This past Wednesday, my wife and I went to Ithaca to see the emotionally charged play, “From White Plains.”
The title is meant to suggest plain white kids from a suburb. As the lights first brighten the stage, thirty-year old Dennis hears that he has won the Oscar for his film based on the bullying he and his friend faced in childhood. When Dennis reveals in front of a worldwide audience during his acceptance speech the name of the worst of the bullies whose actions led to his friend’s suicide, the drama begins.
Ethan, the former bully, sees the telecast, as does almost everyone in his life, and his smartphone lights up. Although Ethan quickly and publicly issues a heartfelt apology for his actions as a child, the fiercely outspoken Dennis is not in the least ready for forgiveness.
“Why should a two-minute apology be enough to forgive someone that caused the death of my friend and years of my own tormenting anguish?” he cries.
But Dennis’s friend, Gregory, challenges him to think about his campaign for vengeance. Increasingly sympathetic to Ethan’s pain from the unrelenting public humiliation that Dennis is leading against Ethan, at one point Gregory emotionally declares to Dennis, “It is you who have now turned into a bully!”
The plot is further complicated by the dilemma faced by Ethan’s closest buddy, John. With so much anger being directed toward Ethan, John fears that if he continues to be Ethan’s friend, those who now hate Ethan will also turn against him. Viewers of these scenes, as they watch John, an adult, struggle with this dilemma, get a vivid sense of how much more difficult it must be for kids facing the same type of dilemma whenever they see a friend begin to be targeted by others. Should they stick with their friend through thick and thin, or join with the larger, more powerful group?
I won’t reveal the rest of the play other than to say it’s very well done.
As I left the theater, I found myself thinking about my own past. At first, I vividly recalled the times that I was bullied and how I fantasized that I was Superman and used my powers to violently put all of the bullies into the hospital with broken arms and legs. And then, with angst in the pit of my stomach, I suddenly recalled an incident that occurred when I was in junior high in which I participated in bullying a classmate.
A student in my class, let’s call him Ralph, had a head that was a bit bigger than my other classmates. Another student began to pass around a sheet of paper with a drawing of a caricature of Ralph with an enormous head standing at a microphone stand giving a speech. The sheet of paper asked for signatures to nominate Ralph to be “Head of the Class.” Although I knew Ralph was watching me, I found myself laughing when the paper arrived in my hands. Not only did I laugh, I ended up signing the petition and passed it on to the student next to me, who proceeded to crack up at the site of the caricature.
After class, while walking beside Ralph on our way to our next class, I saw from his eyes and forehead that he was feeling pretty miserable. “Ralph,” I said, “we all get crap from the other kids from time to time. It’s just the stuff that goes on at school.”
“Yeah, well it doesn’t feel too good,” he replied in a choked-up voice.
“If it makes you feel any better,” I said, “well, I like you.”
With that, I felt that I had done my good deed for the day and the incident was over. The next morning, however, when Ralph showed up in the schoolyard just before the line-up bell, the kids in my class began to once again put him down. I noticed there was a girl that I knew Ralph liked standing near by. Although this time I didn’t join in on the teasing, I wanted to speak up and ask the kids to cut it out, but I didn’t have the courage. I found myself afraid that if I said anything to defend Ralph, the bullying would be turned on me. And so, feeling like a coward, I kept my mouth shut.
Fifty years have gone by, and I still feel that I hadn’t done quite enough at times for all the Ralphs out there.
As an adult, I now believe that the best hope to deal effectively with the bullying problem is to have programs at school that change the culture so that the actions of bullies signify ineptitude rather than manliness; and that sticking up for a kid who is being bullied is a sign of a real hero (see my post “BULLY” AND BEYOND).
But for those of us who went to schools that had no such programs, how are we to deal with the ruminating memories that continue to plague us years after we graduated? Can we ever forgive ourselves for the actions we committed in our youth? Can we ever forgive the kids who humiliated us? Why do some people, having been bullied as kids, turn into bullies themselves the first chance that they get? And finally, why do some people who had bullying experiences as kids instead of converting them into hate somehow manage to convert them into acts of kindness?
Over the next few weeks, I hope readers will help me to make sense of all of this.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.