I remember the smirk on his face, that look of utter smugness framed by arrogant eyes, breathing malicious confidence into everything he said. To be honest, it didn’t really matter what came out of his mouth. Repetition’s deliberate pace had calcified words like “fag,” “cocksucker” and “retard” into an everyday reality. It was the way he said them — with a sense of entitlement weighted behind every syllable.
The shoving didn’t start until after my brother tried to tell him to back off. I guess it caught him off guard. Did this “queer” really think he deserved the right to defend himself? How could he? But a point had to be made. So, the bully took my brother by the collar, pressed his face against a garage door and started punching. He didn’t stop until there were tears.
I just stood there.
As I watched my twin brother walk home, cupping blood drops from a broken nose, a single word blared through my head: Coward — an expression put on full, ugly display in Lee Hirsch’s powerful documentary, “Bully,” which shines a much-needed spotlight on the crumbling school disciplinary systems and weakening family dynamics intended to nip these problems in the bud.
Maybe school officials and parents suffer from the same paralyzing bout of hesitation that gripped me as I watched my brother being physically abused in front of me. But there’s a responsibility that comes hand-in-hand with being trusted with a child’s future. To shirk that responsibility by allowing yourself to succumb to denial is the ultimate act of bullying.
In a pivotal scene of the film, a school principal resolves a confrontation between two boys, one of whom accuses the other of inciting a fistfight. I use the term “resolve” lightly. The principal’s idea of a resolution is asking the two boys to dutifully shake each other’s hands and act as if nothing significant happened. The presumed bully accepts the principal’s “punishment” without a second thought, sticking out his hand before the principal can complete her sentence. As a horrifying sense of shattered trust floods the other child’s face, the implications of apathy become evident.
A parent who’d rather tell a kid to “stick up for himself and fight back” than to try and take a hands-on approach to tackling the problem is no different.
“Bully” has been criticized for zeroing in too heavily on victims, school officials and the parents of deceased and living victims. There’s not a single interview with a bully, and no effort is made to understand what makes children turn on each other in such a strangely savage manner. Is it a result of a troubled home life? A vehement need to assert authority? Too many violent video games? I have a single, unwavering response to these questions, and I’m not apologizing for however shallow it may seem: Fuck the bullies.
No shit there’s something wrong with a middle schooler threatening to rip off someone’s arms. And, yes, figuring out the “why” is necessary, but should it take precedence over helping the kids who have to endure meaningless abuse every day? By giving viewers an intimate look at consequences, Hirsch offers a reason to recognize that the problem exists and clues us in on a seemingly obvious starting point: Identify the bullies and separate them from the kids they’ve been putting in harm’s way.
As an 11-year-old, my brother was a loner, the type of kid frequently seen targeted in “Bully.” He’s a different person now, practically incomparable to the scrawny, bespectacled kid in our family photos. I can’t help but wonder if he wanted to change, or if it’s a result of that summer day. The day a bully made a coward out of me.