A week or so ago, I read the sad story of Phoebe Prince, a teenager who recently moved from Ireland to western Massachusetts and was viciously harrassed by classmates -- both face-to-face and over the internet -- to the point where all of the girl's self-esteem and coping mechanisms were torn asunder. After one particularly brutal attack (in which she was called an "Irish whore" by one of the school's popular prom queen-types) she went home and hung herself from an upstairs banister. Her body was discovered by her younger sister.
Looking at the photo of Phoebe Prince, I saw a beautiful teen-aged girl with everything to live for. I also saw a reflection of my own daughter in her face. And that scares the hell out of me.
My daughter, Reilly, is an amazing young lady. A beautiful twelve-year-old with a genuinely good heart who faithfully loves her family, friends, and her God. She possesses a beautiful singing voice, plays the piano, and loves music. She writes the most amazing stories and is a wonderful artist with much potential. Reilly has won numerous 4-H contests over the last couple of years and won first place in DARE's essay contest last spring. Of all the people on this earth, Reilly is the most like me than anyone else.
But Reilly has problems. She has undergone therapy for abuse (at the hands of a relative, which we had no idea was taking place) and has had her own battle for sustaining her self-esteem. Reilly has a problem with high cholesteral and her vision (both hereditary, from my side of the family unfortunately). And she has a weight problem. In my opinion, she isn't overweight at all; just as we Southerns call it, a bit "big-boned". Let's just say that she isn't the same as 95% of the other girls in her sixth grade class; anorexic scarecrows who have a warped idea of what makes a girl popular and what doesn't.
During this school year, Reilly has had a bad problem with bullying; some dealing with her unique personality (she is NOT a carbon copy of the other girls in her class), but most having to do with her weight. Surprisingly enough, most of the verbal abuse she recieves is not from the girls, but from the boys in her class. These insults are made openingly in front of both classmates and teachers. And it is not just one or two boys, but quite a few. Despite the concerns of me and my wife, the school faculty -- both teachers and principal -- seem to think it is really nothing to worry about. "Boys will be boys," they tell us.
Well, sorry, but I'm not buying that. When I grew up in middle Tennessee in the mid-sixties, yes, boys were boys, but there was one line they did not cross (unless they were the typical school-yard bully) and that was disrespecting someone of the opposite sex. In that day, folks taught their young men that a woman (or a young girl their own age) was someone to be respected and cherished. I, too, was taught that lasting lesson and I carry it on to this day.
If I had insulted or bullied a girl when I was in the sixth or seventh grade, I would have been dealt with severely, first in the school system, then later on at home. And that lesson of respect would have finally been set firmly in place, never to be forgotten again.
But apparently such lessons of restraint and respect are no longer being taught here in the South, if my daughter's male classmates are any indication. They constantly comment on her weight or question her intelligence. Recently, one particular boy called her "Fat Albert". Reilly reacted rather strongly to this insult (after silently enduring similar jibs) and took the matter to her gym teacher. This teacher made the offender write a letter of apology to my daughter, which he begrudingly did. Did it cure him of his disrepectful behavior? On the contrary. The very next day he called her a "fat-ass" and a "bitch". Several of the teachers have told Reilly that she should "toughen up" and not let such silly talk bother her so much.
Have we enforced equality between sexes to such a point where young men believe it socially acceptable to belittle and bully young women to the point of totally tearing down their sense of self-worth? After all, the age of twelve is a very impressionable age for a girl. If every boy in her class treats her like crap, then why would she think of herself as otherwise? If you call a young lady "whore" and "idiot" enough times, is there any wonder that they may follow that path later in life?
It's very apparent that the old ways of Southern respect and hospitality are sadly fading with the passage of time. When I was a child, I was taught to say "Yes, ma'am" and "No, ma'am", to always see a fellow classmate as an equal, despite their race, religion, or the type clothing they wore, and to say grace at each meal. I see very little of those time-worn traditions going on with today's youth. Teachers believe that respect and restraint should be taught in the home, while parents believe the teachers should maintain order and instill structure to their children's lives. In the thick of it all, neither is being done effectively and who suffers from the failure of the adults? The children, of course.
Take it from me, this is not a big urban school that I speak of, but a small country school with little more than two hundred students. It is now the end of the school year. If this bullying should continue next year with nothing done to put an end to it, I will have no course to pursue other than taking it to the school board. I could have very well mentioned the name of the school in this blog, as well as the principal and teachers involved, but everyone knows that I'm not that sort of person. But a Southern gentleman can only be pushed so far when the physical and mental welfare of his children are concerned. And I will protect my children... even if it means taking the matter to the state school board... or beyond.
To you parents and teachers out there, we must look at the terrible case of Phoebe Prince very closely and take it to heart. Because, unless respect and restraint is instilled in our own children, it will happen again. And again.