Tuesday, March 25, 2008

When a Lawsuit's a Boy's Only Hope: Billy Wolfe, Bullying, and the Results of a Peer-Based Culture

It's not every day that you see a story about one boy being bullied without headlines accompanying headlines announcing a vicious death or a closeted homosexuality. Yesterday, though, the New York Times published just such a story. Dan Barry wrote the piece, entitled "A Boy the Bullies Love to Beat Up, Repeatedly", as a sober, quiet reflection on bullying. Though there is no grisly headline attached to the story (thankfully!), the piece is worth reading and thinking about.

Barry notes, succinctly, that fifteen-year-old Billy Wolfe of Fayetteville, Arkansas gets bullied on a regular basis. This is the kind of piece that Barry regularly writes for the NYT: pieces that go beyond headlines and burrow into the experiences of everyday people. A steady diet of such articles would grow tiresome, probably, but this piece raised a number of issues in my own mind about the link between schools and bullying. Billy is bullied on a regular basis by a number of boys who randomly approach him and punch him. There seems to be little rationale for this behavior, though one could guess that Billy is an outsider in his school--he might be bookish, or he might be slightly effeminate, or he might be a little socially awkward, or he just might not be strong, debonair, or athletic. As one who went to public school, I can reason that any of these factors could be directly contributing to Billy's situation. Kids--despite appearances to the contrary--can be relentlessly cruel. Public school can be quite difficult, then, because it often involves a large number of kids, some of whom are quite cruel, and little supervision by wise, discerning adults. For the child who is, for whatever reason, on the fringe, public (or private) school can represent a day-in, day-out exercise in sustained fear and unalleviated despair.

Perhaps many of us have forgotten this truth. We've long ago left behind school experiences that were difficult. Perhaps we are internally ashamed of the fact that we were once bullied. In fleeting moments of remembrance, we feel as though we caused such treatment. Maybe we remember how gawky we were, or how awkward, or how small, and we feel that we deserved to be bullied. Let's square with bullying, and with the pre-teen and teenage years: they can be quite hard. We're not giving into silly psychobabble or becoming weak if we look our past in the face and see the pain and hurt that lies there. I was always very short, and I remember being on picked on continually for it. I told my parents about some of it, and occasionally talked about it with friends, but there was alot of evil that I could do little about it and simply bore on my own. Some would say that this reality shaped my character and made me tougher, and that's probably true. But my experience in public school among a bunch of nasty kids also left me with some scars. I'm sure others experienced the same, though it's unlikely they'll talk much about it.

In reflecting on Billy Wolfe, I'm reminded of a few recent trips to local coffee shops. While reading in the afternoon, I've observed schoolchildren, fresh out of school for the day, play a number of pranks on one another. I've also seen packs of children hanging out with no adult supervision. In all of these instances, I've thought to myself that it is no good thing for packs of unsaved children to hang out together. There is little good that results from such grouping. Unsaved children, after all, do not tend to focus on goodness, truth, and beauty, especially in a Christian sense. No, they tend to focus on what is evil, outlawed, unkind, "cool", and funny, despite what others may think. The peer-based culture of American children that stems from the advent of public education in the twentieth century can hardly be viewed as a positive development for our society. I am not offering a direct application regarding the viability of public school for children of Christians here. Some kids thrive in such situations--they're well liked, they have a good witness, and all goes rather smoothly. With that said, though, it only makes sense that public or private school, unless closely monitored by wise, kind, just adults, threatens to present schoolchildren (particularly those who are not well-liked for whatever reason) with situations marked by cruelness and, well, evil. As Christians, we've got to think carefully before we plunge our kids into such worlds.

It is not easy to admit that one was bullied. It is also not easy to forget being bullied. I remember getting punched by bullies in school, and I remember one of my friends being shoved into a locker by a bully. He cut his hand so badly that he had to go to the emergency room. There was a great deal more that I can remember, too. I remember being taunted by older boys about a poor basketball game I played. Without any provocation, these boys repeatedly made fun of me for making a few turnovers. Twelve years later, I can easily recall my hot cheeks, my attempt not to cry in front of other boys, my inability to say anything meaningful to these boys.

These recollections show me that I, along with all Christian parents, need to think carefully about schooling. We cannot shield our children from the evil of this world; indeed, we must teach children to live in the midst of it, and beyond this, to be light in this place. With that said, though, we should remember children like Billy Wolfe. There were many children I can recall who were chewed up by public school and the cruel kids who populated it. We should remember, perhaps, our own histories, and run our minds over our own scars. As parents, we should be prepared to stand up with great force and courage for our children. I'm thankful that my own parents were always there for me. We've got to teach our children to defend themselves, even as we teach them to, when possible, suffer reproach for the gospel. Most of all, we need simply to think--to think about our children's souls and the way they will be shaped by the childhood years in which we shepherd them. Education is important, after all, but at what price does it come?

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Blogger Vitamin Z said...

Great thoughts here.

I wish we could say that this was only a public school problem. I have seen "Christian" kids be just at cruel, if not more to each other. Maybe it happens more in the public schools, but I am reminded that no matter where my kids attend school it will be foremost in my mind to teach them how to navigate such situations that will inevitably spring up.

1:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Vitamin Z, the point is not that "Christians" are immune from cruel behavior; the fallen nature of humanity is sin. The obligation of parents wake up their children and point them in the right direction through Christ, impossible if through neglectful indulgence the allow their children to waste their youthful energy through idyll and mischief, that's the point.

"As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth." Psalm 127:4

2:26 PM  
Anonymous Mr. Taco said...

I having had a minor problem with bullying when I was going through my earlier years have some words for the younger generation "it'll be fine." I know that it's difficult right now while it's happening to you and no matter how much you talk to your parents about it there's still not alot that can be done to fix these problems. They are not likely to be punished like a crime when it's just a minor hazing incident as would happen during a typical day strolling through the hallways. But it will end. All of my childhood so called 'bullys' that I had either aren't around anymore, are smaller than me now, or they started to growup and treated me with more respect than I wanted while they were being 'annoying' Things will look up... I know it's over used but it's the truth, all things WILL work together for good to those that love the Lord.

3:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I attend Billy Wolfe's school and the talk this week has been all about this story and the following interviews with the today show and CNN. It seems the story is unfortunately extremely one-sided. From what I've heard, this young man picks fights and his story is one that should bring up the topic of violence in schools rather than bullying. It seems his situation is about as far from "random" acts of bullying as possible. As far as our district having a "bullying problem" I've personally never witnessed this behaviour (not to say it doesn't exists, however.)

I'm not advocating that Billy Wolfe deserved what he got; no one deserves to be beaten. I'm simply extremely disappointed with the New York Times for publishing such a poorly researched article. If anyone had bothered to come talk to students in our school, the end result of the story would have been much different, probably not headline news material.

9:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the Case of Billy Wolfe,

I am a parent of a student at Fayetteville High School who is a bystander. He has given me reports that Billy is not so innocent as he appears. My son said that Billy himself Bullied a student there with Cerebral Palsy and the other Students at Fayetteville High got wind of it and that is when the Bullying started. Also another incident when Billy was in the Mall in Fayetteville with his girlfriend he walked by two Black Teens and said to his girlfriend " you don't want to be around those Blackies" loud enough so the two Black Teens heard what he said.
My son himself said he has heard Billy Wolfe himself say rude comments to others in the Hallway.
So all is not what it appears.
The Lord says you sow what you reap.
My advice to Billy is to treat others the way you want to be treated.

5:02 AM  
Blogger Kirsten said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First of all i am a student at Fayetteville High School...I am sick and tired of everyone feeling so sorry for Billy Wolfe. Only the students at Fayetteville High School know the full story. I find it very worrisome that the national news can publish a story that is so onesided and wrong. There is hard proof against everything that Billy and his mother have said in the past weeks. No attacks on Billy have happend just because "the bullies were bored"!!! Billy is known for his trash talking! When you walk up to a black man and call him the "N" word, kill a disabled childs cat, and talk trash about a dead mother what do you think is going 2 happen 2 you? In a perfect world the people Billy is hurting would just turn their cheek and walk away but last time I checked, we don't live in a perfect world. I really don't have anything against Billy but i have been going 2 school with him since 5th grade and hes not the perfect child that the nation thinks he is...

12:32 PM  
Anonymous K Babcock said...

I could care less what the full story is. This boy doesn't deserve to be bullied no matter what. As the mother of a 15 year old son, I would be at my wit's end if I were Billy's mother. It sickens me to know kids can be so mean - and I feel strongly there is NO reason for Billy to go thru this. The kids doing the bullying are sick - and deserve everything they have coming to them. It's past time these bullies get a little of what they've been dishing out.

And to the anonymous person who made the comment saying they attend Billy Wolfe's school, never have I seen a child (from AR much less) spell "behavior" in the manner you used. You sure you're from his school?

As far as Billy not being the perfect child for his behavior, misery loves company. His past actions are not a reason for physical harm. I'm sure he is not innocent - but at the same time, two wrongs do not a right make.

These 4 years have an extreme impact on the rest of your life, and the memories - whether bad or good - are not easily erased.

Absolutely disgusting behavior. These kids should be held accountable to the fullest extent. If my son was one of these bullies, I would not wait for the officials to take a stance - my values say you just don't act in this manner.

3:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. Fighting The “Gang Mentality”

I bet the bullies that actually fight with Billy are actually being manipulated by their friends. This is how it works: the ring leader decides to demonstrate his power by manipulating his or her minions to harass a seemingly vulnerable student. The ring leader says “so-and so is x, y and Z”. If you minions want to be in my click you must punish so an so. Off the minions go to execute their masters bidding. Of course, the master (alpha male or female) does not use such direct language - his or her instructions are subtle, but well understood. Often the ring leader avoids punishment because they are smart enough to avoid direct involvement. Instead they sit back and enjoy the show - manipulating their simple minded minions and indirectly bulling those that they cannot affectively control.
Please do not encourage the victim to fight. The result can easily be devastating. Encourage the victim to use the law. Fights can go bad wrong. Lost teeth, death fro traumatic head injury, choking deaths, eye damage. The victim may not be willing to lose and may choke, stab, shoot, hit with object ect…. the aggressor may be really mean - and or stupid- he could do any of the above. Often the aggressor is just some manipulated person that the real bully is using as a proxy
My fights didn’t end too bad - A good undercut cracked my molar - and the magnetic CB antenna base plate I was holding severely injured and attacker - he came close to death. He was a good person manipulated by rotten idiots - what if I killed him?? I like my teeth and would have liked to skip the gold crown. My hands are still scared from the teeth and bone of the many attackers I have been forced to fight. And yes, I have run from many fights also. I am proud to say I have never fought some who did not first attack me. I have learned through the years and I am now better able to stay away from dangerous people. Being out of school helps because it is hard to stay away from them when you are in the same school.
Martial arts are great, but you don’t have to study them long to figure out how to kill someone - man it’s strange but 8 out of 10 fights I have been in were with some dummy that didn’t even realize he was fighting for someone else. Do you really want to kill someone like this? I don’t want to spend 20 years in jail or hurt someone. You don’t want your son or daughter going to reform school - I hear the fighting there is worse. And, they will likely meet some bad apples.
The school system needs to be trained to circumvent the sub grouping that is taking place at this undisciplined school. The school is obviously slandering the victim. Blame the victim - is the best tactic to use - it’s great when you can convince your parents and teachers that your violent behavior is ok. And guess what - allot of the uninvolved students concur that Billy is the problem. But, the truth is - they may actually be the behind the scene manipulator. Some of the students are saying “ I just avoid Bill”. That’s great so half the kids are physically and verbally torturing Billy and the other half are isolating him socially. May as well shot him in the head. Look Dummies be nice to Billy show him by example how to act. Help him make friends. Show some compassion.
There is this great saying in this old book I looked in once. Goes something like “ Treat others as you would like to be treated” – I find when I am able to do this I sleep better. I’m not real good at it, but I am going to try to do better.

Please don't sy things like "as Christians, we should take the morale hig ground" Of course you should but by saying that way you are saying that none christians are imorale. Non Christians may be doomed to hell, but thsy are no more imorale than Christians. You are not better than your fellow nonchristian - just if all goes as planed you will be swept to eternal bliss in heaven and the nonchristian wont.

4:11 PM  

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