It was the stomachache that lasted a week.
On a Monday morning in first grade, I told my mom I was sick, feeling gross, tummy hurts. Of course, she did her good mom thing. Take this Pepto Bismol. Drink this Coke. Eat these Saltines. With each passing day, the illness confused her a little more, the looks on her face more quizzical. We saw a doctor. Tongue depressors. Pushing on my abdomen. More quizzical looks.
The last thing I remember about that week was the end of it. Sitting at our kitchen table with my mother and father. By then, they knew I was a fraud. I was not sick. I was scared. But still I begged. Please don’t make me go back to school.
What my mom and dad didn’t know—what no one knew, really—was that I was not allowed on the school playground. The Kid made sure of it. At recess, the students at Clarksville Elementary flocked to the playground: a large expanse of matted dirt and gravel peppered with slides, swings and molecularly shaped climbing structures; a massive oak tree was the center attraction. But I never slid, swung or climbed. Acting as a bouncer, The Kid eyed me, ensuring I stayed on the nearby asphalt parking lot, away from friends and classmates, away from acceptance. His fists and elbows enforced the rules. I was the dog with a shock collar, and he installed the invisible electric fence. One recess, I tried to sneak on. I made it into the shade of the oak tree. That’s where he found me. He socked me in the gut. Hard. Enough to provoke tears. That was the day I got the stomachache.
I got bullied. My son has been bullied. 13.1 million kids will be bullied this year. Lee Hirsch was bullied throughout his childhood and middle school. That’s why he wrote and directed Bully, the new documentary about an epidemic that we are addressing in the public eye, but are letting off the hook in school hallways and on playgrounds. See the trailer here:
While he considered doing the movie for years, Hirsch didn’t get serious until April 2009. That’s when he heard about two 11-year-old boys: Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover of Massachusetts, and Jaheem Herrera of Georgia. They both took their own lives as a result of chronic bullying. On a Monday night, Carl's mother found him hanging by an extension cord on the second floor of their home. He was called gay on a daily basis at school.
Almost three years to the day after Carl and Jaheem took their lives, Bully will hit theaters (April 23). And Bully is no talking head film. It's not a series of interviews with principals in bad sweaters and psychologists in front of plastic ferns blathering on about the bully mentality. Bully takes you into the schools, into the cruelty, into the anxiety of those long walks down the locked-adorned hallways. In this film you’ll see kids punched in the face and the stomach. Boys swarming like hornets on bus rides. You see a bespectacled boy getting choked, his face smashed into the bus seat in front of him. The boy's mother visits the school and pleads for help. "I've been on that bus," the school administrator says. "They are just as good as gold."
The film went viral earlier this week when the MPAA gave it an R rating, based on strong language. (Bullies aren’t Pixar characters, you know.) That inspired a serious backlash from producer Harvey Weinstein. “As a father of four, I worry every day about bullying,” Weinstein states in his press release. “It’s a serious and ever-present concern for me and my family. I want every child, parent, and educator in America to see Bully, so it is imperative for us to gain a PG-13 rating.”
You can’t blame the MPAA for doing its job. F-bombs are f-bombs. So here’s what we’re going to do: We’re going to say “f#@$ the f$#@ing MPAA.” Let your underage child watch the movie. Sneak him into the movie theater in a backpack, or put him under your trench coat. Wait for the DVD and watch it together as a family. Granted, Bully isn’t for little kids, but if your child can handle Spider Man 2 (which he did, with flying colors—admit it) and was within earshot when you stubbed your $#@$ing toe on the leg on the dining room table (which he was), he can handle this movie. The bullies in this documentary are no scarier than Dr. Octopus or Voldemort. But the school administrators, teachers, and bus drivers who aren't seeing the problem just might be.
An brutal R-rated eye-opener might be exactly what grown-ups and kids need. “For a 7th grader, it could mean standing up for a peer who is being bullied,” says Hirsch. “As a teacher, it might mean standing in the hall between classes to look out for the more vulnerable kids in the building. Administrators might decide to put their paperwork aside...and take extra time to get to the bottom of a student conflict. And perhaps parents will see a need to spend more time asking their children about their day.”
The day I went back to first grade, all the students in my class met my mother and I at the door. They smothered us with cheerful hellos. They helped me hang up my backpack, and put my lunchbox in my cubby. I learned years later that my teacher Mrs. Ritter and my mom had spoken during my weeklong hiatus. Mrs. Ritter had orchestrated it, asking the children to make sure I felt welcome. That moment marked the end of my short-lived bullying experience. The same cannot be said of Carl and Jaheem. I mean, I probably only missed twenty or so trips across the monkey bars, maybe a dozen attempts to scale that big oak tree. Even though I endured months of harassment and abuse, I was one of the lucky ones.