BULLYING THEN AND NOW: Teachers remember their past tormentors

As high schoolers, we see our teachers (whether we like them or not) as very secure people – as one has to be to command a room of teenagers. Surely, they would be the last people to get bullied. Surprisingly, a lot of them were.

But child psychiatrist Sufen Chiu says that information shouldn’t be surprising.

“Unfortunately, bullying is a part of our biology,” Chiu said. “Way back when we were hunter-gatherers, we decided that different equaled bad. It’s all about being in the tribe.”

Take, for example, biology teacher Kellie Whited.

In her junior year, Whited transferred from a public school to a very small private school.

To make matters worse, Whited was the first transfer since the seventh grade and had a different financial situation from her peers, most of whom were from affluent families. And so Whited had her own experience of being “tribe-less.”

“I was never part of the popular crowd at my old school, so on the first day I saw this group of girls and (introduced) myself,” said Whited. “I sat down next to them, and then realized they had smeared mustard where I was sitting. They all started laughing, and one girl said that I ‘didn’t belong with them.’”

Consequently, there was a stretch of time in which Whited had no friends at her new school. Although her parents offered to let her switch schools, she persevered because of her new school’s superior academics.

Whited said she eventually “found her crowd.” Whited also stressed that there was a silver lining to the ostracism: meeting her best friend and former SCDS faculty member Kristy Johnson.

“She was actually one of the instigators that first day,” Whited said. “She sat down next to me one day and found she actually liked me, and now she’s the godmother of my children.”

Whited continues to use this story as an example of the pointlessness of bullying, stressing the importance of actually getting to know someone before judging them.

Math teacher Patricia Jacobsen, who moved to Hawaii in seventh grade, was in a situation similar to Whited’s.

Jacobsen said she felt targeted by her classmates because she was from the mainland.

“I was one of the very few Caucasians at my school, so they teased me and called me ‘haole,’” Jacobsen said.

“In music class, I was a pretty fast learner on the ukulele because I already knew music from the flute, and they really didn’t like me for that. They hated the fact I could play it just because I was white.”

Jacobsen said this situation persisted for the remainder of the semester she spent in Hawaii.

According to Chiu, a lot of what people call bullying is actually just social conflict.

“Social conflict often results from a student being stuck in a school that isn’t right for them,” she said.

“For example, a non-white kid who feels discriminated against at a school in, say, Folsom, may not be able to move to Elk Grove, where things are more diverse.”

Like Whited, Jacobsen also found a silver lining in her situation, saying that her experience as a minority in a predominantly Hawaiian/Japanese area helped her better understand how minorities elsewhere might feel.

A commonly held belief is that physical and emotional bullying is divided along gender lines, the former belonging to boys and the latter practiced by girls. Many faculty stories seem to corroborate this.

History teachers Daniel Neukom and Bruce Baird were both victims of physical bullying.

Neukom said that his worst experience was when a group of older boys followed him home from his elementary school in the Bay Area and forced him to smoke a cigarette.

“They took me to a traffic island  in the middle of the street outside of the view of cars and told me if I didn’t smoke it, they would beat me up,” he said.

Baird’s bullying experience happened in high school.

“All of my friends were kind of nerdy, so I wanted to take shop to branch out,” Baird said. “Unfortunately, you had a lot of Neanderthals in that class. Once a freshman got on my case because I wouldn’t let him cheat off of me.

“Eventually, he just got up and punched me in the face. My solution was to just stare him down.”

Conversely, female teachers were more often verbally abused.

Latin teacher Jane Batarseh said she was verbally bullied by a classmate in the fifth grade.

“Her name was Patty Sawyer, and she was really mean to me any chance she would get,” Batarseh said. “My mom couldn’t help me, but my dad gave me some advice.

“He said, ‘You have to act nicely towards her but understand she’s a snake in the grass.’ And from then on I would use that to solve my problems.”

English teacher Patricia Fels was in a similar situation in seventh grade, when she was bullied by an eighth grader. Fels said her bullying was subtle, consisting of the girl just saying, “Hi, Fels!” sarcastically every time she walked by.

“Looking back on it, it was just the stupidest thing, but it’s easy to get upset when you’re a seventh-grade girl,” Fels said. “Eventually, she moved on to high school, but when I moved up, I found out she was doing the exact same name thing to another girl, who was a good friend of mine.”

Fels’s solution was to organize all their friends into saying the same thing to the bully.

“We had it worked out so she would hear ‘Hi, Jan!” no matter where she was on campus,” Fels said. “It really freaked her out, and she stopped.”

But Chiu refutes the claim that things are so polarized.

“It’s a gender role that boys tend to use more force and girls tend to use their words,” Chiu said. “However, many people observe that boys can be quite mean, and many girls hurt each other. Typically, boys don’t react the same to verbal abuse. If you ask them about it, they ‘won’t remember.’”

Jacobsen’s experience in particular, supports this.

Prior to moving to Hawaii, Jacobsen had been bullied by a group of juniors when she was in eighth grade. According to her, all the freshmen in her town went through particularly harsh hazing rituals put on by the seniors.

“It was totally accepted,” Jacobsen said. “The seniors would drop a penny on the ground, and the freshmen would have to lie down and push the penny with their noses.”

The girls took it upon themselves to put Jacobsen through her hazing early.

“I was scared to death,” Jacobsen said. “They said that if they ever found me alone, they would force me to do the penny thing on a toilet and force me to get it out with my mouth if it ever went in. One of the girls even followed me home one day and shoved me up against a wall.”

After this incident, Jacobsen told her mother about her problems with the girl. And her mother put a stop to it.

“She found her and threatened to do something to her if she touched me again,” Jacobsen said. “I don’t know what she did, but it must have been scary.”

But perhaps the most surprising story comes from Baird, well before his shop-class mishap.

Apparently, Baird had a penchant for being an anti-bully.

“I was a scrappy kid. One time, there was a boy who would push younger children on our block,” Baird said. “I actually walked through his door, found him in the kitchen and punched him to the ground.”

Chiu, however, supports a more rational way to combat bullying than Baird’s sandbox vigilantism.

Instead she advocates going through the usual channels of authority – such as parents and principals – to stop abuse.

However, she admits that using peers for support can sometimes be just as effective.

“The support should be standing with them as they explain to the bully that what they are doing hurts their feelings,” Chiu said. “Many bullies are surprised that a person or a group of people are confident enough to stand up to them and to admit their feelings.”

Chiu also says there isn’t always a clear “bad guy” in these situations.

“Bullies are generally bullied themselves – by parents or other older kids,” she said. “They want to make someone else feel as bad as they do.

“When they are confronted by these feelings, it then reminds them how bad they felt before, and they generally do not want to repeat this process.”

Previously published in the print edition on Feb. 17, 2015.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email