By Nikki Trutter
This movie seems to have arrived just at the right moment, and yet it is still so long overdue. The story Bully follows the lives of five children, ranging from Oklahoma to Iowa.
The first, Alex, is singled out for his strange appearance, nicknamed “Fish Face,” and forced to endure physical abuse from tormentors on the bus ride to school. Kelby, the first girl to come out as a lesbian in her hometown, is alienated and ostracized because of it. Ja’Maya is arrested for pulling out a gun on bullies after she said she “couldn’t take it no more.”
The movie also follows in the wake of its last two characters, Ty Smalley and Tyler Long, who both committed suicide as a result of endless torture.
Bully takes a hot scorcher to the educators and authorities in this film, who seem to be idiotic but mostly uncaring. One of the most unsettling scenes shows the principal apprehending two boys who have just gotten into a playground squabble during recess. The principal quickly asks both boys to shake hands. The first boy looks smug and happy to be off the hook, so he quickly offers his hand. However, the second boy appears to be struggling with a large moral decision.
Precociously, the second boy refuses his hand saying, “He’s just going to do it tomorrow” and, commenting on the first boy’s eagerness to make up, “He didn’t mean it.” The second boy is clearly the victim of the first, and tells the principal that the first boy has been harassing him repeatedly. Then the moment where every heart in the theater just about split open, the principal replies, ‘Well if you refuse to shake his hand, that makes you just as bad as he is.”
This is only one of numerous examples where the adults ignore a child’s cry for help, and even “politician” concerned parents by assuring that they are “taking care of it.” Even in some cases, the adults join the bullies in harassing students. Bully shows just how much the adults can enable the destructive actions of a child, and even at times, encourage it.
Bully is a simple story, which is its best quality. But that also is its biggest blind spot. This documentary only gathers information from smaller range of people. There are only rural settings depicted; there is a greater emphasis on mostly male characters; there is no analysis from experts or factual information; and there are fewer characters followed who are in high school, where the bullying is often the worst.
This film also examines only one type of bullying. It shows two boys wailing on another mercilessly on multiple occasions, which is the type of bullying that has been going on since the days of our parents’ childhoods. But what about the bullying of a subtler kind? It never shows a girl spreading a rumor, publically outing another girl, talking about her behind her back.
What about the whispering in a hallway, as an openly gay boy walks past? What about the girl everyone thinks is weird and who sits alone at lunch every day? The power of whispers and words is just as damaging, if not more, than a fist to the face. What about bullying in the age of computers?
This film doesn’t explore the new development of social media, and its effect on bullying. Harassment through Facebook or text allows kids to become crueler when hiding behind the mask of a computer screen. Walking down the halls of a high school isn’t much different than scrolling down the pages of a newsfeed: You know which friends belong with who, whose statuses you can like, who to talk to, who’s been talked about recently.
Bully limited itself to the bullying caught on camera, which serves as a strength in its documentary style. However, that same style was also a setback for every person in the theater who may not remember the number of times they were punched, but rather the number of times they were talked about behind their back, lied to, or made fun of.
Yet, it is the subtlety of this type of bullying which is most relevant in respect to this community. “Relevant” is an important word in light of the last three months at Lake Forest High School. Tragically, three suicides have occurred, and although no one shoved them into lockers, these deaths should mark a time of self-reflection and change.
Discussion should be happening in every single classroom, not just in half. Students aren’t looking for a glorification of those who have gone, but instead, for a forum to express themselves to many of the adults who play a vital role in our lives. This is not to say that the administration has done nothing. Especially with the passing of Depression Awareness Week, there is clearly much going on behind the scenes.
However, when Ned Vinzzini came to speak about suicide, reports of an attempted suicide ran through the school on the very same day. So how to break this chain? Studies and numbers would argue that talking so openly about the problem only glorifies those who have passed, giving those on the edge, an added reason to seek out the “look at how much they’ll miss me” death fantasy.
Although this concern is valid, one also could argue that people are not a collection of numbers, graphs or statistics. In fact, if you ask many students, most just want to feel that the school has touched their personal and individual needs to have a voice and to seek answers, through such a difficult period of loss. What I believe it comes down to is administrative work, which is qualitative. not quantitative. In such an important time of our lives, the personalization of our education is not merely important, it is essential.
Assistant Principal Steve Schacherer, of Carleton Washburne Middle School in Winnetka, would agree. In fact, Schacherer strongly advocates for his school’s advisory system, which Washburne founded and where each student gets personalized attention through school advisers, what they call a “transition card,” and close interpersonal relationships with their students.
A transition card is basically a profile of the student, which is filled out by the student’s sixth-grade teacher. The transition from sixth to seventh grade starts with this transition card, which helps advisers identity which environment and teacher would be best for each student. Schacherer and the advisers also review descriptions of their students which were filled out by their parents, to match them up once again on a “team” that would best suit their individual needs.
The advisers have it down to a science, trying to divide classrooms evenly with 50 percent boys and 50 percent girls, as well as the maximum carrying capacity they allow for a classroom: 17 students. Then, after junior high at Washburne, advisers from New Trier High School meet with the student’s adviser, as well as his or her teacher, to make the transition into high school even smoother.
To many this may seem like a lot of work, but Schacherer says, “If you’re not socially or emotionally together, then you can’t learn.” Washburne, it seems, is certainly on the right track. If children have a classroom and a teacher tailored to their personality and academic needs, wouldn’t this make learning and the social environment more friendly and productive?
Couldn’t some form of this system work for Lake Forest High School? The movie Bully is a reminder of how impersonal education can be in this country, and how the kids who get left behind can become victims of their peers and a flawed system.
Although this movie, does give a sweeping view of a school system in need of repair, its best quality is that it is above all a human story. Bully really makes an effort to show audiences how much beauty the human heart can contain. Bully director Lee Hirsch barely stops short of bringing out the tiny sad violins as he ruthlessly pulls on your heartstrings.
Yet, the characters are so moving and real that you don’t care who is manipulating who; the only thing you can think about is reaching through the screen and holding each and every child until their pain dissolves. As a result, this touching personal and emotional factor makes it a movie every middle and high school student should see. Despite the controversy over the ratings, sometimes kids just need to be reminded of the effects of their words and actions.
Bullies are not children who are naturally cruel — they may not realize the pain they inflict when abusing, poking, and hitting the insecurities and flaws in other children around them. For the victims, who can’t intellectually reason through their insecurities like adults (who sometimes still can’t), these insecurities can have a major effect on a child’s emotional development.
It starts with the seed of an idea: “I don’t belong anywhere,” and the actions of the most important people in their lives (parents and peers) confirm this idea through their actions. That grows and grows like a disease, which can take over and destroy a child. This isn’t a struggle over jungle gym fights, but a struggle for the safety and identity of the children who soon will be the adults in this world. Hirsch knows how important this is to the development of this upcoming generation, outside the four walls of a classroom.
This movie could have been so much more, and yet its significance is that it is one of the first. It is the first in hopefully a series of many and even more importantly: a movement.
Bullying is no longer considered a normal rite of passage, or “kids being kids.” It’s now viewed as a problem that society can change. Change is a long and hard process, especially if the things we need to change are within ourselves.
No one expects to live in a world of martyrs and angels, but if every person did the best he or she could, if everyone spoke their minds, then that’s a place where everyone would feel good raising their children.
Nikki is a junior at Lake Forest High School.