One of my lifelong friends and I happened to have our first children in the same year, 2009. About a year later, we were joking about our boys, and my friend said: “Do you want him to be bullied, or be the bully?” I wanted to think that was a false choice. After he was diagnosed with autism, I wondered if I had any choice at all.
As we prepped for preschool, the Berkeley Unified School District was asking me what were my concerns for my boy. Well, I had plenty. But I always started and ended with: “I don’t want him to be pushed around, and I don’t want him to learn to push others around.” Maybe everyone thinks their kid is a snowflake; mine was so tame, he wouldn’t even reach for the things he wanted. I mean, I’d glimpsed special-needs classes; I’d seen kids running around screaming with no regard for which kids they were getting near.
Or was that every preschool on the planet? In the case of the BUSD, there may not be much difference, because they’re determined to mainstream everyone, including my son.
This is the perspective I bring to bear on a story that’s been getting a lot of heat lately, the case of a high-functioning autistic boy at Chopticon High School in Southern Maryland who was allegedly bullied and assaulted by two teenage girls. Among the alleged incidents recorded on a cellphone: a knife being held to the 16-year-old’s throat, his repeated falls through an icy pond after he was encouraged to fetch a basketball and his efforts to have sex with his family’s dog at the behest of two girls he considers his friends. In fact, the boy told The Washington Post’s Ian Shapira that he forgives the girls, wants the charges dropped and doesn’t think they meant any harm. This spins the narrative in even more bizarre directions. (AnotherWashington Post article mentioned that fear of bullying is the #1 fear of parents of kids with autism. I wonder if that statistic includes rape.)
The Chopticon story is a real-life Mean Girls meets The Black Balloon, and I think that’s part of why it resonates. This isn’t just about autism; it’s about popular kids, cheerleaders even, taking advantage of one of our society’s most vulnerable people. We’ve all seen it. And then, when a child can’t speak, can’t communicate in any way, temptation sits there ever-present – heck, it flashes across my mind when I’m helping Dar get out of the car and together we bump his head. For an instant I think, “Well, it’s not like he can tell anyone.” Then I think: “Wow I suck.” Maybe these girls at Chopticon just forgot their “Wow I suck”s. We all want to believe that we don’t know anyone who could do what they did, never mind raise anyone who could do what they did. Weren’t all these helicopter parents supposed to prevent these sorts of incidents? What happened, Helichopticon Parents?
In my humble opinion, the Chopticon story doesn’t prove that America has lost its moral way. Quite the opposite. When we truly surrender to materialism and corporate values over any other kind, then a story like this won’t even be a story. Sometimes I hear about the latest racist of the week – Cliven Bundy, Donald Sterling – and wonder about the personal agendas that may be driving all these tut-tut shame-shame stories. However, I do feel that all these meme-driving viral pieces of narrative – and here I include the kids at Chopticon – are proof of a society that still cares. And that’s not nothing. Bullying kids may not fear their parents or any elder authority. But they probably fear internet ignominy. If that can serve as some kind of morality check, let’s keep the internet as free as we can. For the life of my child.
However, the tut-tut shame-shame-iness of the internet cuts both ways. The internet is not just anti-bullying; it’s also anti-anti-bullying, or really anti-anyone who takes any kind of stand. Any female writer gets bullied all the time. No rule of the internet is more powerful than you don’t want to read the comments.
I do think there’s something a little too easy about the outrage over the events in Southern Maryland, much like the events surrounding Donald Sterling. Maybe these go viral precisely because a lot of us live in the gray area and we need cartoon villains to make ourselves feel better. We pat ourselves on the back because we like to believe we know we wouldn’t cross the line. Something like bullying has always existed and will always exist, so what do we do? MTV’s solution, at athinline.org, seems to be to get people to define bullying case by case, victim by victim. “What about if my ex-gf starts posting embarrassing pictures to my wall, is that bullying?” If we start using “bullying” to mean everything “wrong,” the word gets diluted, the meaning gets lost, and teachers, parents, and administrators find it harder and harder to help anyone.
Consider, if you will, reality. Picture yourself in your child’s school. See the overlit hallway, hear the lockers opening and closing, smell the chalk and sweat. Watch as kids run back and forth. They’re going to go to class, they’re going to learn, or not. You don’t think anything big is going to happen. No one ever does. No one expects a word like “Chopticon” to make headlines all over the world. Until it does.
Can we really live in a society that defines bullying case by case, one at a time? Well, I acknowledge contributing my own patch to the narrative quilt when I wrote my very awesome DaVinci Code-like novel about teenage cyber-bullying that leads to real-life bullying. But hey, give me credit for reaching out. I didn’t use the word autism once. I wanted to write a more universal story. We all need to teach our children real values, to take a hard look at who we are in 2014, and who we want to be. I’ll admit, though, my last chapter was a 16-year-old girl looking for answers without knowing if they’ll ever come. We are in that gray area. But the alternatives aren’t a lot better.
I believe there is a place between being bullied and being a bully, between promises and reality, and that it’s worth something to live there and even to fight for that. In the final moment of Seven, Morgan Freeman narrates, “Hemingway said ‘the world is a good place, and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.” However compromised, any wisdom that Morgan Freeman narrates can’t be all wrong.