For Emerson, bullying started early; around JK with teasing and generic name calling. He thinks it’s very important that schools should be teaching kids at a young age fundamentals about how to manage and understand their emotions. These are building blocks that he sees just as important as learning the ABCs or how to count to 10. He thinks that if kids can be taught to be more understanding and are better able to manage their own emotions, perhaps bullying wouldn’t be able to gain as strong a foothold, especially when kids are this young.
How it Began
Being in a small school, it seemed like Emerson was stuck with his bullies permanently throughout school. It seemed easier for them to continue targeting him because that’s what they had always done. The initial reasons why he was bullied weren’t too clear. It could have been something subtle like being just a little different than the rest of the kids. He was a bit bigger in size, was quiet and shy and didn’t perform as well in gym class as the others. That’s all it took to begin a pattern of behaviour that gained momentum, leading down a very dark path.
It got more serious in grades two and three, when generic verbal insults became more specific, targeted and malicious. With each passing grade, things got even worse. Kids would start throwing food at him at lunch, calling him names related to his size. He was so ashamed and hurt by this he would throw his lunch away most days and couldn’t eat in front of other people.
Imagine how hurtful receiving even a single comment like this would be to you – if you were bigger than average and someone called you “trash bin” or other names. Now imagine that happening every single day, for years. It saps your self confidence in such a way that you are no longer even able to grow and develop properly. If you are made to think you are bad at something, you no longer have the courage to try harder and improve. You live in constant fear, and can even develop a sense of self-hatred and loathing.
The voices of the many outweigh the voice inside
Emerson had people in his life who supported him such as his parents, and of course they assured him that it wasn’t him and it wasn’t his fault. But we have to remember that when you’re a kid, and your peers are other kids and you’re surrounded by them every day, they have a big influence too. Having a class of many kids telling you that you’re worthless every day is a strong, united and consistent voice. As much as you tell yourself that it’s not you, it’s them – there’s only one of you and many of them. You can actually start believing them.
Don’t call me a victim!
Emerson does not like the word and label “victim” as a way to describe someone who has suffered from bullying. He finds it to be belittling – that someone who is a victim is powerless and trapped in something beyond their control. He prefers to refer to himself as a survivor of bullying – he did suffer but he also made it through, and has become stronger in many ways. It’s important to consider the nuances of the terminology we use and what it can mean to people. I think he’s right – a person really can’t learn to develop and rekindle a sense of strength within themselves that they can use to fight against adversity when the word used to describe them has such a bleak meaning that almost acts to sap that strength from us.
It gets worse
By grade six things got really bad with a new bully who began beating Emerson up at lunch on a nearly daily basis. Sometimes, teachers would watch and do nothing. Sometimes teachers would get Emerson in trouble if he tried to fight back because he was ‘making it worse’. Sometimes teachers told him to ‘man up’ and get tougher. If I didn’t experience some of this stuff myself I would have a hard time even believing these things, but I absolutely do believe it. What horrible and confusing ways for adults to act in such situations! Clearly there’s no consistent training, no system or model, and nobody knows what the heck they’re doing in the school system.
How does it come to suicide?
It’s shocking and sad to hear but because of all this Emerson self-harmed, contemplating suicide as young as grade four and attempting it later on. When you’re a kid, and are abused by others so incessantly your entire existence in the world becomes a confusing mess. Kids are still trying to figure out who they are, what they want to do and who they want to be. With bullying comes fear, confusion, anger, sadness, despair and self-hatred. Self-hatred is extremely destructive. The interpretation is that because everyone’s telling you to hate yourself, you eventually start to. The pain and jumble of emotions becomes so intense, overwhelming, confusing that a child has no idea how to handle or deal with it. They simply want a way out – they want it to stop, and feel powerless to do so.
How to use empathy
Emerson eventually came to the realization like many of us do that bullies quite often act out because they are personally struggling with a negative situation themselves. It could be a poor home life, or issues with confidence or insecurity. It’s important that we identify and talk about this. It doesn’t mean we accept it and say ‘it’s ok’. To solve any problem, we must identify the root cause and talk about it.
When kids are young, the opportunity is there to help them with their struggles. As they get older and things get worse it becomes harder and harder. It’s difficult to feel empathy for those who hurt us – but empathy doesn’t mean we are accepting the action, it just means we can ‘feel’ why it’s happening. That very understanding will influence the way we deal with the situation, hopefully leading to a better result for ourselves.
Progressive discipline doesn’t work
Emerson thinks the system of progressive discipline that exists in schools isn’t being implemented properly. There are many issues to consider; for example: suspending a kid who is acting out may be sent back to an unstable home life where they are mistreated or miserable. If that’s the case, then the child will be very angry at who they perceive as the person who sent them there (the kid they were bullying). This will make things worse for the person suffering the bullying.
It’s much easier for kids (and adults do this too) to point a finger and blame someone else for a negative situation they are in. Sometimes, these situations arise due to our own actions (ie. If you beat someone up and get punished, it’s because the decision you made to beat someone up, not the fault of the person you beat up or the fault of the school system).
Schools don’t seem to teach kids even this basic idea of cause and effect – that we are in control of our actions, and our actions affect and influence things and people external to ourselves. Sadly, the lesson that Emerson learned when he was young as a result of this progressive discipline system was that he should just stay quiet and not tell anyone what was happening. Telling people always made things worse with the bullying. This is absolutely the wrong lesson to teach kids and a very poor outcome!
Should you fight back?
We started talking about fighting back and standing up to bullies. Emerson never did. It’s not that he couldn’t have – he was as big or bigger than all his bullies and he had some training in self-defense. What held him back was that he really didn’t want to hurt anyone – even if they were hurting him. He’s a sensitive person, and I can relate to this also being a sensitive person. But also, there’s always an element of fear coming from the oppressive ways we had been treated.
What was shocking to me was Emerson’s statement that he thought schools really didn’t like when students stand up for themselves physically, and that the person who is standing up to a bully is likely to get in more trouble than the bully, even if the bully does this every day and the other person does it once.
Guns at school
At one point in grade six, Emerson’s bully threatened to shoot him and two other kids with a particular kind of handgun. Because of being conditioned to fear the school’s discipline system, Emerson said nothing. However, one of the other kids did say something. Police were called and they actually confiscated this particular handgun (which had ammunition) from the bully’s household! It doesn’t take much imagination to envision what sort of influence the kid had at home that impacted his behaviour.
You’d think that might have been a catalyst for change… but no. The student was given a lot of chances, and their behaviour was tolerated because of alleged mental health diagnoses. Kids with mental health issues need help – they don’t need to be treated with impunity, which simply will enable them leading to the suffering of others. There’s a balance between firmness or punishment, and help.
Threatening to kill someone is on an extreme end of a spectrum of behaviour, and some form of intervention should have been enacted long before. By supporting that student they could have broken that chain of abuse and helped Emerson as well. But, for another 6-8 months the kid continued to torment Emerson. That is until he bashed another kid’s head into a brick wall in front of a teacher and was literally dragged to the office and expelled.
Does the school even care?
Suffering from a partial memory block due to PTSD related to bullying, Emerson went on a quest to scour his academic records looking for evidence of the details of his bullying. He found nothing. Even after going through executive level people high up in the district school board, they found nothing. Not even a mention of the gun incident. There was a brief mention in one record by a teacher that they observed Emerson was struggling emotionally in school, but the teacher did nothing about it. This left Emerson feeling like nobody cared at all about him or his suffering. That must be a really lonely place to find yourself in.
Voices Against Bullying
Emerson is working on changes to the way bullying is handled in schools. He’s working with the local school board as well as an organization called Voices Against Bullying (they have an active Facebook group and website voicesagainstbullying.ca). The first change is a simple reporting system to help ensure that incidents in schools are documented properly, action is taken and these documents are signed off by the teachers and principal. Also, a report was commissioned by the Safe Schools Review Panel which was assembled after the stabbing death of Devan Bracci-Selvey in front of his mother on school property in Hamilton in 2019. The report seems to have some good suggestions on reforming some of the discipline systems in schools.
Unfortunately, fighting through all the levels of bureaucracy can take years, and students are suffering today. Emerson and Voices Against Bullying are looking for ways to get external people to come into the school boards to help make change directly rather for waiting for the board to approve internal measures.
Ask for help to help yourself
There is one additional piece of the puzzle that needs to be faced when we are talking about solving bullying. We can put support systems in place for students whether they are being bullied or doing the bullying. We can change the way we teach kids to better handle their emotions. But ultimately whoever is experiencing the bullying also needs to take steps on their own to help themselves.
External measures can help this process, but the individual must also choose to go through the healing process. Ask for help. This is always a difficult thing to do, and a painful thing to do. When kids are already going through so much pain, the thought or more self-imposed pain is inconceivable. However, the only way to heal is to confront that pain directly, push through it and beyond it.
Whether an individual is suffering from fear, anxiety, anger, low self-esteem, low confidence, past trauma, insecurity, depression, PTSD or anything else – one must go through it to get to the other side. Don’t be afraid to rely on using ‘crutches’ if you need to, to get through a bad period. Medication, a therapist, other people to support you – maybe you think you’re not strong enough to do it on your own, but that’s ok. If you broke your leg, and need a cast – it helps you for a while then you don’t need it anymore. It’s the same thing.
Therapy can help guide a person through this (such as cognitive behavioural therapy or a host of others). Remember, it’s not about defeating or eliminating pain and trauma, it’s about managing it enough to be able to start living your life. Each day you may improve a little, and some days might feel bad. Ups and downs are normal.
Physical activity plays a huge role. It doesn’t have to be intense; a simple walk outside is extremely therapeutic. It’s important to try and be in the moment, and focus simply on your breathing, or the sights and sounds of nature. You can play sports, work out at the gym or if you’re like me, try a classical martial arts program.
I am partial to classical or traditional martial arts because of the heavy focus on the development of an individual from the inside out, and not so much solely on fighting. Fighting is simply a threshold through which we learn about our own nature, and eventually can move beyond the need of it or appeal of it. I train these skills at the Dapo Dojo, headed up by an incredible individual – Sensei Bassels.
It gets better
There is so much life to live after having gone through bullying, and as bad and as hopeless as it can feel sometimes, it will get better. Don’t wait for it to get better. You have the power to pull yourself out, to scrape and climb and crawl and wriggle through if you have to. To fight. Not to fight someone, but to fight for yourself. Once you get there, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner, as the pain of it is nothing in comparison to the joy you can find in your life afterwards. As Emerson said, the world is MUCH better with you in it. And if you are someone who sees someone being bullied, choose to fight for them in whatever way you can. Even with a friendly smile, or casual chat.
Further thoughts post-interview
Emerson’s bullying really began in kindergarden – and this is where we need to start teaching kids about their ‘nature’. It’s important for them to start making the connection between how they feel and how they act. The interplay between fear and anger and how it gets resolved within ourselves and then between others. Emotions are always part of us, and play an integral role in our relationship with our own identity. Empathy can only develop once we have a good understanding of our own nature.
Bullies use weapons
Bullies seem to be good at weaponizing thoughts and emotions – and they may not even really understand this because their behaviour often starts out as a reaction or mechanism to shield or protect their own emotional state.
If you think about it – it seems that bullying is an act of offense and defense triggered by fear and insecurity. To better manage the problem, we need to first recognize the fears or insecurities, and bring them to the forefront so they can be confronted, managed or resolved. This requires looking inward and building up an internal strength, confidence and understanding in each individual.
Through this process, it allows an individual to refine, explore and grow as a person. The process however, is often not pleasant and can be painful and difficult. So rather than refine, explore and grow people often put up walls and shields to ‘protect’ themselves from this, which ultimately supresses their own personal growth. I think adults still struggle with this, partly because they were never really shown or taught about these concepts as children.
Forged in the fire
Emerson mentioned a number of times that his sense of self-esteem and confidence was effectively destroyed when the voices of many of his peers drowned out his own inner voice, and he resigned to believe the voices of the many over his own. I’ve experienced this myself, and found that my training in martial arts over the years helped me refine and build up my inner voice.
It was sort of like being forged in a fire though – because martial arts is the study of fighting and conflict and that’s not something I naturally gravitated towards. It’s interesting that it’s inherently a destructive force, but, being forced to experience and confront a whole bunch of feelings and emotions during the process eventually liberates us from the fighting aspect of it.
If you maintain a self-reflective and self-refinement mindset, you can move through and beyond obstacles that others may get stuck at. From what I understand, you can’t get this philosophy at every martial arts organization. I’ve found the Dapo dojo to focus heavily on these concepts. But, I’ve trained with many others and have taken different values and benefits from each.
As Emerson also mentioned, physical fitness was a key aspect of his recovery and you don’t even need a gym membership or a karate membership to achieve that. Even a simple walk each day is therapeutic, or flipping old tires in your backyard.
For anyone interested in fitness, I’ve begun to put together a system called SparX Fitness Training that I’m launching. It builds upon concepts in martial arts, incorporating mindfulness with a good cardio and strength focused workout.
Punishment – does it work?
In the interview we discussed punishment and how it can actually make matters worse. It sounds counter intuitive, but if we step back a bit and forget all the things we think we know it can make a lot of sense. Punishment almost seems to be this method of last resort, after adults fail to try and do something else. A child may need some guidance, or understanding, or support, or an outlet to explore their feelings. But instead, the kids own anger and hatred are being fuelled by parents and teachers who are punishing them. The punishment is being done essentially because adults find it easier to blame the kids than help them. They aren’t bad people – they’re also struggling with how to cope and with what to do.
Do we know how to help?
Some of the things we tell kids to make them feel better might actually be more destructive than we think. For example, we can try to drill it into a kid’s head that conflict is bad and being kind is good. Always be kind, caring, never fight, never hurt someone. Also if we try to absolve a kid of all responsibility for something that’s happening in their life it may teach them to blame others more.
Regardless of the circumstances of a situation, an individual really only has direct control over their own actions. Besides relying completely on other to help us, the only way to affect change in our lives is to also help ourselves. But if we see everything as being ‘done to us’ then it fosters very hopeless feelings which are destructive.
The problem is conflict in life is unavoidable. Each individual has something special and precious inside them. The key is that we need to be able to defend and protect that in a balanced way. This is kind of the idea of ‘standing up for ourselves’. But not only that, also standing up for each other. This is a learning process that can be painful, and we should teach children how to help each other heal and share the discomfort of growing up.
What do we have control over?
In our conversation today, it was very important that Emerson realized what was happening to him was not his fault. That’s because he was starting to believe it was 100% his fault. It wasn’t – he could not control the actions of the others. The only thing he could control is how he acted and what he did, but he was also feeling very hopeless and was struggling with this moral dilemma of fighting back. When things get as bad as they did for Emerson, there aren’t any easy answers or solutions. So many factors are in the mix.
I just hope that by understanding how these things play out, we can figure out how to better teach and support kids to enable and empower them to grow, manage conflict, explore and refine their identities in positive and balanced ways. That’s all we can really do, and the rest is up to them.
What is lost, what is gained
It can be said that Emerson essentially ‘lost’ his childhood. It was like a nightmare. It’s really sad and unfortunate, but, at this point it can’t be changed. I think it’s important to focus on what was gained through all this, and what was strengthened. Like being forged in a fire through my martial arts training, or being forged in a fire through being bullied – some parts of us become stronger. It’s a kind of learning that has no other way of being taught. Emerson is taking that strength and using it for advocacy, change and ultimately helping others see what he now sees.