A is for Arts, B is for Bullying PART I

Last week I had a discussion with my psychologist about singing. After establishing that it made me feel really good, and any singer would know that this is an indescribable, joyful energy, she asked me if I sang to my kids.

“I sing to them every night.”
“Do you think they know how lucky they are to have a mother who can sing, and who sings to them?”I stopped and thought about this. Don’t all children have mothers who sing to them?Of course, the answer is no, not all children have mothers who sing to them. Not all children have mothers. Not all children have a home or someone to care for them. Not all children have equal rights.
My kids may have access to the arts, but not every kid does.

In the recent administration change in the United States, a decision was made that would cut funding, approximately .004 percent of the federal budget, to the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA are an independent federal agency responsible for funding thousands of arts based programs across all 50 states. These programs are unique and purposeful, and include projected outcomes such as healing for veterans who have returned broken from war, and not just physically.

Concerning the cuts, Alyssa from NJ said she’s “fearful for [her] future career and what this might mean for [her] younger family members, growing up with less arts support.”

I often ask myself why the arts are always one of the first things on the chopping block. Is it because our leaders don’t understand how important they are, or is it because they fear what the arts can do?

The arts heal, unite, and teach in such a manner that they are often one of the few things to get through to a person. When someone threatens that, I can’t help but think they have an agenda to divide, and to weaken the fabric of a nation.

Imagine for a minute a little funneled filter in our brains that has all these messages rushing in. At times, they travel too fast, and there are too many of them. Imagine these messages as hundreds of little squiggly lines competing to get through the tiny nozzle at the end of the funnel.
Sometimes it hurts.

For someone like me, and I know I’m not on my own, the right song, line from a movie or book, the right dance piece can stop all the noise and bring clarity. The squiggly lines dissipate and one cool, coloured line makes its way in. It continues through my head, and into my heart. The warmth radiates all over.

Sometimes the squiggly lines are me telling myself I’m not good enough, or telling me that I don’t even deserve to live. These particularly angry lines, more often than not, branch off memories. Many of those memories are from being bullied and socially isolated.

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With the peer reviewed studies available on bullying, I could easily write a novel discussing the nuances of the subject. For now, let’s just look at a few things I’ve found:

‘Social implications of bullying’ by Marion Goldstein explores the use of poetry in the classroom. Feeling entangled in the troubles of a bullied 7th grader who struggled to get out of bed to attend school, Goldstein penned a poem to give voice to her own feelings and to deepen her awareness of the effects of bullying on the family. “Poetry therapy can be used in the classroom or in designated school groups facilitated by guidance counselors, as a tool to increase empathy and promote awareness in both staff and students to combat bullying,” she explains.

Sometimes bullying can be hard to understand or empathise with, due to the very personal and often isolating nature of it. One might say “I know people get bullied, but it doesn’t affect me. Why should I care about it?”

Goldstein continues to explain:

Studies indicate that bullying can start as early as 4th grade (Pepler, Jiang, Graig, & Connelly, 2008). Like a stone dropped into a pond, the bullied child sinks deep into the muddy waters of shame, anger, and isolation while the wider social implications ripple forth in ever expanding circles engulfing the family, the school community, and the legal community.
The family, like a mobile hanging over an infants crib, loses its equilibrium when one of its members is shaken. Parents, in a cloud of unknowing, are reluctant to leave the child home alone in the depressed state that soon becomes prevalent in the victim. They often lose days at work and are affected financially as they try to understand or to cajole their child back to the classroom. School administrators and teachers spend time investigating bullying claims, counseling victims, and teasing apart the interpersonal web of accusations that embroil a classroom or a school. These diversions from academics negatively affect a quality education” (Hoffman, 2010).

You may not be directly impacted by it, but indirectly we are all affected by bullying

The current statistics show:

  • About 77 percent of students have admitted to being the victim of one type of bullying or another.
  • The American Justice Department bullying statistics show that one out of every 4 kids will be bullied sometime throughout their adolescence.
  • 46 percent of males followed by 26 percent of females have admitted to being victims in physical fights as reported in one report of bullying statistics by the Bureau of Justice School.

It seems logical that dealing with bullying earlier, while in school, would be better for society. Unfortunately, it isn’t just a classroom problem.

“According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, up to a third of workers may be the victims of abuse by workplace bullies. About twenty percent of workplace bullying crosses the line into harassment. The New York Times found that about sixty percent of workplace bullies are men, and they tend to bully male and female employees equally. Female bullies, however, are more likely to bully other females. This may be because there is more pressure on females trying to succeed in male-dominated workplace, and more competition between females for promotions.”
(All previous statistics from bullyingstatistics.org)


I’ve collected several stories from bully victims who found some form of solace through the arts, and I am honoured to share these private, painful stories with you. Given the nature of them, all names have been changed.

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Lucy* was adopted from South Korea and brought up in a predominantly white town. As a child she was shy and didn’t like to call attention to.Much of the bullying was racial in nature. The other kids would call her “chink,” and stretch their eyes to look Asian. “I remember one time I gathered the strength to tell one of the kids that I wasn’t Chinese, I was Korean. They said it was all the same.”
It’s sad enough that Lucy had to be the subject of this attitude, but it’s unfortunately common, and very dangerous. It ignores that each nation has their own culture, and will therefore face unique challenges that need specific and personalised solutions.

“Chink” wasn’t the only racial slur to pass from her classmate’s lips.

 In 5th grade, a few boys in my class would make fighter jet noises and pretend to fly around me, shooting machine guns while they called me “gook”.  I was just as embarrassed as upset, because I didn’t know what a “gook” was. I just knew it was bad.”

She recalls that while being confronted with racism in school, other Asians kept to themselves. “They held their heads down, and just acted glad they weren’t the subject of the teasing.”
The kids also attacked her for being adopted. “One of the popular girls told me I was adopted because my birth mom didn’t want me. That was always an insecurity in me, but hearing it hurt so bad.”

When Lucy was seven, her parents enrolled her in piano lessons, and at eleven, she signed up to play the flute in school band. This added another level of teasing, as she became labelled as a “band geek.”
It almost seemed like the teasing was worth it for once, because being in a band was like being in a family, which was overwhelming in the best sense, and comforting.
“We stuck together whether someone was a freshman or senior, someone always had your back. It was the best experience of my life. I overcame my shyness, and became section leader, first flute, secretary of the band and ultimately president of the band in my senior year. I participated in the All Cape Musical Festival and Southeast District Music Festival, both of which required auditioning. Music helped me emotionally, but most importantly it helped me gain self-confidence and find my true passion.”

Music also helped her once home. “When I had a particularly bad day at school, music helped me de-stress. I would play piano for hours and just unwind.”
She says she would play a little bit of everything: classical, jazz, pop, Broadway. Her favourite song to play has always been Pachelbel’s Canon in D.

Lucy tried a lot of different activities, but nothing seemed to stick like music did.
“I was the youngest member of my church choir at age 13 (I still sing in the same choir), in high school I would go to the elementary schools in my town and help teach flute in the 4th grade band. I started playing in my town’s community town band when I was 13. It’s a band comprised of all ages and we get together and play on Thursdays in the summer. I still play in this group.  Overall, music has had an incredible impact on my life.”

Music is clearly a place where Lucy can be herself, instead of some label born out of ignorance. She isn’t just “Lucy, the Asian,” or “Lucy, that adopted girl.” She is a confident, strong, compassionate person.
She is someone who is in the community, who is doing something constructive and beautiful with her time.

The next story was shared with me by a wonderful human being, who was a beacon of light during some hardships I experienced as an adult in an increasingly unhealthy workplace environment.

*Stacey, much like Lucy, was very shy and quiet as a child. On the other side of the world, in South Australia, she was targeted by imperious female classmates, who treated her with scrupulous manipulation, like an object for some sick pleasure. On one such occasion, some “friends” tricked her so they could steal her phone,  and then “helped” her look for it, all the while gleefully watching her become distressed.In Primary (Elementary) school, Stacey didn’t have a solid friend group. The other girls would decide when she was “cool enough” to be seen and interacted with, which was heavily influenced by the desires of the “popular mean girls.”

Mainly through year 6-7 I remember spending a lot of time coming home, putting my discman on and sitting out the front porch listening to music. Eminem was a huge influence, I felt the anger and related to the music. Apart from the girl across the road, I didn’t have friends I spent time with outside of school.”

Stacey’s introduction to High School was very much the same kind of experience.

“Year 8/9 was awful. I had found a new group of “friends” who would decide when I was part of the group, who would decide when I could sit with them at lunch. I turned to music a lot through those times, and I would read. In year 9 I left PE early on due to those girls teasing me, I so vividly remember being in the change rooms and having basketballs thrown over the cubical at me. I went to the school chaplain and begged to be moved to another class, which luckily they did.”
This change meant she could enjoy some creativity in her sewing class.
“As a kid I was always making dresses for my dolls, and now I could keep using those skills. I made my own dresses and could hem up a skirt in a jiffy. What I liked about the sewing class was I could be on my own, no group projects, just sitting in front of the machine and focusing.”

In year 10, Stacey unfortunately had to leave another class, a craft class, due to some bullying from her teacher, who kept putting her down while not allowing her to express her craft in the way she wanted.
In came photography class, where she was able to be in a pitch black room, learning a skill that required focus. It also gave her something special she had struggled to find in the past.
“You would find me most lunch times in the dark room, just developing photos, editing using the light machine, and keeping to myself. I eventually found a really good friend through that class, and we remained friends until our late teenage years after school.
I found the arts, and letting myself be creative, as a way of escaping, not thinking about the awful girls who tried to make my life hell.”

Photography is something that has remained with Stacey, who is now as a grown adult, practicing the art while handling a busy, successful work load.
“Even now, I use reading, music, and photography as a way of escaping, a stress reliever and an outlet. I find it very hard to express myself verbally, so through photography I find it easier, and it has given me confidence.”

Some photos Stacey took in High School:

As someone who has only recently been privy to Stacey’s history, I’m surprised. I would never have guessed this to be her past, this woman who professionally leads people in a way that garners respect. Unlike the “leaders” of her past, she doesn’t preen and scratch at the top of the pecking order. She leads by building others up.

That’s the thing about being the victim of bullying, it can be hard to spot even when it is prevalent in the victim’s life.

Another excerpt from ‘Social implications of bullying’ by Marion Goldstein:

Often an act of bullying goes unseen and unacknowledged by the larger community, while for the child it is a cataclysmic event. For the middle school student, peer perception not only informs but also dictates their sense of worth. Already burdened with the challenges of changing bodies, they wear self-consciousness like a scarlet letter. Developmentally unprepared for attacks on their self-worth, many students are too embarrassed to report it to their parents or school authorities. Unwilling to further expose the germ of truth that the bully has latched on to – the large nose, the ten pounds of extra weight, the failed grade, the questionable gender – they suffer in silence. Frequently, it is the bullied child who withdraws from school and is either home schooled or transfers to another school.”

In Part Two, we will tell more stories of bullying and the consolation of arts. We would love to share a story from a male perspective. If this is you, please email syl.stories@gmail.com or DM Share Your Light on Twitter or Facebook.

To support the NEA, read this and write to your lawmakers.

If you wish to donate to arts education, I suggest supporting our favourite organisation, Find Your Light.

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