Bullying tends to be a personal matter for adults who have been disabled since childhood because so many of us were bullied. There seems to be something about a disability that attracts bullies. I believe that it is good that bullying is being recognized as a serious problem, but I am growing increasingly concerned that the mainstream discussion is compounding the pain and frustration of children who are victims of bullying.
When I was going up there was far less discourse on bullying and much less acknowledgment of the seriousness of the issue, but what limited discussion did exist tended to stress resilience in the face of bullying. There may have been little attention paid to bullying in the mass media, but much of what did exist came in the form of celebrities, speaking about their youth during interviews. The rich and famous would speak about times they had been bullied during their youth, painting a portrait of bullies as pitiable creatures, living tiny, little lives while their former victims reaped fame and fortune. Fictional stories tended to stress victory of bullying as well, with most films and books on the topic ending in some type of triumph for the bullies' target(s).
These stories impacted bullied children in two important ways. One is that they inspired us to imagine our own future success, viewing being bullied as a temporary situation, one that we could expect to eventually overcome. Given the number of suicides currently being traced back to bullying, this is no small matter. Perhaps even more importantly, celebrity stories were a tool in avoiding internalizing the message that we deserved to be picked on. Victory over bullying means hanging onto a sense of one's inherent value. Back in the day, one never heard about successful bullies, but there were enough stories about stars who had "shown up" bullies with their success. It was often implied that they were bullied by those who were jealous of their raw talent and\or beauty, offering an alternative explanation to the idea that one was being bullied because of an innate inferiority. At the very least, they suggested that being bullied put one in "good company" and offered fodder for daydreams of future success.
There is no doubt that bullies sometimes win. I know sensitive, kind, talented people who have been so badly scarred by bullying that they do not share their gifts beyond a circle of people who are also disabled. While I appreciate the fact they my life is enriched by knowing these individuals, I am saddened by the loss of their gifts to the world at large. I am certain that there are others who feel so diminished by bullying that they share their gifts with no one. It is important that we honor the stories of these individuals still suffering the after effects of childhood bullying, but it is equally important that those of us who have triumphed over bullying share our own stories.
Sharing our stories can inspire and strengthen youth who are currently being bullied, as Derrick Coleman's story doubtless has done. Our stories can also help to shift the current discourse on bullying. The "just ignore" advice so frequently given to bullying targets when I was growing up only compounded our frustration. I am concerned that the current, relentless emphasis on how pervasive and overwhelming bullying is actually intensifies feelings of hopelessness in kids who are already oppressed by terrible situations. Telling kids to "just ignore" the bullies made a bad situation worse, but our current approach may be doing that also. I'd like to see those of us who triumphed over bullying look at our own lives and share strategies that can help ameliorate--or even prevent--bullying. Here I talk about the importance of drawing inspiration from successful adults willing to talk about their childhood experiences of being bullied. Peter Flom talks about a different source of strength, working to develop friendships, on his blog: "I am Learning Disabled." I'd love to hear about others' strategies for resiliency. Here's a link to Peter's: http://www.iamlearningdisabled.com/finding-strength-to-have-strength/