Saturday, January 02, 2010

Book Review: Please Stop Laughing at Me...

I have done my own writing about the experience of school bullying, but that writing has often been fictional, and kept private. Such things are too painful to dwell upon at times, and in fact the writing I've done has been to get the feelings out of my system and to find some resolution to them. The author of Please Stop Laughing at Me...One Woman's Inspirational Story has taken the courageous step of laying out, in personal, first-person narrative form, her experiences with the bullying and general purpose cruelty that now seems endemic to our public school system. While I doubt the claim that Ms. Blanco is the first person who was picked on in school to write about her experiences, she is perhaps the first to detail the experiences and feelings with such detail or self-cosnciousness of bullying as a social phenomenon. It is a painful, gripping read, especially for those of us who saw more than our share of peer abuse, but very insightful nonetheless. I read it in two days, if only to get through it as quickly as possible.

I became aware of this book through Dr. OZMG who, like me, has a keen interest in the effects of bullying on young people and how it affects them later in life. My entry point into Please Stop Laughing at Me was an interview the author, Jodee Blanco, gave on the Diane Rehm Show on NPR. The interview is worth listening to, as it covers her new book, Please Stop Laughing at Us: One Survivor's Extraordinary Quest to Prevent School Bullying, which addresses what Blanco has done since she wrote the book reviewed here.

Like OZMG and me, Ms. Blanco is a Gen Xer who grew up in the Chicago suburbs. Her story as a "survivor" of bullying, though, is perhaps where I could most identify with her story. Growing up the only child in a doting family, Blanco was (and is) very much a fighter for the underdogs around her. One can argue whether such things are inborn or nurtured, but with Blanco it was most definitely a combination of the two. Teaching special-education kids as a volunteer, but also standing up for other kids who were picked on, she was encouraged by her parents to stick to her guns, but quickly found the dangers of sticking one's neck out, including insults, personal property damage, ostracism, and violence. Unlike today, 20 years ago bullying would more likely result in suicide; today, it could be a Columbine-type massacre, making the topic much more relevant and important--because it simply must be stopped.

One thing Blanco does as a writer that makes the story more gripping is writing in present tense ("I struggle" vs. "I struggled"), which puts the reader in the middle of her pains and her thoughts as she endured them, giving the reader a hint of what it feels like to be in a state of fear and not know what might happen next. It hurts, by the way.

What interested me was how similar Blanco's thoughts are to my own on the various players in her personal history and her reactions to them. A target of bullying ends up classifying people into several general groups: the bullies themselves, the victims, the neutrals (those who won't help you, but won't help the bullies, either), the disengaged adults (who know what's going on, but don't intervene or tell you to "lighten up" or "get over it"), the responsible adults (who will actively stop acts of bullying--but who are not always present), and those rare few one can count on as actual friends.

Another thing Blanco gets just right is the social dynamic that allow the groups to function as they do. Blanco's version is worth reading; my approach is to call it a "herd mentality." If one thinks of bullies as predators, their behavior makes sense. They do not go after the biggest or strongest, but rather, like wolves chasing a herd of buffalo, they seek out the old, the weak, or the small--the ones that stand out from the herd and lack their protection. The herd (the large swathe of neutrals who neither bully nor are bullied) cluster together when a victim is picked off by a predator, glad not to be the one being singled out. Others, of course, will join in on the bullying to prove that they accept the wisdom of the herd and the predators that circle it. It isn't particularly pretty--and I'd be lying if I told you I was wholly victim my entire time in elementary through high school--but it is understandable. What Blanco makes perfectly clear is how badly the outcasts wish to become part of the herd, but how the herd reflexively rejects anyone perceived to be "different" in a bad way.

I look forward to buying and reading Blanco's second book, where she details what she's doing to help schools address bullying. She now conducts full-day, three-part seminars, where she talks to the students, the teachers, and then the parents about her experiences and what needs to be done to stop the bullying process. That would prove an interesting discussion in itself. She talks about having shoes and articles of clothing thrown into toilets (been there), receiving verbal or written threats (done that), enduring taunts in the locker room (hated it), and getting chased down hallways or streets and subsequently knocked about by her peers (bought the t-shirt). How the hell you repeatedly give lectures about all that is beyond me. I'd have written the book to get it out off my chest and then called it done, but as in childhood, Blanco is a fighter for the underdog, and she has a cause. God bless her.

The good news is that Blanco's story is not all pain and doom, and her methods of escaping the pain she endured will be familiar to any "geek" who subsequently became a successful adult later. I recommend the book to anyone over the age of ten, both those who are currently enduring bullying and those who are not. Jodee Blanco has a serious message to share, and it is that long-lasting and sometimes irreparable harm can be done by willful and unthinking pain inflicted by people who are told that being picked on is "just part of growing up." This book will make you think twice about what growing up means when you're on the wrong side of the herd.

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