Sticks and Stones, Truth and Lies

I wasn’t going to write about this.  I just wasn’t.  Even when Janie caught a glimpse of the news on TV while we were searching for the remote and I was forced to explain what suicide was and why two college kids were in so much trouble.*

Nope.  I was going to keep posting about music and Milk Chugs.  Keep it light, keep it funny, keep it coherent.  Keep your temper.

And then I read this by Kate Harding.  And I thought, well, damn it.

So here goes:

Several years and a library ago, a large, angry man came roaring up to the reference desk and demanded to know which workstation a certain young man—let’s call him Young Idiot—was using.

I won’t give that information to anyone without a warrant and the express permission of my director and possibly my lawyer,** plus this man was breathing fire and I wasn’t about to be an accessory to anything, so I called my supervisor and tried to calm the man down while she was on her way.

Large Angry Man told me that he’d been at home with his teenage daughter, who was on a chat site on the family computer.  He realized at one point that she was upset about something, and he checked what she was doing.  Young Idiot had sent  several “disgusting suggestions” to her.  When she hadn’t replied, he’d called her a lot of filthy names.

She knew Young Idiot from school and he’d mentioned he was at the library.  Large Angry Man wasted no time driving over for a confrontation and an apology.

Unfortunately, just as my supervisor arrived, Angry Man spotted Young Idiot across the room and called him out.  Loudly and with impressive vocabulary.  While I prepared to call 911 in case things got uglier, the supervisor (who remains my hero) inserted herself between them and mediated.

The kid readily admitted that he’d sent the girl several sexual suggestions.  But he didn’t think he’d done anything wrong.

“It didn’t mean anything,”  he said.  “It’s only the Internet.”

In other words, what he’d said or suggested had no bearing on the Real World.  The kid honestly had no idea why the girl would cry shocked tears over what he’d written or why her father was so enraged about it. From my observations, he didn’t think he should have to apologize with any sincerity either.

It was a joke, for cripe’s sake.  Couldn’t they take a joke?

The supervisor calmed Angry Man down, praising him for keeping a watchful eye on his daughter’s computer use, and telling him that Young Idiot would be banned from library computers for a year.   The man clearly didn’t think that this was enough, but understood that it was the best we could do.  He also understood that throttling the kid wouldn’t be in his own best interests and left.

Young Idiot protested the banning, until it was pointed out exactly how he’d violated the usage policy—which he was asked to read and accept every single time he logged in—and exactly why it wasn’t our fault he hadn’t read it.    He tried to stomp off in a huff, but my supervisor stopped him.

She told him he’d better wait until we made sure Large Angry Man had driven away—because we couldn’t protect him once he left library property.  She also offered him an escort to his car or bike, if he had one.

The expression of shock on Young Idiot’s face as it finally dawned on him that what he did in cyberspace might well have personal and painful repercussions to him?

Priceless.

I expect that somewhere between finding out that Tyler Clementi couldn’t take one more goddamn “joke” and discovering that they were going to have to answer for their little film fest, Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei wore similar expressions.

But see, that’s too little, too late.  Nothing will take away that girl’s memory of being assaulted by a classmate.***  Nothing will bring back Tyler Clementi or any of the other people who didn’t see any other way to escape the shame of what they’d been told about themselves.

So that’s why I’m posting this, and why I answered every single one of my seven-year old’s questions about the young human being who jumped to his death because two other young human beings, whatever their deeper motivation, didn’t care enough to think past their own amusement.^

And no, I’m not happy about having to explain to my daughters how nasty and thoughtless people can be to each other, but I want my kids—I want everyone—to know all about this kind of behavior so they will be prepared to both resist bullies and resist becoming them.

It’s about time we all admitted that one of the worst lies you can tell a child is that sticks and stones hurt worse than words and pointing fingers.  Another is that ignoring verbal abuse stops it.   Any hurting child past the age of four who gets those lies instead of empathy and real help  should be forgiven for looking their parents straight in the eye and saying, “Are you shitting me?”

Because the answer to that is yes. Yes, they are.

So, just in case I’m not preaching to the choir, here’s a brief recap:

What you do on the Internet counts as if you’d done it in the Real World.  Because—are you listening?—they’re pretty much the same damn thing.  Aliases, interfaces, and anonymity don’t absolve you or make you less responsible for what you do and say in cyberspace.

Hurting people for your own amusement or to relieve your own hurt makes you a bully,  an abuser, and a shit-hearted person.  It may be temporary, it may be something you can mature or heal beyond, but that does not absolve you from any shitty actions you may have committed in the past.  So don’t fucking start, okay?

Words can hurt.  If someone is hurting you with their words—even if they don’t lay a single finger on you—get help. From a friend, teacher, counselor, newspaper reporter, clergyperson, psychologist, librarian, police officer, twitter, a domestic abuse hotline, Child Services, a suicide hotline, anywhere at all.

Tell, narc, tattle, inform, scream.  Keep doing it until someone listens and helps you.

Because the people who are hurting you are wrong.

You aren’t worthless or ugly or a mistake or—God help us—too fat or a pervert or going to hell or better off dead.  You’re not, you’re not, you’re not.

If anyone ever tells you that they’d rather die than be like you, tell them you’ll send flowers and then go to someone you trust—find someone, don’t stop looking—and listen when they tell you that you are smart and funny and worthy and beautiful and special.

And keep listening until you believe it.  Repeat it over and over to yourself until you believe it.

Don’t let go.  Stay with us.

I swear to you, it does get better.

___

*When my kids ask me questions, I try my best to answer them, even when I’d rather play ostrich.  If I don’t, they’ll stop asking—or at least stop asking me.  I do tailor the answers to fit the age of the kid and there are a few topics for which I’ve begged (and received) an extension—but bullying isn’t one of those.

**Which is why there’s no information here that could absolutely ID the people involved, except for me.

***You do not want to argue this with me.  At all.

^This is also why my husband and I ride herd on her Internet usage and refuse to let her go on the social networks, even if they’re sponsored by a toy company or a brand of stuffed animal.  She’s seven.