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Column: Phoebe Prince, Bullying, and Me

Posted by Kara Miller, Culture Club  April 9, 2010 09:22 AM

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Phoebe Prince. (AP Photo)
Phoebe Prince killed herself on January 14. Today is April 12, and her name is still in the news, both locally and nationally. Why?

Partially, of course, it's because District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel has charged six teenagers in the case, all of whom were arraigned last week.

But there’s another – more wide-reaching – story here. A story not about violent, over-the-top bullying (the kind Prince endured) but about ordinary, run-of-the-mill bullying. Not so violent that any crime is committed. Not so horrific that school officials are clued in. But so ubiquitous that almost everyone has seen it or been targeted by it.

After all, particularly violent bullying – at least by girls – does not appear to be on the rise. Mike Males, a researcher at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, and Meda-Chesney Lind, a professor at the University of Hawaii, noted in The New York Times last week that the number of girls arrested for assault hit a “peak of 16,800 in 1995, then dropped sharply, to 13,300 in 2008. So, at best, claims that girls’ violence is rising apply to girls of 15 to 25 years ago, not today.”

General, non-violent harassment, though, is pervasive. And it can easily snowball.

For me, this type of quasi-bullying lasted throughout elementary school and junior high. Peers incessantly called me “nerdy” and, generally, kept their distance. I found friends here and there, but they were mostly outliers themselves, marginalized because they didn’t play sports, loved classical music, or wore unusual clothes. (It was the early ’90s, so, in retrospect, the popular kids were the ones wearing the weird clothes, but we didn’t know that at the time.)

In history class, I wasn’t afraid to raise my hand and answer questions. I loved taking map quizzes and learning about Iran (my grandfather went to the bank to get me an Iranian bill for a project). Sitting huddled together in the corner of the room, the cool girls would point at me and whisper, and, for a minute, I would regret my enthusiasm.

When I got off Bus 8 at the end of the day, the only other kid who lived on my street would make sure not to walk anywhere near me. It was a pretty long trek to my house – maybe a quarter-mile – and I walked it alone, skirting the lines in the pavement, thinking about the old, awful rhyme “Step on a crack, break your daddy’s back. Step on a line, break your mother’s spine.”

Looking back on it, I don’t blame my neighbor at all. He was trying not to be associated with my nerdiness, and I did the same sort of thing to kids who were even more untouchable than I. There was a girl who always sang to herself on the bus, and I never, ever spoke to her.

By eighth grade, being called a “nerd” all the time had become untenable, and I left public school for private school. My grandparents sent money from L.A. to help my family with tuition.

Stories like mine – stories of mild harassment – abound. One of my current students immigrated from China to Cape Cod when he was eight, and classmates called him “chink” and “flat face.” My best friend, who is also originally from China, dealt with the same epithets when he was growing up in western Pennsylvania.

Even as I write about the meanness of kids, I am shocked by it. I am embarrassed that so many of us do so little to help each other, protect our peers, and stand up for what’s right.

In the movie Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, the title characters – who were outcasts as kids – have an epiphany about the culture of victimization that has enveloped adolescence. “You know,” Michele says, “I bet in high school, everybody made somebody's life hell.”

Perhaps. But I wonder if it has to be that way, if we could teach children to value niceness along with athletic prowess, if we could remind them why we bother to study those who were not afraid to take a stand (Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Susan B. Anthony).

The story of Phoebe Prince is almost unimaginably horrific, but there are many, many stories – less tragic, to be certain – that leave lasting scars and, in the process, devalue our society. There is no outside force that can fix this problem. There is only us – and the lessons we teach our children.

Kara Miller teaches at Babson College and writes the blog "Culture Club" on

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

Kara Miller is an Assistant Professor of English, specializing in journalism, at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. She also serves as a guest panelist on WGBH-TV's “Beat the Press” and contributes to 89.7 FM WGBH (NPR). More »

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