This is a message for Alex. You are a great kid. You will be a great, happy, successful adult. And those high school boys who torture you so brutally on the school bus every day will spend their adult lives either clueless about why they will never feel as big and tough as they did in high school or horrified by the way they treated you.
This is a message for the school system. Do not put high schoolers and middle schoolers on the same bus. Do not tell two boys who are fighting to shake hands and apologize and send them on their way. Do not show parents who are agonized by seeing footage of their son being tortured on the school bus a picture of your new grandchild. And for the love of Pete, start teaching your students that neither inflicting nor tolerating abuse will be permitted in your school. If students cannot feel safe, they cannot learn.
This searing documentary tells five stories. Two of its subjects have already committed suicide, one only 11 years old. Another, overcome by the pain of continual abuse and feeling she had no other option, brought a gun on the school bus and found herself trapped by a judicial system that has zero tolerance for firearms but is helpless to combat sustained physical and emotional torture. Then there is Kelby, a confident young lesbian who has a few close friends but is otherwise an outcast. And Alex, who is what pediatricians call an FLK (funny-looking kid). He has a great heart (watch him with his mother and his little sister). But he was born prematurely and has a bit more than the usual middle school awkwardness. It is wrenching to see him come home every day and answer his mother’s anxious question about how things went with a noncommittal, “fine.”
I once heard a principal say that a lot of upset parents came through his office, parents who were concerned about their children’s academic or behavior problems. But, he said, the ones who put their heads down on his desk and sobbed were the ones who felt hopeless about their children’s sense of isolation and lack of friends. One of the most touching moments of the film is when Kelby’s father, a conservative Christian who had been anti-gay until his daughter came out says soberly that if you want to find out how little you understood about your life, have a gay child. His own friends had stopped talking to them. All of the parents in this movie are devoted, loving, supportive, and devastated.
Anyone who has survived adolescence knows what it feels like to be excluded or different. But as adults, until our children remind us, we sometimes forget how devastating those feelings are when you are too young to know that for the rest of your life it will not be as hard to find safe places and good friends.
The movie also made me think about the way we seem to perpetuate a bully culture. Whether it is the real housewives or politicians and commentators, we have enabled a culture of disrespect and partisanship that sets a bad example. I hope all middle schoolers and high schoolers will see this movie and begin some conversations about what all of us can do to bring us closer to a culture of civility and respect, or just to bring us closer.
Parents should know that this film has disturbing themes of bullying and abuse in middle school and high school. A bullied teen uses a gun and two kids commit suicide (off camera). There is some strong language, poking, and hitting.
Family discussion: Why couldn’t Alex and some of the others tell their parents what was going on? Why are some kids bullies? Why do other kids let it happen? What should the school do? What can you do?
If you like this, try: The movie’s website: http://action.thebullyproject.com/ for more information and resources