Confronting an Anti-bullying Campaign in San Francisco
Three years ago, when my son started kindergarten at a San Francisco city school, his mother and I were surprised one day to find in his backpack a curious form for us to sign. It was a no-bully pledge. By signing, we'd agree to instruct our son not to bully anyone at school. And, should someone at school bully him, we were to instruct our son not to fight back. Essentially, the school was telling us to tell our son to turn the other cheek. Nothing wrong with that. But I'm more of an eye-for-an-eye sort of guy, so I didn't quite appreciate the pacifist pressure. Fortunately, my son's mother felt the same. So neither of us signed the form. Instead, we just threw it away.
Luckily, no one at the school made a fuss. Still, I wasn't wild about the school making a fuss about bullying. Seemed to me, if any particular child were getting too aggressive with other kids at school, that one child, along with the child's parents, could be called into the principal's office to discuss the child's behavior. However, by making a fuss, by making all parents explain to their kids about bullying, kids were exposed unnecessarily to the very problem meant to be avoided. Suddenly, as a result of these good intentions, kids at school started talking about bullies. Almost overnight , when one kid did something another didn't like, the second kid called the first kid a bully. In no time at all, bully became a commonly acceptable schoolyard slur.
Earlier this year, on afternoons when I picked up my son from school, I was more and more perturbed by a poster pinned up in the school lobby. In the poster, behind a bright red circle and bright red slanted line, some bully kid in knickers, suspenders, and a Little Rascals floppy cap stood there with his dukes up ready to pick a fight. Text around the image read "Bullying is Never O.K.!" It was cute at first. But over time, the more and more I noticed the poster, the more and more bullied I felt.
Around the time my son started kindergarten, someone at the socially diverse community college where I teach posted a series of similar posters. In those, text around a pink triangle read "Don't Bully the Gay Kids." This was a curious demand. At the time, I wasn't aware of any gay kids being bullied on our campus though other kids from other groups had reportedly been harassed. Did this new sign, I wondered, intend to suggest it was permissible to bully those other kids, so long as they weren't gay? Almost immediately, people on campus found themselves bullied by the signs. After all, the signs, using the imperative form of the verb, commanded that the reader not bully, implying that the reader already had or might soon again bully a gay kid. People felt intimidated, me included.
I don't like feeling intimidated. And something about the anti-bully poster at my son's school provoked those past feelings. With my cell phone, I took the photo below of the bully poster at my son's school, then showed the image to my son. "Why," I asked him, "do you think the image of the bully is a boy?"
He thought about it for a second, then asked, "Are boys more likely to be bullies than girls?"
"Not at your age," I told him. As a matter of fact, I've seen girls at his school say the meanest things to one another; I've seen three girls bring another girl to tears by what they said to her.
"Why," I then asked him, "do you think the image of the bully is a white boy?"
He thought about it for a second, then asked, "Are white people more likely to be bullies than other people?"
"Some people," I told him, "might like you to think so."
One afternoon after school, while my son played soccer with some other kids on the playground, I tapped another father and showed him the picture of the poster on my cell phone. When I asked him what he thought, he told me that he was the one who had drawn the poster. Really? When I asked why he had drawn the image of the bully as a white boy, he cocked his head and looked at me sideways, blinking as if I were bats -- as if drawing the bully as a white boy were obvious.
"Why," I asked him, "didn't you draw the bully as a black boy?"
He bristled at the thought of it, reacting as if the PC Police might suddenly appear from the bushes.
I asked why he hadn't drawn the bully as an Asian or some Hispanic girl? Why a white boy? I pointed out that I, like him, had a white son who attended this school. Why would he draw his son as the image of a bully? Why my son? Why anyone's son or daughter? Obviously, this father had meant no offense when he drew the image of that bully. But over time, I became more and more offended by the image.
I wanted the posters removed.
Late last month, I emailed the principal of my son's school and very simply asked her to remove the offending images of the white boy as the iconic bully. I even suggested, should she desire to hang other anti-bully posters, that she replace the white-boy bully image with a picture of Tyrannosaurus Rex. An illustrated version of a T-Rex, with its silly little dukes up ready for a fight, would not reflect any human ethnic group nor any gender expression. Besides, kids already associate a T-Rex with aggressive bullying behavior. It's unlikely that anyone would be offended by that.
The principal emailed back, asking to see me in her office.
Uh-oh. I was in trouble now.
I was all prepared for a fight. I was all prepped for a lecture on tolerance and post-colonial white heterosexual privilege. If the principal wouldn't pull down the posters, I envisioned myself writing letters to the Board of Education, giving interviews to Sean Hannity and Mark Levin. I imagined the matter going national, viral even. I just hoped there would be no fallout affecting my innocent son. Still, I had felt bullied by those anti-bully posters. And if I felt that way, others might have, too. And even if they hadn't, I didn't want my son's schoolmates to look at him and, consciously or not, associate him with the bully on the board.
So I went to see the principal.
We met in her office for a few minutes while I reiterated my points. Looking me straight in the eye, she heard my concerns and asked for my patience while she spoke about this with a few individuals. This afternoon, as I arrived on campus to pick up my son from school, the principal approached me to let me know her decision: She had decided to remove all the offending posters.
I was pleasantly surprised.
Common sense is alive and well in San Francisco.
Once again, I'd been reminded that standing up to a bully -- or even a bad idea -- is often the best way to beat back its threat.
And look: I never even had to throw a punch.