Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Nerds and Bullying

I’m certain bullying still occurs in schools. No one grows up with the perfect childhood nor are we surrounded by the perfect people. What I’m curious however is the criteria for being bullied. Two decades ago, being smart made you the target of insults, teasing, and harassment. Of course I’m speaking from my own childhood experience and the social dynamics then might have been different from what it is now (in addition to the fact that I went to a Catholic all-boys school). These days, however, especially with the proliferation of mainstream shows that feature not just smart characters but genius protagonists (C.S.I., Numbers), I wonder if the kids of today still pick on their smart classmates or have they become the modern day jocks?

Television has changed. I suspect it’s because the nerds of yesterday are now writing the scripts of our population TV shows. I remember back in the 80’s and earlier, while there were so-called nerds on TV shows, they were rarely the main characters. Supporting cast yes, main hero no. At best, they occupied vital consulting positions, such as Q in the James Bond movies or even Spock in Star Trek (who would occasionally get the chance to save the day but if you run the numbers, Star Trek is a Captain Kirk show). At worse, they were the comedy relief (anyone remember Urkel from Family Matters?). There were exceptions of course, such as Doctor Who or MacGyver, but these were the exceptions rather than the norm. These days however, you have shows like C.S.I. and its derivatives which actually feature an entire cast of nerds or you can have a show like Prison Break where viewers fall head over heels over the genius main character, Michael Scofield. And then there’s the Internet phenomenon and the sudden growth in consumer electronics. Suddenly, being smart or at least technologically savvy is one of the in-things.

I remember as a kid I frequently got bullied, more so in later years. It’s interesting to note that during first year grade school and second year grade school, a lot of my classmates (including those who would later become the bullies and the jocks) were on the honor roll. It was only later, perhaps when we all realized how boring studying can be, that being smart made you stand out. The practical minded in our class excused their lacking by saying that they’ll inherit their family business anyway or that they were rich or they had other methods of making money. Just goes to show how most parents compel their kids to study: by making them believe that it’s the path to financial success. But us kids didn’t buy into that. And then there were those who weren’t inclined to be smart. They honed their other talents, whether their physical or mental gifts. These were usually the type—but not the only ones—that bullied the smarter kids, either physically hurting them or simply making them emotional punching bags (since I attended a private school, no one really asked for people’s lunch money because most of us were well-off).

The problem with getting good grades was that it drew attention to yourself. The bullies would say you’re just craving for attention at best or at worst claiming that you make everybody else look bad. The honor rolls students were also prime targets for cheating so that those failing in class would pass the semester…and the semester after that and so on. The bullies may not have been knowledgeable but they were cunning. Through this method of getting low grades but somehow managing to pass (and let’s be honest, what teacher wants to fail their students?) thanks to cheating (or sometimes just plain hard work and effort), they’ll move on to the next batch, practicing the same tactics, preying on the same people. The bullied students either learn to live with it or try to transfer to a different class or another school (which unfortunately has its own share of bullies). The easiest thing to do was not to be smart, to not draw attention to yourself, to not be part of the honor roll. At least that’s how it should work in theory.

I don’t consider myself smart, at least not at first. If you look at my grades, they’re average. I wasn’t an honor roll student and I had several subjects that were close to failing (and in fact I did fail a few subjects). But I was bullied nonetheless and this should clue in students on the nature of bullying. I wasn’t bullied because I was smart, I was bullied because I looked smart. I had the typical characteristics: glasses, small and thin, and a bag with everything in it. And perhaps for me what was more interesting was that the honor roll students weren’t always preyed upon. Some managed to stay bully-free for several school years thanks to social maneuvering, bribes, or sheer politicking.

If you’re a nerd and you’re being bullied, the truth of the matter is, you’re not being bullied because you’re smart. You’re being bullied because you’re different. One merely needs to look at who was being bullied. Because as much as nerds were being bullied in school, other types of students were similarly being bullied. You could be the dumbest kid in school and get teased often. You could have a physical defect and get bullied (I once had a classmate whose head was always leaning to the left and so he was on the receiving end of many jokes and insults). People are more tolerant now but before in my school, if you were even suspected of having a different sexual orientation you were also bullied. And the reason why some of the smart kids never got bullied was because they were friends with the bullies or they got well with people in general (i.e. they blended in). People bully you because you’re too different from them. And the fact of the matter is, the bullies are probably insecure about themselves. That’s why they feel so strongly about “normalizing” the rest of us, of making us feel deviants unwelcome. This phenomena isn’t limited to just the school environment. In happens in real life. We might not get physically hurt per se but there are other ways of coercing us to be part of the norm: getting ostracized, peer pressure, or even social sanctions. That’s what might happen when you visit a group of religious fanatics or when you join a party of a different social class or simply visit a foreign country.

Even if the world has indeed undergone a paradigm shift and the nerds of yesteryear are today’s jocks, where being smart is cool, bullying will still probably occur. At worse, it’s the nerds who are now doing the bullying, piling dense insults on those less astute. At best, the smart kids in school might be part of the apathetic norm who merely watches bullying occur but are afraid to interfere lest they attract attention to themselves. And perhaps what’s more horrifying is the fact that it’s a perpetuating cycle and those who witness it (be it teachers, parents, or simply strangers) feel helpless in stopping it. Sure, some of your peers might interfere but anyone who’s been bullied knows that this is only a temporary solution. Your teacher or parent or best friend won’t always be there to protect you. Worse, you lose the respect of your peers by depending on someone else to rescue you (or maybe this is just a guy thing). Some people might tell you to stand up to bullies. I’ve stood up against bullies and it’s not as easy as TV makes it seem to be. Sometimes I win. Sometimes I lose. But the bullies will still be there tomorrow no matter where I go. Bullies are pretty much like politicians: they’ll come in a variety of faces and sometimes it’s just the names that change. Is there truly a solution to bullying?

For me bullying is like poverty. You want to eliminate it but you can’t. As long as human beings have free will and are capable of emotions both positive and negative, there’ll be bullying. As long as people will have egos and insecurities, there’ll be bullying. As long as people will be individuals with unique traits and quirks, there’ll be bullying. And even if we manage to build a perfect society, one that is intolerant of bullies, all we’ve managed to accomplish is create a paradox and merely transformed ourselves from victim to agressor. But if there’s anything hopeful I have to say it’s this: we’re all human and the one constant thing is change. Some bullies from my past I don’t care to meet. Some I’ve made peace with. There are even previous bullies who I now call friends. If I gave up on living early on, I wouldn’t be here today. Bullies are indeed a malignant threat to society but they’re not the only threat we face. If we can’t face them, how can we face the other challenges in life? And deep down, we must remember that bullies are like us: human.

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