In my first month of college, I was in my dormitory grill waiting in line to buy a burger. An enormous lineman from the football team strolled in, cut directly to the front of the line and said “Hey, free food!” and began grabbing the order of the person who was then paying at the register. I am not a small person, but this football player was as large relative to me as the biggest kid in 12th grade is to a pre-pubescent 9th grader in the same high school. I was afraid of him and said nothing to defend either everyone waiting in line or the person whose meal was being stolen.
And then the guy next to me in line, a slightly built upperclassman, said, “Stop cutting line, get in the back and wait your turn!” I tensed up immediately, expecting the lineman to throttle him or smash his face. Instead the far-from-gentle giant looked up, paused for a moment, and then meekly put down the food he had grabbed and walked away.
In shock, I said to the courageous fellow, “What would you have done if he’d beat you up?” He responded, blandly, “Called the police and had him arrested.”
When I heard these words a pane of glass shattered in my consciousness. I was suddenly freed of the unstated, unquestioned world view I had carried in my head all through adolescence: Bigger kids take what they want and hurt who they want and get away with it.
Even though I was never personally bullied as a teenager, realizing that the brutal rules that applied only 4 months earlier were no longer in force was a palpable relief. Even that is too mild a turn of phrase. It was a joy, the joy of becoming an adult with basic rights and protections.
Sadly, it is a joy that Sladjana Vidovic and three other bullied teens who have committed suicide at a single Ohio school will never know. American adults allow our nation’s children to live under a set of rules that we would never tolerate for ourselves. If Sladjana had been an adult and been tormented as she was at school by co-workers or neighbors or strangers on the street, she would have had many routes of legal redress and active support from the adults around her.
But because we do not give our young those protections, they drop out of school, or become depressed, or retreat into drugs and alcohol, or take their own lives. The only place we tolerate such a grossly unjust situation among adults is in prison, and that’s where our acceptance of bullying has effectively put countless children in this country.