By Leslie Bass, Web Associate, URJ Camp & Israel Programs
Amidst fidgeting, the crunch of popcorn and the smell of wet umbrellas, I settled in with over 135 teens, parents and educators from Central Synagogue, Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, Temple Shaaray Tefila, and Stephen Wise Free Synagogue last Monday to watch a documentary called “Bully.”
It was hard not to cringe watching Alex, a sweet 12-year-old from Sioux City, cower in his seat on the school bus, unsuccessfully avoiding blows coming from a boy twice his size. Hard not to gasp as a red-shirted tormentor repeatedly stabbed him with a pencil, erupting in laughter as Alex tried to bat his heavy hand away. Hard not to cry out as I feel an arm wrap around my plush theatre seat, arms from the school bus – my school bus – suddenly pinning me against sweaty brown vinyl.
I dreaded that morning walk to the bus stop more than I hated eating my broccoli and doing the dishes combined. He was always there before me, always waiting. The other kids on the bus knew what was happening, knew that he would follow me home, knew that I was just the latest bullseye in a long line of targets. No one said anything.
Until I did.
That day, the world seemed to slow to a snail’s pace. My mom was making dinner when I sat down at the kitchen table, nervously snapping a rubber band against my wrist. “There’s this kid on my bus,” I told her. “And he’s not a good guy.”
Once my mom’s anger simmered to a low boil, we went straight to the principal’s office. Thankfully, the leaders of my public school were markedly more concerned about the incidents on my bus than the assistant principal in the documentary. They moved swiftly; the teen tyrant was sent to an alternative learning center for a month, and his sometime accomplice was court-ordered to move back in with his mother several states away due to previous legal trouble. Relief came when I realized I could walk home from the bus without fear that he was following me.
That relief didn’t last long. Upon the bully’s return to school, the administration told us they couldn’t ban him from taking the bus. Stunned, my mother and I scrambled to convince a friend’s mom to start up a carpool. Once inside the school, I was forced to play hide-and-seek to avoid crossing his path in the hallways for the next three years, and then for another year after that when he was held back a grade.
He didn’t mess with me again, but I lived under a shadow of fear. Weekends spent sitting cross-legged by the lake with a group of accepting, open-minded NFTY-TOR friends gave way to some sense of belonging, and, after a carefree summer at Kutz Camp, I finally learned to trust my peers again. Some kids aren’t so lucky.
When the lights in the theatre came back on, I was brought back from my childhood reverie. The audience clapped as the movie night’s co-sponsors, the Jewish Education Project and the UJA Federation of New York, welcomed “Bully” director Lee Hirsch to the theatre for a Q&A.
A dark-haired teen girl in the audience raised her hand. “I’ve been on both sides,” she said. “I’ve been a bully and, more recently, I’ve been bullied. How can I be a part of the change?”
Hirsch’s response was that she was already was.
“As Jews, we are charged with tikkun olam (to repair the world). You are powerfully charged with that mission,” Hirsch said. “And so we have to raise awareness. You have to communicate using the power of your voice – be a defender, be an upstander. Take a stand.”
It’s easy to talk the talk; we all know that bullying is harmful to teens and awareness is the first step to change. We all know that this is a problem we must work together to solve. But it’s a different story when you see the look on 12-year-old Alex Libby’s face as he admits he’s been tormented so much that he’s “beginning not to feel.” Or when you hear the story of a 24-year-old woman who is still afraid of school buses. Or when bullying touches your friend, your sibling, your child.
The movie “Bully” is powerful because it puts a relatable face on the devastation, depression and fear caused by bullying every day. Don’t wait until that face is one you recognize. Take action now.
- Go see the movie.
- Sign the Coalition for Jewish Teens pledge to speak up, advocate and be a role model to combat bullying.
- Use NFTY’s resources to unpack the movie and find out how to use the power of your voice to take a stand.
Leslie Bass serves as Web Associate for the URJ Camp & Israel Programs. Originally from Austin, Texas, she was an active member of NFTY-TOR as a teen and spent six summers as a participant and staff member at the URJ Kutz Camp. Leslie graduated from the University of Denver with a dual degree in Digital Media Studies and Journalism and now lives in New York City. She tweets from @lbass2.