We are all worthy of love.
A few weeks ago, I watched Lee Hirsch’s new documentary film, Bully, which is heartbreakingly devastating and powerful. According to the filmmakers, over thirteen million kids in America will be bullied this year. I first heard about the film on the Ellen DeGeneres Show when Ellen interviewed the Long family, one of the families featured in the film. Bully chronicles the stories of three teens, twelve-year-old Alex from Iowa, sixteen-year-old Kelby from Oklahoma, and fourteen-year-old Ja’Meya from Mississippi, who have faced bullying and peer violence in their respective schools and communities with life-altering results for them and their families. The film also focuses on the experiences of Kirk and Laura Smalley, and David and Tina Long, whose lives where irrevocably changed when their sons, Ty (eleven) and Tyler (seventeen) committed suicide after prolonged experiences with bullying.
The stories of Alex, Kelby, Ja’Meya, Ty, and Tyler were unfamiliar to me, and yet they resonated with me.
I grew up in a small city in Western Canada. When other kids were playing sports, I was singing. When other kids were being invited to parties, I wore yellow pants and participated in drama club. I was extremely skinny with wiry hair. My idea of fun was reading Anna Karenina, watching the Oscars, and learning French. I marched to the beat of my own drummer. I did not fit in with the traditionally popular group, and yet shockingly I found a place where my voice had meaning.
Watching the film, I felt a sense of relief that their stories were not my experience. More overwhelmingly, perhaps, I felt a sense of guilt and confusion, because there was no reason why my story should have been so different. There is no reason a) why the teens in the film could not have been embraced for the amazing people they were and b) why I escaped the clutches of bullying for having been different than the “norm.”
This is perhaps the most harrowing aspect of bullying—it has no reason and no justification. It is the manifestation of hatred and fear of the other, cloaked in the guise of social behavior. Bullying uses difference (real, perceived, or manufactured) as the impetus for cruelty and mistreatment and remains in many places as one of the last vestiges of acceptable violence. “It is OK,” “Boys will be boys,” “They are just kids,” “They will grow out of it,” “It happens all the time,” are examples of ways in which we as a society excuse bullying and pretend it is not a serious problem warranting serious attention. This is simply unacceptable.
Moreover, being a teenager in 2012 is exponentially more difficult than it was in 1995. I am now thirty-one years old and only got my first cell phone at twenty-one. I only began using Facebook in 2007, blogging in 2008, texting in 2009, and tweeting in 2010. My interactions with my friends at school ended when I walked out of the building. I had two distinct worlds which, for the most part, did not intersect. Teens today live an all-consuming, overlapping existence which means that problems which previously could have been left in the school hallways are a constant shadow seeping into every aspect of their lives.
Watching the film, I also marvelled that many of the same elements that we as a society are so quick to condemn in the context of teen bullying are percolating within our collective consciousness, manifesting in the way we deal with other adults, in the media, in our political discourse, and in our propensity to criticize rather than embrace. Are we teaching our youth the discourse which provides the foundation for differentiation, judgment and bullying? If so, we must be willing to eschew the negative and move to the positive, because the energy we put out into the world has a tangible impact. We must through our words and actions serve as powerful examples of love and light.
Young people are truly amazing teachers. They hold a mirror to our faces to show us how issues we are quick to ignore manifest in incredibly powerful, immediate ways. The three students chronicled in the film demonstrate exemplary bravery and candor in using their stories as a way to highlight the epidemic of bullying, and as a catalyst to compel change for other teens—and society in general.
Furthermore, the resolve of the Smalley and Long families to use their voices in service, by organizing rallies, town hall meetings, and organizations to combat bullying is inspirational. In the depths of their unimaginable grief, these parents knew that their children’s lives, lost far too soon, were meant for something bigger. More than a cautionary tale, Ty and Tyler serve as powerful ambassadors and beacons for the importance of acceptance, inclusion, and respect.
I walked away from the film, knowing for sure that we all have the capacity to make a difference. As young people. As adults. As citizens. When we see unkindness in action, we cannot look away. When we see pain, we must try to provide support. We must use our voices in ways that are meaningful and positive. We must use the resources at our disposal to create a culture of love.
I walked away from the film knowing that we must use our stories in a way that is empowering, affirming, and life-changing. If the Smalley and Long families, who lost their children to suicide, were able to reach into the wellspring of hurt and loss in an effort to increase awareness and promote acceptance, it is incumbent upon us to use our lives in service.
If Alex, Kelby, and Ja’Meya could open their lives and hearts, be vulnerable, and share their deepest thoughts and fears on film, so that we could learn from their experiences, it is incumbent upon us to let them know that their efforts were not in vain.
If Bully taught me anything, it has taught me that we are all worthy of respect.
We are all worthy of validation—of being seen, of being heard, and of knowing that we matter.
We are all worthy of love.
Prasanna is an international human rights lawyer, event planner, and project manager; ultimate Oprah viewer; and television, film, and awards show afficianado. Prasanna is pop-culture personified and loves the power of TV and film to educate, entertain and inspire! Prasanna dreams to work in the areas of media, entertainment, film and TV, opportunities which he truly feels would fulfill his lifelong passion to pursue creative work. Most recently, Prasanna participated in Season 2 of Lifeclass as a Skype Panelist and continues to count as his proudest moment when he met Oprah Winfrey in March 2010, as captured in this video. Follow Prasanna on Twitter or find him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or on his Website.