The news of the recent suicide of 11-year old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover struck me hard, not only because I was horrified that someone that young could feel so trapped and ostracized to see suicide as the only solution and way out, but that many of the headlines begin with “another”: that this hasn’t been the first.
“Another 11-year-old Commits Suicide over Anti-Gay Bullying.”
“Another 11-Year-Old Commits Suicide: Anti-Gay Taunts Cited.”
And I have just read of yet another 11-year old who killed himself due at least partially to bullying.
As someone who has experienced suicidal ideation myself, reading these news articles brings back haunting memories of bleak hopelessness: it’s a vicious, unsympathizing circle that nourishes itself on the feedback of any residual and remembered guilt.
But the level of taunting and hostility towards these two boys (and who knows how many other children worldwide) was so high that they saw no way out of it. It is crushing to imagine what was said and done, repeatedly, day after day, that caused something to finally snap in their spirits, and for them to lose hope at the age of 11. It is even more distressing that the schools were aware, that parents were aware and pleaded with teachers and administrators to control it, to create a more tolerant and less abusive learning environment. And nothing changed.
These stories sicken me the way the savage murder of the boy Simon in Lord of the Flies sickened me when I first read the novel.
This brings me jarringly to mind of the famous blue- vs. browned-eyed social experiment conducted by Jane Elliott, a grade school teacher in a small town, Iowa. [You can see the PBS documentary done on this study here.] It’s fascinating, and you should watch it if you haven’t already. In short, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, Jane Elliott decided “the shooting of [MLK Jr.] could not just be talked about and explained away…I knew that it was time to deal with this in a concrete way.” In a two-day experiment, the schoolteacher set up arbitrary rules of prejudice, stating that all blue-eyed people were the “better people” for the first day and allowing the kids with blue eyes extra privileges and segregating them with rules for expected behavior for each group. On the second day she switched the roles.
Right away, once the rules were set and they began their lessons, noticeable discrimination cropped up. There were fights at recess, arguments in class, and noticeable differences in class participation and performance. Throughout both days, Jane Elliott used verbal and psychological cues to reinforce the self-created discrimination, admonishing the “lower class” more, exaggerating their mistakes and praising the “higher class” for their achievements and intelligence.
Of course, when I mentioned this study to a few friends, some were outraged that she would dare treat the children this way, and a few commented that she would never be allowed to teach in present-day America. Perhaps. But what I found particularly noteworthy and commendable about this social experiment (and which you see in the documentary, as well as in adult groups that she does in later chapters of the program) is that she continually asks questions on how the children feel, throughout the class day as well as at the end, when she has them all together. She asks how they feel, why they were unhappy, what it meant about other forms of discrimination, and what they learned from the two days.
In all it was a very bold and controversial movement, and something she incorporated into her curriculum for at least three years. Later she would start workshops for adults dealing with the same kind of discrimination, another fascinating part of the video to watch. Also telling is the reunion of one of Elliott’s classes, where she once again drills them with questions on why they acted certain ways and how they felt outside of the classroom environment.
But the point here, I suppose, is to wonder: was it wrong for her to treat her schoolchildren this way? If, as she mentions, talking continually about discrimination is ineffectual, then what can be done to teach our children about its impact on others’ lives? I think what she did is commendable. I am in the same boat of mothers who believe in empowering their children through responsibility and experience. I cheered for the Brooklyn mother and columnist who let her son ride the subway home alone from Bloomingdale’s. I believe children are capable of much more personal and mental growth, in general, than many adults allow them room for.
I think there is a lot to learn from this, whether or not you agree with what Jane Elliott did. We as a culture hold some hyped up and fear-driven views of childrearing and teaching, and it shows. It always has – I’m not saying bullying is a new phenomenon of our times. And it is not as if we should shelter our children from all roughhousing; it is equally important for them to be able to defend or extricate themselves from a potentially harmful situation, and to learn to navigate different social circles. What is unacceptable is the mobbing and singling out of an individual to be ostracized.
Children can be cruel and vicious, yes. But they are what they absorb from others, learning actions and mimicking traits present in their environment. There are so many questions now that need to be answered. What roles should schools play in all of this? What happens on the community level? National? Cultural?
I hope, at the very least, that these sad, enraging deaths will jar our communities into probing these questions, and perhaps realizing that there is more to a child’s education than basic academic subjects.