I do a lot of pretty random stupid shit thinking that I will write about it. Most of my activities turn out to be useless, though there’s always the idea that I could hit upon something so I live in this constant state of expectation that’s not as exciting as it sounds and is actually mildly depressing. This is because the pretense of adventure, day in and day out, when hardly anything actually ever happens eventually wears on you, especially when you are not rich. As much as one tries to tell oneself that things are being accomplished, such encouragement is no match for the more persistent mantra which goes something like this: Hey, you’re an idiot. Get a job. Oh. Wait. You are unemployable. Okay. Well. You’re just an idiot.
As I park my car one Tuesday afternoon at an elementary school in the small northern California town where I live, this is the running commentary my head, and I'm so used to it, it has little effect on the reasonably good mood I seem to have been maintaining now for well over a month. (I credit a combination of meditation, decreased alcohol consumption and lowered expectations.) I have to park on the street because the last guest spot, amidst a grove of towering cedars, is being taken by an older woman in a Subaru. I live in a county whose Indian name quite possibly translates to “sacred land of older women in forest-green Subarus” but from the way she fixes her eye on me it's clear she thinks it might translate to “playground for middle-aged women in bright-red Toyotas.” I'm here because my friend’s daughter, Caroline, was assigned to count the insults on a television show and present her findings, and since I'm interested in both insults and television, and I helped her count, I thought this would be an interesting class to attend. Or that it would be more fun than actually writing. (This in loop with the idiot mantra.) I can tell this woman is wondering why I'm here, but I do not wonder the same about her. This conversation isn’t part of the regular class. It’s some kind of program. It has a facilitator, and that's her.
I go to the office to sign in and her name is already in the book, Linda Something. She stands in the corner of the room, her arms at her sides, mild, unsmiling. She has short gray hair, and wears jeans, a ski jacket and no makeup.
“So we just sign in and, like, wait?” I say to her.
“That’s what I always do,” she says, frowning impatiently as if I'm asking a ludicrous question, as if neither of us have ever been in an elementary school with security befitting a state prison. “What are you here for?”
“Well, my friend’s daughter, well, I guess the kid is actually my friend too, had a homework assignment where she had to watch TV and write down all the insults. And I was like, oh, that is so fascinating. And so I wanted to check it out.”
“Put-downs,” she says. “We had them count the put-downs.” Indeed, she is a volunteer for some program which has a name I will not print but which is something like Gateway to Kindness, or Paths to Friendship, or Roads to Understanding. She has a partner and he isn’t here yet.
“So you just came to watch?” she says.
“I'm a writer,” I say. “I was thinking I might write about it.”
I never know who is going to be thrilled by this and who is going to be wary. She is wary, which always impresses me as the correct response. She says nothing and we just stand there, listening to the clean mechanical vomit of the copy machine. Two little girls come in—they are somewhere between six and ten—and tell the secretary they found a pair of glasses on the playground. She says, “Aren’t you good girls?”
My aimless gaze eventually finds its way to a pendant around Linda’s neck. It’s an odd shape, like a boomerang with one fat side and one thin side.
Linda holds it out. “It’s a bear,” she says, and I see that the fat part is the body, the thin part the neck. She tells me it’s a Yuni symbol for something—peace? Happiness? There’s a star on it and something that looks like a graph of the value of a volatile stock but is actually lightning. “People always think it’s a gun,” she says.
“Really?” It is mystifying to me that anyone would think that.
Now a man comes in. They greet each other warmly. His name is Efrain; he's perhaps slightly younger than her, and he has a ponytail. She tells him who I am, kind of out of the side of her mouth, as if she were preserving the front of it for saying something more interesting. He turns to me with all the enthusiasm that she lacks. “So,” he asks, rubbing his hands together, “how many put-downs did you get?”
“I think about 25.”
“Twenty five!” He sounds delighted. I’m wondering why they don’t ask me what show it was. That would so be my next question. Something about the fact that it is not theirs momentarily inflames me. (If you understand this, please call me. We can be friends!) But then Efrain asks me what I thought of the assignment. As Efrain has been so kind as to furnish me with my absolute favorite thing in the world, an open-ended question, I feel I can reward him with nothing less than a thorough answer.
“Well, first I just thought at first, wow, that is so interesting, and I also thought it would be fun to have something to do while watching TV, because I always have stuff to say, and that’s not really allowed. So I was like, 'P-roject!!!' Remember when Alicia Silverstone says that to Stacey Dash about Britanny Murphy in Clueless?” Neither of them have seen Clueless. “At any rate. I really noticed how many insults were on TV when I was watching 'Hannah Montana,' because I had to interview Miley Cyrus, who is weirdly kind of spiritual, and smart, but how the sarcasm was just constant, and how it was surprising to me that Disney totally presents themselves as this very positive company, but that the show was so dependent on this really kind of cruel sarcasm, which is used to make kids look powerful. But watching insults employed on a more sophisticated show made me think about the use of argument in narrative, and how when the arguments got more intense it meant that the writer was having trouble advancing the story…”
The school secretary hands Efrain a pile of copies. “These are so warm!” he exclaims, then turns to me. “Sorry. Just give me a minute.”
I give Efrain his minute, and when he and Linda walk out of the office, I trot alongside him as if I were the golden retriever on “Downton Abbey” and he, Lord Grantham. (Whenever someone walks away from a conversation with me, I manage to convince myself that it is only because they are confused, and I need merely make myself clearer, explain further, to bring them around to my way of thinking, and, more importantly, to adoring me.) “I guess what I’m saying about insults is that it’s interesting to see that when the plot slows down, the insults do too. Which makes you realize how much the evolution of relationships, and even history itself, has to do with people finding fault with each other. I mean, this is obvious, in a way. But it’s amazing to me that when the story gets bad or kind of fuzzy, that the insults get less creative. At least in drama. Now in comedy—”
Efrain interrupts me. “But don’t you see how put-downs could be harmful? How put downs could be bad for kids?”
“Oh! Harmful. Yes. Of course. Of course, harmful, and bad. For kids. Of course it is horrible when people… uh, insult… uh…people.” That’s not what I said. But I mean, that’s basically what I said. And then, because I feel that when you alienate people the only chance of creating any kind of connection with them is being completely honest about why you have fundamentally different values, added that not having children tended to give me a counterintuitive approach to what was good for them and what was not and that of course I thought kindness and respect were very, very important, of course, but I also thought put-downs were obviously just part of how people lived, weren’t they? And I wondered what kids had to say about them.
Efrain looked at Linda and Linda looked at Efrain. They looked puzzled and sad. I really hoped they weren’t going to ask me to leave. We had five more minutes to wait for the kids to get back from recess, and I’m not sure quite how I did this, but I managed to steer the conversation to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. They were both so pleased that I was interested in death, and Tibet, and I successfully resisted the urge to admit that a. I had never actually read this book and b. That I was really only interested in death.
Caroline is the last fifth grader back from recess, and she hugs me. She is still young enough for that. I love to hug her. She is silky and adorable. I say “I love you, okay?” and she says, “Ooooookay,” in this sort of disappointed tone, which is our little thing. She introduces me to her friends and I hear them whisper that I am pretty-pretty, but not as pretty as Caroline’s mother, which is certainly true. “I left my list of insults in my mom’s car,” she says. I assure her I have them on my phone.
The teacher directs me to a green office chair in the back of the room. Linda and Efrain get to work. They are both extremely mild mannered. Efrain says “listen up” a lot. Linda just keeps saying, “I don’t have the loudest voice so please listen.”
All the kids are looking at me. I remember when random adults came to our classroom, and how strange and unsettling their presence was, like seeing a mountain lion in a city park. I wish they’d introduce me, but I’m not going to introduce myself.
Linda and Efrain ask how many kids did their put-downs. Caroline is among the six or so out of thirty who did. Someone got 10, someone got 20, somewhat got 52. Efrain says, “Wow, that’s a lot of put-downs!”
But we don’t even talk about the put-downs. Apparently they are behind in their curriculum, and there’s no time. I digest my disappointment as the lights go down, and a transparency goes up:
Refusing bullying safely
These things might make it unsafe for you to refuse bullying on your own:
The person bullying you is older.
More than one person is ganging up on you.
You have no friends who can help you.
No adult is nearby.
You feel trapped.
Remember: anytime that you don’t feel safe, get help from an adult immediately.
Ask yourself: Is it safe for me to refuse by speaking out?
Efrain, pacing in front of the room, occasionally smoothing his ponytail, presents a situation: Ronda is being picked on by Sarah and Jolene. (I'm intrigued that one of the bullies has the same name as me and another the name of the woman who steals Dolly Parton’s husband in the country classic “Jolene.”) “I’m going to be Ronda,” Efrain says, and the kids give the obligatory laugh that goes along with mild gender confusion. “And I’m going to go through the checklist. ‘Are the kids bullying her older?’ No, they’re not older. ‘Is it more than one person?’” There are a few murmurs but Efrain answers his own question, “Okay, yes, it is more than one person, so I go to the next question. ‘Do they have any friends nearby?’ Yes they do! ‘Are they any adults nearby?’ No, there aren’t, but is she trapped? No, not really.”
He continues: “Okay. Now, I’m going to show you how Ronda might check her feelings. I am going to think out loud so you all know what I am thinking, okay, class. I am Ronda, and Sarah and Jolene are bullying Ronda. Now, I am going to check my feelings as I talk to Ronda.”
“You are Ronda!” Before this was funny, now everyone is like, dude you are fucking Ronda, remember you signed on for this shit?
“Oh right, right. Sorry. Ok. Yes. I am Ronda. Checking my feelings. No, not older, not bigger, more than one, yes, no adults, but hmmm, well, I’m not really feeling unsafe.”
Now Efrain squares his shoulders and shouts, pointing his finger. “You’re bullying me. Please stop.”
Then he looks at the class. “Did I say ‘stop’?”
They confirm that he did.
“Did I say ‘bully’? Did I give it a name?”
“Alright,” Efrain says, “Now, I turn back to Sarah and Jolene. I say, ‘Hey, see you later, guys,’ his tone is confident, almost flip, like Sarah and Jolene are stupid whores who are going to go to community college while he gets a full ride to Sarah Lawrence, just for being awesome, and will then go on to marry a senator’s son who is also a hot black actor. He turns back to the class. “What’s the very last thing you do?”
“Walk away,” someone says.
“That’s right,” Efrain says. “You walk away.”
As this is going on, two boys directly in front of me turn around and stare at me, whisper, repeating this action several times. One of them has messy red hair and a plain flannel shirt, the other one has a bowl cut and if Hallmark Channel ever does an adaptation of Tom Sawyer he should audition.
“Can I ask you a question?” Plaid Shirt smirks at me. “Why are you here?”
“Yeah,” says Tom Sawyer. “Why?”
He looks mad.
“I’m here because you guys are both in really big trouble.”
Each looks accusingly at the other. Suddenly someone thrusts a piece of paper at me. It is addressed to “To the adult in the corner.”
I open it. “You can leave if you want. Love, Caroline.”
She's looking at me anxiously. I wave to her and mouth, “It’s okay.” We give each other a thumbs up.
I turn back to the redhead and Tom Sawyer: “Hey, I have nothing to do with anything here. Less than nothing. Like if I told the teacher you were in trouble, I’d be in trouble.”
They brighten considerably and turn around. They don’t look at me again.
“Now we’re going to do role playing,” Linda says as she hands out little slips of paper. “One of you is the one being bullied, one of you is a coach they go to for help. The slips of paper let you know what you’re being bullied about.”
I visit Caroline and her seatmate. His name is Andrew. He looks like a nice solid person, and he has dark eyes and a great smile. If he were 45, I would probably try to go out with him and the fact that I don’t mention this to him is what I believe is often referred to as personal growth.
Andrew unfolds the slip of paper in his hands and reads it to Caroline: “You’re too short to play kickball.”
Caroline looks at me. “I don’t know what to say because I’m not short.”
“Ok,” I say. “That seems reasonable.” I don’t understand this either.
“I’m not short,” she tells him.
“You’re not supposed to say that,” Andrew tells her. “You’re supposed to say, ‘Stop bullying me,’ and walk away.”
“Stop bullying me,” Caroline says, and, not getting up from her chair, pantomimes a walk. She smiles shyly into her hand. “I just pretended to ‘walk away.’”
“Are we done?” Andrew asks me, and because I know he will actually take my word for it, I tell him yes and good job.
I ask, “Are you guys friends?”
Caroline considers Andrew. “We’re sort of friends.”
“We get along,” he says.
“Yeah,” says Caroline. “We get along.” I wonder what they’re not telling me. One of them’s got to be more popular than the other one. One of them’s got to be more interested in the other. But perhaps they are just both mildly interested. That’s what it seems like. There is not much energy between them, good or bad.
“Does anyone ever bully you?” I ask Caroline.
“Not really,” she says. “I am just not that nerdy of a kid.”
“What about you?” I ask Andrew.
“No. I'm too big.”
“What would you do if someone did?”
“I don’t know,” Caroline says, “Because they wouldn’t.” Andrew seems to be trying to imagine being bullied and failing. He shakes his head and shrugs.
“What would you say to someone who said you can’t play kickball?”
Caroline says, “I’d just say, ‘Shut up, I’m playing.’”
Andrew nods. “Yeah. And it would never happen.”
“Would you ever say to anyone, ever, ‘stop bullying me’?”
They look at each other. Andrew says no, he wouldn't. Caroline adds, “You’d sound really stupid.” She points to two girls behind her that she introduced me to earlier. “Go talk to them.”
One of them has golden hair and one of them is blonde. The blonde one is cautious and cynical, the golden-haired one is guileless and sweet.
“Who are you?” the blonde demands.
The golden-haired one asks, “Are you going to like, report on how we’re doing?”
“Oh God, no,” I say, “Not even close.” In an attempt to convey that I have literally nothing to do with the world of punishment and rewards that they currently inhabit, I add, out of laziness more than anything else, “I’m totally cool.” This is a mistake, because even though the golden-haired one seems not to have heard me the blonde one actually makes a face. Then she says, “This is boring.”
“Just read the thing,” Golden whines impatiently.
Blonde reads it without expression: “I heard that you cheated on a test.”
Golden opens her mouth and closes it. She looks like she might cry. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say!”
“I know,” Blonde says, also whining. “Why would there be a coach in the class?
Linda is flagged down. She explains to us that it’s not a real coach, like a sports coach, it’s like a bullying coach. “So one of you is the victim. And the other one helps coach the victim through being bullied, by taking them through a check of their feelings, okay?”
“Okay, let’s read the thing again,” says Golden.
“Oh God, don’t make us start over,” Blonde whimpers.
Golden shouts, abruptly, “‘Stop, that’s bullying.’ Okay, now we’re done.” The two of them just sit there quietly.
“Do you guys ever get bullied?”
They both nod.
“What do you do about it?”
“I don’t know,” says Blonde.
“Nothing,” says Golden.
Another transparency is put up.
Stand or sit tall
Hold your head high
Look straight at the person doing the bullying
Say clear strong words that mean stop
Label it: that’s bullying
Now they're supposed to role play using their assertive behaviors.
A girl and a boy go up. “You’re too short to play kickball,” the boy says.
“Don’t call me short, it’s not nice,” says the girl and laughs. Then she says, “Stop, that’s bullying.”
They stand there, blinking at the lights.
“Did you feel safe?” Linda asks.
“I guess so,” the girl answers. “I mean he’s my friend.”
“You said ‘stop,’ and you labeled it: ‘That’s bullying.’ Good job,” Efrain says.
They sit down, arguing over which of them is taller. Tom Sawyer and the redheaded kid go to the front of the room.
“I heard you shoplifted this summer,” the redheaded kid reads from his slip of paper.
“I did not, and I can prove it, because I was just eating cereal,” Tom Sawyer shouts. “And you’re a hobo!”
Everyone laughs. Linda and Efrain even chuckle good-naturedly. But then Efrain says, “But what would you really do?” Tom Sawyer makes a big show of standing up tall which he must know is kind of funny because he’s actually short. “Stop it, you are bullying me,” he says. Then he lets his body go slack. He bows, then sits down.
“You labeled it, you said ‘stop,’ you stood up straight,” Linda says, “Good job.”
“Very good,” Efrain asks. “Any questions?”
“Yeah,” someone shouts. “What do you do if someone calls you a hobo?”
“Is that a serious question?”
“Yes, I want to know what to do if someone calls me a hobo.” A pause as Efrain looks very mildly annoyed. “Okay. It’s not a serious question.”
“Hobo,” someone shouts.
Efrain pitches his voice over the laughter. “To recap, what did we learn today about avoiding bullying?”
They obediently singsong off the various lessons:
Ways to Avoid Bullying
Stand or sit tall
Hold your head high
Look straight at the person doing the bullying
Say clear strong words that mean stop
Label it: that’s bullying
“You can refuse to be bullied,” Linda says.
“Yeah. And you can say ‘I’m not a hobo!’”
“Yes,” Efrain says, “You can absolutely say ‘I’m not a hobo.’”
In the last two minutes of class, they return to the TV shows. Linda tells them, “Next week, we're going to discuss what people on your shows did when they got bullied.”
Caroline looks at me and claps. We watched “Lost,” and Kate, the character who happened to get bullied the most on this particularly episode, managed, by only the slightest manipulations, to watch her bullier die of a space-time-warp cerebral hemorrhage, right in front of her.
As the kids pack up to go to the library to research the Maidu Indians—who inhabited this area from roughly 1300 to about five years after the Gold Rush—one of Caroline’s friends is waving at me. “Interview me! Interview me.”
“What show did you watch?” I ask.
“I got 42 insults. It was ‘Glee.’”
“Oh,” I said. “Did you think the insults were like, really bad, or were you more like, whatever?”
She considered this. “I thought they were kind of bad, but mostly, I guess they were like, whatever.”
I manage to ask some of the other kids what they watched. “Modern Family,” another “Glee.” “Futurama” had a lot of put downs, like 44 in a half hour.
“A-ha,” Efrain says, overhearing. “I get it. You only care about the TV shows. I don’t even have a TV anymore, because I got tired of the put-downs.”
I went to a rural public high school in Massachusetts, one of the smallest public high schools in the state. (Not far from my school in distance or genre is the alma mater of suicide/bullying victim Phoebe Prince, and I hardly mean to put us in the same category, but I think that’s worth a mention.) I was bullied twice in high school: once in grade seven by a group of girls, and once in my junior year, by a group of boys. The first time was horrible but something about it felt expected. The second bout is something I don’t think I ever really recovered from. No one would intervene. Not my parents, not my friends, not my school. I have often wondered what kind of person I would have become if someone had, but I will say this for the experience: I have never since been naïve about how cruel people are, and I also developed a capacity to be epically mean, because, in the end, it was only the awesome sensation of this power growing inside me that kept me from giving in to despair. This is neither good nor bad. It’s just that I now have a talent that needs to be deployed appropriately.
A few days later Caroline tells me the next thing they’re going to talk about is gossip. “They’re going to say it’s bad,” she says. “And I guess it is. But then, like, if we stopped doing it, I don’t understand how anyone would ever find anything out?”