Amanda was brought into my office. She was one of the most delightful girls on campus. Always cheerful, pleasant, and helpful. She was born with a cleft palate and had the scar going from her lip to her nose as a mark of all the surgeries that had been done to correct it.
Michael was brought in next. He was a tall, athletic boy and was a goofball. Immaturity is pretty typical for a middle school boy, but Michael could have won a trophy for the amount of elementary school that was still left in him.
They both sat in two chairs across from mine. They were brought in for me to conduct a Restorative Circle between the two. Reports from students and a teacher informed us that Michael has been bullying Amanda.
I proceeded with the circle, starting with the first question “What happened?” The story that unfolded broke–nay, shattered–my heart.
The first time around the circle, both students report that nothing is going on. Everything is fine. Those are literally the words out of Amanda’s mouth. “Everything’s okay.”
As I press on, it comes out that Michael is using Amanda as a form of teasing his buddies. “She’s your girlfriend!” Then his friends would respond, “Ew! No, she’s your girlfriend!” Laughing with each other while using her name in a verbal game of hot potato right in front of her.
Surprisingly, Amanda at this point still said, “Everything was fine. They were just messing around.” Remember, she was the brightest and most bubbly girl in school.
I asked the second question of a restorative circle, “What were you thinking at the time?” Michael said he was thinking that he and his buddies were just teasing. “Doing it for laughs” was the way he put it.
Then I asked Amanda the same question.
Tears welled up in her eyes. She tried to maintain her beautiful smile, but couldn’t hold on to it any longer. She broke down into sobs. Deep, painful, gut-wrenching sobs as she told both of us how much it hurt her.
I stood up, and hit Michael upside the head repeatedly until the elementary school fell out of him.
Okay, okay... I didn’t do that.
But I really, really, really wanted to.
Instead of physically assaulting a student and losing my job in education forever, I finished the Restorative Circle. Michael witnessed what his actions did to Amanda, he apologized and made promises never to do it again. Amanda accepted his apology. And, going a little further than the circle usually requires, I made Michael promise to be Amanda’s protector out on the blacktop; from now on if any of his friends ever teased her again about the way she looks, I’m coming to Michael first to ask why he didn’t stop it.
And I used the scariest dad voice I could muster.
Mission accomplished. An injustice was mended. Amanda would never be bullied again. Right?
Of course not.
Even if I reached Michael, that is just one immature student among the hundreds Amanda will come across in her life. While that emotional moment might stay with Michael, Amanda’s beautiful and scarred face will be accompanying her for the rest of her life.
I can guarantee that she will be bullied again.
The Forgotten Front
When it comes to the war on bullying, there are two fronts that are focused on.
The first front is to change the bully.
The second front is to inspire a bystander to intervene.
Both of these make sense. The bully is the one taking the offensive action and studies prove that most bullying stops when a third person steps in. Lots of money and time are put in to rallies at school, commercials with celebrities, and PSA’s inspiring change.
That’s all fine and dandy and shouldn’t be stopped but those two areas should not be the focus in the fight to stop bullying.
There is a third front that it seems nobody is fighting on: the resilience of the kid being bullied.
We are trying really hard to change the bully and inspire the bystander, but what about helping kids become bully-proof?
Taking the Power Back
You can’t control other people. You can make requests, hope that they’ll do the “right thing,” but you can’t control someone else’s change.
It would be great if every bully had the maturity in the moment to recognize how they were making the other person feel. It would be amazing if every bystander had the courage and the social awareness to know when to jump in or stand up for someone.
But, if you really want to win the war on bullying, strengthen the side that is being attacked. Strengthen them so much that they don’t even see it as a war anymore.
There can’t be a conflict if the enemy isn’t viewed as an enemy but as a person dealing with their own internal problems.
It can’t be a power struggle when one side realizes that they are inherently powerful and nothing that anyone else says or does can take that power away.
There can’t be a bullying problem when a kid no longer sees themselves as a victim or their bully as a bully but they see two equals both struggling with flaws and imperfections. Imagine the power that would give them. How would that change their response?
This can be done by teaching every teen two things: how to process emotions and how to recognize that they are responsible for their own feelings.
No one else has an atomic feeling bomb they can drop on us whenever they feel like it. If we feel hurt it’s because we chose thoughts that made us feel hurt. That shouldn’t make us recoil that should make us rejoice. No one else is in charge of what we think, therefore no one else is in charge of our emotions.
Recognizing that gives teens true power.
You may say this is impossible or naive. I say it’s the only way to stop bullying for good in any child’s life.
After the Restorative Circle was over I sent Michael back to class but I kept Amanda behind. I told her it was okay for her to feel sad and I let her sit in that emotion until she was ready to come out.
Then I taught her where feelings come from and explained the difference between helpful thoughts and unhelpful thoughts. Then I told her about the power she had in her own brain and the light she could be to others like her.
Then, that beautiful smile came back.