Can't You Take a Joke...

Paro Anand

Don't be such a wimp. Can't you take a joke? Words familiar and true. So what is a joke, or rather, just a joke? What is the difference between bullying and teasing? Is it a very thin line that is often crossed unwittingly? Or is the crossing of this line mostly deliberate, in the hope that it will be taken as a joke, but the pinprick is always meant? These are questions that all of us who live and work with children have to think about and try and find some answers to. These are questions that haunt us, after incidents of shooting, knifings, and retributive violence in schools hit the news stands.

I have been working on this question in one way or another, either in my writings or in working directly with children. I need to make a difference, but I am not sure that I have made a single dent as yet. I have got my students to define teasing and bullying and try and find the differences between the two. They had no problem. They knew and understood the difference and were able to verbalize this and agree upon it, both as groups or as the class as a whole. There was no dissent. So if they know the difference, does that mean that they are often a part of it when it crosses the line -whether as victims, bullies, the chamchas, the hangers on, the witnesses and the helping hands, who come forward and try to put a stop to it. Yes, they agreed, we are witness or a part of it on an everyday basis, in school or outside.

They also agreed that as a witness one is culpable and party to the 'crime' if one stands aside and lets it happen. Again, emphasizing the difference between friendly teasing and bullying bordering on the serious. So are they able to convert from being mere by-standers to stretching out a helping hand? Most often, most will admit they do not, because they cannot. They cannot go to any one in authority because, obviously, they will be considered a snitch and that is clearly something repulsive. It is not an option. They cannot always stand up to the bully because they fear for their own 'safety.'

They cannot become friends with the 'victim' because it is a dangerous business to align yourself with someone lower in the pecking order than you. If you do, you sink to the lower rung, for there is hardly any chance of the lower one being raised up to stand on a non-victim rung once s/he is there. In fact, there have been instances where a victim stopped being one. The victim changed his/her status by becoming friends with his/her once upon a time tormentor. It turned out, though, that this was facilitated by his/her willingness to become a chella, a chamcha, a hanger on, a groupie. S/he didn't necessary like this new position, but it made it easier and it was certainly preferable to be a downtrodden groupie than a victim. It was the only way to take that step up.

Childhood is a horribly cruel time in one's life. There have always been stories of bullying and so called teasing in every generation. But that does not make it right. It warps the personality, impacts the psychology of both the victim and the bully. The bully does not have an easy time of it either. There is the reputation that has to be looked after. The bully must constantly raise the stakes, do even worse things in order to maintain this hard fought position. There are the young turks, always snapping at the bully's heels, maliciously waiting for the downfall. Yes, it's a jungle out there. So what do we do to help?

Empower is a much abused word. But how? I believe we've got to talk about it and discuss it. Most of all, make it uncool to be a bully or the one who stands by and lets it happen. I think we have to get the heroes of the school, the school prefects, the ones who are good at sports, the idols, who everyone looks up to, to show that it is just not cool. More than any of us adults, I think it is peers who can and must make a difference in the delicate balance of childhood. We need fire to fight fire, diamonds to cut diamonds and yes, children themselves to stand up and say ENOUGH.