Knowledge is power. That’s what they tell us. But lately, I have been experiencing an overwhelming sensation that the more I know, the more powerless I am. The more I know, the more it feels as if America is becoming a meaner place, a place where being poor and insignificant in the eyes of those in power means that you simply don’t matter. I know that this has always been true to some extent, and not just in America. But I used to assume that the stories you heard about people suffering because of the system were exceptions. Not the rule.
When twenty-six people die in an American schoolhouse, and the country raises its voices for change, and those with the power to help prevent this kind of thing tell us that they would prefer to keep things the way they are, there is really only one way to interpret that. In their eyes, a few people dying is not important. In their eyes, keeping things the way they are is more important than trying something different, just to see if it helps. It’s this kind of knowledge, knowing what is going on in the halls of our government, that doesn’t feel like power. And it makes me wonder how much of this attitude is becoming a part of our culture. Or maybe it always has been and we just didn’t see it so blatantly played out. Or maybe it’s just time again for some action.
The other day, I watched a documentary called ‘Bully,’ which broke my heart. The film follows several young kids who have been victimized by bullies at school, as well as two families whose children committed suicide as the result of incessant bullying.
There were two aspects of this story that were disturbing. One of these kids, a twelve-year-old boy named Alex, had become so used to getting knocked around and teased by the kids at school that he convinced himself that they were his friends. At one point, he tells his father that a kid who was choking him on the bus was just kidding around. His father, exposing his own helplessness, resorted to the old “You just gotta fight back, son,” philosophy. This didn’t take into account the fact that Alex is a mere slip of a kid…skin and bones. Not to mention gentle and sweet. The scenes where he’s taking care of his little sister are so tender.
Later, when his mother suggests that the kids who pick on him are not his friends, he says “Well, if they’re not my friends, then I don’t have any friends.” Alex’s desperation to find a silver lining in this horrible situation turned into complete denial of reality, and it’s not hard to imagine why. The isolation he felt from this incessant abuse left him no other options. Especially when nothing he tried made any difference. He simply stopped telling people about it.
Which brings me to what was by far the worst part of this story. The adults. From the bus driver who sat completely silent while kids pummeled Alex on the bus every day to the principal who told Alex’s parents (who finally took matters into their own hands after the filmmakers showed them footage from the bus) “This stuff happens all the time.” In other words, buck up. There’s a scene earlier in the movie where she breaks up a fight between two boys and tells them to shake hands. The bully is thrilled to have an opportunity to get off so easy, but the other kid refuses to shake his hand. When he finally gives in and shakes the bully’s hand, the bully takes off, and the principal then spends another five minutes scolding the victim for not accepting the bully’s apology. She has the nerve to say to him, “I really think you two could be good friends if you gave him a chance.” The other kid finally says meekly, “You never do anything to him, so he just keeps doing it.” Bingo.
The assistant principal finally does a thorough investigation of Alex’s case, talking to kids on the bus, and zeroing in on the culprits, but it’s clear from the events leading up to her actions that the presence of the camera has prompted their actions. If the filmmakers hadn’t been there, these people would have never done anything to protect this kid.
And this is just one story. By the end of this film, it’s impossible not to feel the same outrage these parents do about what their kids are going through, and how little is being done about it. To the point that you root like hell when Kirk and Laura Smiley, parents of a young boy who shot himself when he lost hope, finally decide to take some action. There’s a touching scene where Kirk and Laura are in their bedroom, completely defeated. She is lying on the floor, her face blank with pain, and Kirk sits on the bed and says with a look of total resignation, “We’re nobodies, so nobody’s going to do anything about this. If it were a congressman’s kid, you can bet there’d be some changes happening.” Thankfully, Kirk found out otherwise when he decided to see if there were people out there who were interested in helping. Their Facebook group, Stand for the Silent, has grown to 34,000 members, and they have organized several rallies to try and get their message out to the world. Grass roots.
This week we were told by the principals of our government to shake hands and move along. We were told there’s nothing they can do to help us. They are trying to convince us that they are still our friends. But the cameras are running. We know what’s really going on here. We have the knowledge. Now with a little action, maybe we can take back a little of the power.