on December 1, 2013
Reading Emily Bazelon's book, Sticks and Stones from the perspective of Phoebe Prince's loving Latin teacher (9/2009-1/14/2010), I have to admit that I was hoping to find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. For once, I hoped someone might capture the genuine spirit and comportment of the affable young lady named Phoebe Prince, who was indeed tormented by the bullying she faced: the purposeful and persistent "shaming" in the halls, in the library, in the classroom, gym; by messages on sign-in sheets, and on posters outside of classroom doors; cell phone text messages; and, cyber-bullying. What I wholeheartedly desired to find in Bazelon's book was some justice for Phoebe.
I was eager as well to read my previously twisted words `untwisted.' To set the record straight, Bazelon never interviewed me, but has quoted me as saying things that she paraphrased from other sources: e.g., I would never call any students "dumb," nor would I call any "attractive" or "less-attractive." She alleges that no faculty member reported anything about Phoebe. I did report Phoebe's `light going out': i.e., my concern for her, at ninth grade meetings (especially since she was a freshman being influenced by seniors in a Latin I class--a mixture that I vehemently protested, as guidance was turning away freshman who wanted to sign up for my Latin I class in lieu of seniors who just wanted to have Latin on their transcripts). Nonetheless, my insight into and reports about Phoebe's emotional/behavioral state were, according to reliable sources, deleted from the ninth grade ("Tracks For Success") meeting records. This was no surprise to me, as vice- principal Evans, along with some of the faculty at those meetings, considered my information and my questions about how to handle the situation nugatory. After all, they had real business to talk about: e.g., one faculty member taught a ninth-grade subject and she needed to share her success stories. In addition to being eradicated from the meetings' minutes, since she wasn't failing, Phoebe's name was not added to the chart of ninth-graders being closely observed by all their teachers.
Further on, Bazelon is curious as to why no faculty member spoke to Phoebe about her essay on "Cutting." I never saw the essay, but I had taken the book, "Cutting," out of her hands in the first couple weeks of school, because she was reading it in Latin class; consequently, when she panicked and shouted out that she wasn't doing that (getting the attention of the entire class), and that she was reading the book for English class, I responded that I wasn't accusing her of anything and reassured the entire class that if I thought any one was having any sort of trouble (stressing they were all special to me), I would approach them; but, in private. At the time that I pulled the book away, I had noticed old scars on Phoebe's arms; hence, Phoebe and I did have conversations about cutting, as well as many other chats, and we kept the line of communication open. Phoebe, even so, was not one to speak much about her problems; she was more likely to want to help others. In addition, the senior boy in my class, James, was my aide and an AP Latin student. He did not have time to just sit around talking about drugs, as Bazelon alleges. I had thirty students in that class (a mixed class of freshmen to seniors). He was there to help out with the seniors, not Phoebe.
Phoebe was already an excellent student. She was mocked even for that. In the beginning of the year, when she would get her quizzes and tests back with a perfect score, other students would say, "You suck," "You're too smart, you bitch. " Imagine walking into a new school, wanting to do well, and then being called a bitch. (I had the same problem with the South Hadley lingo when I started teaching there, and it remained a problem because, as many students said to me, "It's just the way we talk to each other." It was not acceptable in my class; however, discipline was almost impossible. There was no administrative support; not many coaches would follow the "bench" rule; and, some kids just wanted to sit in the "Planning Room," or internal suspension, all day rather than go to classes. Moreover, when they returned, their behavior was worse.) So, Phoebe stopped answering questions in class, started failing the quizzes, and wouldn't always hand in homework (academic suicide in my class, since it counted as 1(one) point, if done, or 0(zero), if not: i.e., 50%, or 100% for daily homework grade). Phoebe, however, was not about to let her grades go; she just let the other students think she was, so they wouldn't insult her. She wisely took advantage of my make up policy--since I wanted the students to learn the material, not just worry about being tested, they always had a chance to retake a quiz within a certain amount of time--by retaking quizzes and doing extra work to make up for missing homework. This change in Phoebe's class work I was, thus, not concerned about.
What did begin to concern me was Phoebe's affect beginning mid-November: she seemed numb, unresponsive, or uneasy. I wasn't sure. I had a "Study Hall" duty, and amongst the students there I overheard Phoebe's name and I heard party. I heard giggling. In other classes there were whisperings of a party. This was right before Thanksgiving break. I asked if she would stay to chat a bit; but, she said she was fine; she had just had a fight with her mom, and had to get home to get her sister before she got in trouble again. But, she wasn't herself. I asked again if she was really `fine.' Her response, "I miss my dad." When we returned from break, Phoebe didn't. I became so stressed that I ended up in the hospital myself for a week. In the meantime, Phoebe returned to school a couple days before I did. On December 10th, 2009, when I did return, I found Phoebe with her arms wrapped and immediately went to speak to her guidance counselor, who assured me that everything was under control. Under control? I couldn't imagine what that meant; but, nobody was letting me know anything about Phoebe; so how, I asked myself, could I help my Phoebe?
As a result of Phoebe's tragic passing and the ensuing harassment that I received from South Hadley's administration, the symptoms of my MS, seizure disorder, and major depression were exacerbated to the point that it took only ten months to go from fully functional, wearing high heels, teaching six different classes a day, to totally disabled, alone, unable to drive, having multiple seizures per week; then, wheelchair bound, homebound, and feeling totally worthless. (Yes, Bazelon, even teachers diagnosed with depression are negatively affected by the torment of bullying!) However, it did give me time to become friendly with the Prince, Moore, and O'Brien families, et al., put together the many bits of conversations I overheard at school, and talk to many of my students whom I missed.
The party that Bazelon refers to in her book, as Bazelon knows herself, was one at which Phoebe was gang-raped--it could explain the ensuing overdose. Some fleeing party-goers told the downstairs neighbor that the party upstairs was "out of control" and asked her to call 911, which she did (but, the 911 tape was erased); two South Hadley policemen did arrive, told all the kids to leave (and allegedly said, "Consider this an early Christmas present."). They then took all the drugs and alcohol and left, leaving behind a fourteen-year-old, gang-raped, drunk, and drugged Phoebe curled up in a corner of her house alone. A third policeman arrived as all partygoers were departing. Following that, there was, first, a missing police report; then, magically, a report--although an inaccurate report, which reliable sources say protects the well-connected. (Many of the attendees were football players and the big game was coming up.) One police officer also met with football players in the parking lot of the school. I'd still like to know what that conversation was. No one is saying; but, then again, in South Hadley, sticks and stones don't just break bones, sticks and bricks break windows. So, silence seems like a safer, barring morality, way of life.
Anyway, after all this and the heartbreak of her father returning to Ireland earlier than expected, Phoebe returned to school after Christmas break only to face the regeneration of the old name-calling by the same three main bullies, plus two more (because another boy, Flannery's boyfriend, had met Phoebe over the Christmas break and had become attracted to her). Austin was a student of mine (pre-Flannery) and he was a great kid that showed a lot of promise. He was a talented writer and had worked hard to get a local biker ramp opened. In other words, he wasn't helpless, needing to be saved by anyone. I'm sure he didn't mean to hurt Flannery's or Phoebe's feelings; Phoebe is just very sweet and intelligent and easy to talk to. She was as confused as Flannery by Austin's behavior, but she didn't go around calling Flannery names. (Parents need to warn kids against forming "exclusive" relationships in high school. That would take care of so much drama. Remind them that marriage is for after college sometime.)
I guess what I was hoping was that, after reading Sticks and Stones, I would feel that Phoebe could finally rest in peace, and her family could finally breathe knowing that their sweet Phoebe was vindicated. I didn't read that. Not at all. What I read were two chapters: "Monique" and "Jeremy," in which Bazelon is very sympathetic to bully and victim alike, and a third chapter: "Flannery," whereby she furtively introduces Flannery, one of the girls who later joins in the tormenting of Phoebe, as an "outsider," because of choosing not to play lacrosse and due to the fact that her mom is lesbian. Believe me, that is not unconventional in South Hadley, or its environs! (In this way, she could say that Flannery and Phoebe were both outsiders; thus, both had equal power. They didn't. Flannery was a townie. Phoebe wasn't. That is what matters in South Hadley.)
Promptly, following on the heels of Flannery's sad (privileged) existence, Bazelon instigates her character assassination of Phoebe Prince by disclosing that Phoebe's parents took her out of a private school in Ireland and publishes every private detail--the more salacious the better--that she can get a hold of. I have to say that, prior to Phoebe being sent to private boarding school, she and her dad, Jeremy, had a nightly ritual of burrowing by the fire in the living room, reading, discussing and debating any and all types of musings--from a philosophical debate over the style of her new dress to a discussion about world politics. In fact, Phoebe had grown up immersed in literature of all genres. Both her mom and dad were lovers of academia, and she thrived in that environment. Her dad had even read the entire Harry Potter series to her when she was too young to read herself. I do not claim to be a psychologist but, I do know that, while she was at South Hadley, she missed her father every single day and yearned to return to Ireland (more as the year progressed)--which could explain why she was reaching out to older boys.
On the first day of Latin class, I have my students fill out a card with their name, address, anything I should know (e.g. "I hate going to the board."), any sport or club they are in, etc., and I ask a question: "What is the greatest act of kindness anyone has ever done for you?" Phoebe's response was, "when my friend...comforted me and took care of me when my parents were talking about getting divorced." That was her greatest fear: losing touch with her dad. So when I read Bazelon's book, and analyzed the way she presented Phoebe as a boy chasing whore from the onset, it made my blood boil. Just as there are many reasons kids bully, there are many reasons young girls attach themselves to older boys--other than sex. It is up to the older boy not to take advantage of the situation, as I taught my own two sons, and they've always looked after their own sister. It is possible for a high school boy to control his urges around troubled young girls. We can raise gentlemen even if their brains aren't fully developed.
Emily Bazelon's book is just one more example of how to unashamedly humiliate: i.e., bully, a young girl using public media. Her goal in doing so, just the same, I cannot begin to fathom. She does write that she was looking for a forum to do research on cyber-bullying; so maybe she thought the connection to the bullying of Phoebe Prince would at least secure a primed audience for her new book. There are definitely others who should have been charged with cyber-bullying, in addition to the six who were charged with insidiously tormenting Phoebe on-line and at school. They might not think it was a big deal, but "gutta cavit lapidem, non vī, sed saepe cadendō," (the drop hollows the stone, not by force, but by constant dripping). Day after day, on and on, eventually the constant `battering' (which Bazelon considers more harmless--like `dripping') wears a person down. I just don't understand why Bazelon downplays Phoebe's abuse. Is it because she felt so strongly that Scheibel overplayed the charges?
There were also some faculty members that made derogatory remarks about Phoebe at professional gatherings, or in their classrooms in front of other students both ante and post mortem. Bazelon insists (p.109) that there was no evidence of cruel postings written about Phoebe subsequent to her death, because she couldn't find them. Many people, as well as, I, myself, can verify that it is an "unimpeachable truth" that a webpage went up and was filled with so many disgusting comments that it was removed very quickly. Someone should ask Ms. Bazelon, "If a tree falls in the middle of the forest and she doesn't hear it, did it fall?". For some reason she has this aloof, almost cynical tone towards Phoebe and all she suffered. However, with the other children in the other chapters (including Flannery, et al. at SHHS), bully and victim alike, she displays kindness and compassion.
Thus, Emily Bazelon, without a doubt, has earned the title of bullying expert, or, more fittingly, expert bully. Bazelon, via her book, Sticks and Stones..., just re-victimized a victim, a child, Phoebe Prince, post mortem, as well as re-traumatized her family and friends, who were not even aware themselves of some of the truths and untruths she wrote in her book. She cut a gaping bloody hole in their hearts.
It was actually quite lewd and immoral of Bazelon to make public any of Phoebe's private medical records, her psychological burdens, or the fact that she had tried to mask her depression with drugs. From whom did she get them? Whose children also attended those parties? Bazelon mentioned that Flannery did, because she saw Phoebe at a few of them (p.84). She doesn't, however, disclose what Flannery texted to her friends? Did she like the strawberry vodka too, or was she drinking tea? Why was Phoebe the only one vilified with revolting invective that, assuming she did none of the things (which Bazelon so kindly exposed in her book) alone, others shared in? Why did the "big, strong" football player have his girlfriends doing his dirty work, when he was the one to accost Phoebe in the first place? He knew that Phoebe was vulnerable without her dad. In fact, she told four separate senior boys about her dad (only James stuck by her side without expecting "benefits"). Phoebe felt shame ("positive" shame: i.e., recognizing she'd harmed somebody else and feeling sorry for having done so) when she found out that Mr. FB player had a girlfriend; thus, she went straight to his girlfriend and apologized for her involvement (although ignorant at the time) with him--the freshman girl hit on by the senior boy, who was cheating on his girlfriend, apologizes to the girlfriend. Now, who is the target of whose odium; who gets bullied? Well, of course, the freshman girl, because after all, as Ms. Bazelon so dispassionately points out, Phoebe had a pre-existing condition of "negative" shame: i.e., shame that is accompanied by guilt and self-denigration. Kayla, at first, accepts Phoebe's apology (that`s the Kayla I know and taught); then, she turns on her. Again, was Mr. FB player using her to do his dirty work? Bazelon points out Phoebe's previous attempts at suicide as if this somehow makes it seem that Phoebe finally succeeded on that dreadful day in January. It isn't true. She was a young girl feeling so worthless that she thought the world was better off without her--but she didn't want to commit suicide. What she wanted was to know she was worthy enough to be alive.
Bazelon's references to Phoebe are not about Phoebe--or the other adored young children and adolescents like her--who was blessed to be a compassionate and gentle soul, and who was ecstatic whenever someone complimented her on her sensitive and loving nature. She didn't even require a program like "Rachel's Challenge (p.217)" to notice when a child was sitting alone in the cafeteria to go over and sit with him or her. She just naturally did it. Assistant Principal Mike Roy witnessed this himself and commended her on her graciousness. Her date for the "Cotillion" was also someone whom she overheard say that "no one would want to go with me (him)." Phoebe piped right up saying "I will!" He was a boy in my Study Hall. Phoebe had made his day! It's unfortunate that in this society of conspicuous consumption, "keeping up with the Joneses," it is too often about what is on the outside, not the inside that counts.
While South Hadley students were rushing around after school on January 14th, 2010, in preparation for Saturday night's Cotillion, and I was sitting at my desk waiting for Phoebe to come to the appointment we had made, Phoebe was at home, frantic. I had not seen her all day because G-Block (her Latin class) was dropped that day. She had just had expletives barked at her for fifty-five minutes in the library and was then tailed, stalked from the library right out to the parking lot. Did she ever think to just turn down towards my room at the end of the hall? Why wasn't I just in the hallway? Could I have saved her? I should have saved her. She went home. Ashley threw a can at her like she was a piece of trash. Why? How many times have you gotten a break from me, gotten help from me, Ashley? In Bazelon's book, she printed an entire thirty minute text message that Phoebe had with Chris, a "protector" of Phoebe. (I felt like vomiting.) Of course, Chris knows who Chris is, as do I, as do many people in South Hadley. So, now we know that "Chris" never called for help. He just left Phoebe with her phone and went to get his tux. Was that Bazelon's point--to shame and bully another kid?
My point is that Phoebe (or `Vita,' her Latin name meaning `life') didn't want to commit suicide. Bazelon shows that in the appalling text she has such depraved protocol to put in print. Every person, every nasty word, every whisper, every shout, every mean name, every nasty look, every single act: conspicuous or discreet, by anyone: child, or adult, harmed that sensitivity within her, her self-worth, who she was, which she measured by the reflection of the Phoebe she saw from everyone else's perspective. Phoebe's sense of worth was gauged by the opinions of all of the "friends" who led her to believe deep in her soul that she was worthless, that she was nobody, and that she didn't matter to the world. These people, her peers who pretended friendship, the boy who made her feel like the cheater (Remember he was the one cheating on his girlfriend!), and the one who pretended to be her "protector," all are guilty of committing a nefarious and egregious offense. Together they hacked out Phoebe's heart and slashed her soul, wrenching `Vita' apart, killing her `anima,' or life-force, thereby committing soulicide. Phoebe was gone long before her body was found in the basement stairwell.
Emily Bazelon did NOT know Phoebe. She never met her. She never talked to her. She didn't look into her sparkling eyes. She didn't know what she was thinking, or how she was feeling. She never felt Phoebe's energy, laughed with her, cried with her or for her. She didn't watch the sparkle in her eyes going out, or try to hug her light back on. Bazelon says that she wept when she read Phoebe's records. Why, or HOW, could she then so cold-bloodedly publish only every disgraceful, degrading, or disreputable detail about Phoebe's last days for the whole world to pore over and judge? Phoebe (my "Vita") wasn't in the cell phone texts, where she is trying to be as cool as her peers (and is drunk). She wasn't in the hospital records, or anywhere that she talked to someone with whom she didn't feel safe.
Phoebe ("Vita") is in her writings; she is in the hearts of her family and friends; she is a giggle and laughter that she brought to so many; she is the sparkle in an impish eye; she is a little girl's smile as she listens to her dad read her bedtime stories out loud; she is a hop and a skip and a jump; she is a four leaf clover; she is a pair of ruby slippers. Click three times. "Vita" was life itself; but, only when she was allowed to be. Her anima (soul) was beaten out of her. She is no longer allowed to be. Now, please, just LET PHOEBE REST IN PEACE!
In my opinion, Emily Bazelon's book is a compendium of ideas to deal with bullying. However, she hops around until your mind is swirling. You really just need to use the `Resources Page,' if you are looking for an anti-bullying program, which Bazelon did a great job compiling. I have a couple suggestions for her lest she turn out to be the bully herself (as I find many insidious, ruthless insertions aimed at different people throughout). By taking her animosity for D.A. Scheibel, for the prosecution of the six South Hadley students who tormented Phoebe, out on Phoebe, Bazelon becomes a bully herself--shamelessly bullying a young victim post mortem. Also, she needs to be kind to others who are also trying to help stop bullying in the schools: i.e., just because she may think some experts are better than others in the field, she shouldn't trash talk the people whose programs or ideas she may not agree with (e.g. her criticism of Barbara Colorozo, et al., who have helped many schools facilitate programs to combat bullying and ensure safety for their students). Bazelon just shouldn't be mean. She should be professional, and also remain unbiased and consistent when writing: e.g., if posting nasty things online is cyber-bullying for some kids, it can't be called just "venting" (p.221) for Flannery Mullins. Lastly, think about donating some money you make from this book to a foundation for teenage suicide prevention, because school bullying is also psychological and emotional. Mean, dispassionate people and the lack of feeling worthy and accepted, on top of people turning their backs, leaving you out, insidiously invading your mind, body, and physical environment, driving you crazy with derogatory names, cannot be discounted as a cause of a child's suicide.
I am at my wits end. I'm so sad to know that Phoebe is still being bullied; now, due to Emily Bazelon's book, in perpetuity.