victimized youth are presented as the warning song of the canaries in the coal mines that are our communities.
To that end, Hirsch concludes Bully with a message of hope, found in images of resistance: a father who refuses to let his son’s suicide go unheralded; youth who refuse to remain trapped in a narrative of victimhood; parents who finally hear the wake-up call and attend to their child fully, for the first time. The message of hope presented in Bully does not conclude with the credits, either. Through the alchemy of cinema and the power of the Web, Hirsch transforms a passive audience into active participants in the fight to end bullying. His Web site is awash with resources for citizens and educators alike to use in their respective communities.
When the lights came up, I looked at my coworkers—high school teachers who, like me, witness bullying from the other side of the desk. Even the most stoic among them couldn’t hide the tears that escaped during the poignant moments of the film. Emotions akimbo, I thought of my newborn son awaiting my return home. A strange mixture of anger and anticipation filled me as I consider his future. What will his school career look like? With Hirsch’s characters in the forefront of my mind, my immediate reaction was to begin crafting blueprints for the underground lair in which I would have to rear my son to keep him safe from harm. And then I realized this, which is perhaps the less provocative but more pressing point of the film: institutions are, at their core, inherently violent. We do violence to ourselves and to others when we allow bureaucracy and efficiency (the necessary tools of the trade for “successful” organizations) to circumvent humanity.
Those who challenge the institutional status quo are few and far between, probably because doing so requires a lifelong commitment to one’s ideals, with almost full guarantee of failure. I think of my former employer, a principal whose goal it was to know each child by name—all 450 of them—by the end of the first week of school, year after year for nearly forty years. I think of the staff at my current faith-based school, who pray regularly for each of the students in their care. These people are whistling in the dark, a parallel to the warning tune of Hirsch’s “canaries,” but each note serves as a refusal to accept the violence done when we corral people as if they were cattle onto buses and into desks where the threat of becoming nothing more than a number—or worse, an epitaph—is all too great.
As an educator and new parent, Bully’s impact on me was understandably significant. Yet Hirsch’s message is not simply for educators and parents; he calls us as human beings to examine the violence inherent in all of our systems, and to have the courage to speak and act to end that violence. Understood in this way, Bully asks us to question our complicity in the dehumanization of our communities. In the sense that every thought and action that we undertake has the potential for violence, Hirsch directs us to understand that each of us, whether consciously or not, has the potential to be a bully. In short: understand the bully within and you can better end the bullying without.
Recognizing our shared humanity, we can see that the adults that failed children in Bully likely did so for very good reasons. Perhaps they at one time were lit with the fire to do good works, to reveal the humanity beneath the institution, to know their children better and more deeply. Perhaps the world or their jobs or the system in general wore them down. Faced with the mirror that is Hirsch’s documentary, I wonder how these real-life characters feel about the ineptitude and passivity with which they handled the victims in their charge. One can only hope that the film worked to (re)ignite their will to make a difference, to use their power to effect positive change in the lives of their children and students.
In my own life, the bullying ended not when an adult intervened (to my parents’ credit, I hid the severity of the abuse from them), but when we moved to a different state, a new school, and a healthier community. My story of victimhood ended there, and I count myself lucky. Now a high school teacher, I witness the stories of students who feel trapped in the labels placed upon them by peers and sometimes parents. It is easy from my place at the front of the classroom to feel impotent, to think, What can I possibly do to improve the lives of these kids? Yet perhaps it is not the situation, but rather the geography, that is the point here. Hirsch didn’t record the emotional catastrophe of victimization from the sidelines; he delved into the blood and gristle of the moment, moving side by side along with his subjects.
Perhaps as educators this is exactly what we are called to do: to move beyond the false anonymity inherent in the hierarchical structure offered by our institutions and into the fray where our deeply human students reside. Yes, the fray is messy, demanding, and entirely without benchmarks, percentages, and rubrics to guide our way, but it is where the heart of our vocation lies. Bully serves to remind us that if we want to be effective and affective educators, we must first and foremost move beyond the hypothetical and surrender to our vocation. In surrendering to our vocation, we necessarily refuse the violence that threatens to dehumanize our profession, and by extension harm the children and young adults in our charge. If Hirsch leaves us with one message, it is this: victimization does not happen in a vacuum; it takes a village to raze a child. The responsibility to raise that child up again rests with the individual and the collective alike; the child belongs to us all.
Works Cited and Consulted
- Bully. Dir. Lee Hirsch. Where We Live Films, 2011. Film.
- “Bully Official Site.” The Bully Project Movie. Web. 21 Apr. 2012.
- Coloroso, Barbara. The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander: From Preschool to High School: How Parents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle of Violence. New York: HarperResource, 2003. Print.