Thursday, May 10, 2012

Goodbye Rachel

Last Friday night was Rachel Ehmke's funeral.  You might not have heard of Rachel.  I hadn't until a friend of mine made a blog post about her.  Rachel was a 13-year-old girl who committed suicide after relentless bullying, both online and face-to-face, by a group of girls at her school.  This wasn't the first such incident, and even I'm not optimistic enough to think it will be the last.  But for some reason this story has grabbed hold of my mind and won't let go.

I think this is at least partly because of what Rachel's dad said about the bullies:  "They're kids. They made some horrible decisions. If these kids would've have known this would happen I'm pretty sure they never, ever would have done what they did."  That just made me think.  Among other things, it made me think about Jimmy S, who I haven't thought about in years.

Jimmy was a boy who was in the same Boy Scout troop that I was.  He was the black sheep of the troop - to the best of my knowledge, he didn't really get along with any of us.  The rest of us all went to the local public junior high and high school, while he went to a private religious school.  He was obsessed with the military.  (Even by the standards of people living in a defense industry company town during the time of Rambo and Red Dawn he was obsessed with the military.)  He was overweight, which made his aspirations to join the special forces seem ridiculous to the rest of us.  Before joining the Boy Scouts, he had been in the Royal Rangers, and his stories of "how we did things in the Royal Rangers" didn't endear him to us.  And so he always got chosen last for teams.  Whenever we started playing pranks at summer camp, he was always the first target that sprang to mind.  In short, any of the myriad small cruelties that children and teens are capable of were aimed his way.

Before you get the wrong idea of where this story's going, let me tell you that Jimmy did not commit suicide.  In fact, a quick Google search conducted as I started writing this revealed that he still lives in the town where we grew up, still looks pretty much the same as he did, and seems to have pretty much the same interests as he did back then.  He apparently had a pretty strong concept of who he was even as a teenager, which no doubt helped him make it through our tormenting.  But another factor that no doubt worked in his failure is that in the mid-1980s we didn't have Facebook or text messaging or any of the other tools that today's kids are able to use when they set a target.  And I wonder now at what difference these technologies could have made in Jimmy's case.  He only saw us at Scouting events, so he only had to deal with our mistreatment for one evening a week, plus one weekend a month for camping, plus one week a year for summer camp - a fairly small amount of time compared to the 24/7 bullying that kids today are exposed to.  Also, all our interactions with Jimmy were done face-to-face, in public, under the supervision of our leaders.  This limited how far we could go.  And, knowing that we sometimes ran up against these limits, I know that we almost certainly would have gone further had we had the ability.

I don't have a solution to the bullying problem - if I did, I'd be being interviewed on TV about my "groundbreaking solution to the bully problem" instead of writing about it in my blog.  And while I by no means want to excuse the actions of these bullies, I want us all to remember Mr. Ehmke's words:  "They're kids [who] made some horrible decisions."  Bullying didn't begin with this generation, and I don't think these kids are necessarily crueler than their forebears.  I just think they have access to more powerful tools in their campaigns against each other than we ever had (although a phone in the days before caller ID was a pretty powerful weapon), with no more judgment than we had as to how far is too far.  The more tech-savvy parents are already aware, and the others are beginning to catch on, that what happens online is just as serious and just as "real" as what happens in the schoolyard.  If their children are being bullied online, that needs to be taken just as seriously as if it was happening face-to-face.  Conversely, if they find out their children are bullying other kids online, that needs to be taken just as seriously as if it was happening face-to-face.  What happens in Facebook, doesn't stay in Facebook.

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