When Julia Tyson, a junior at East Hampton High School, heard about the Sept. 29 suicide death of David H. Hernandez, an alleged victim of bullying at the school, she was saddened, but not surprised. According to Julia, bullying is a fact of life for many students, even in her honor-track classes.
Julia, 16, an honor student and a junior at the school who is starring as Eliza Doolittle in the school’s production of “Pygmalion” this weekend, is in the preliminary stages of work on a documentary about bullying.
It is, she said, a familiar topic for her and “one that I thought was a good fit. I’ve seen many films about bullying. ‘The crusade for justice.’ That is all well and fine. I’m not sure how practical it is. I want to focus on bullying and the more practical aspects of it, from the victim’s point of view. Not like, ‘Bullies are this and must be smoked out.’ ”
Julia, who was herself a target for bullying in lower school and, to a lesser extent, in middle school, is critical of the rationalization that adults frequently make in such situations: “(Maybe) they are friends. Maybe they didn’t mean it. Maybe it was this; maybe it was that. Yeah, the kid really wants to be my friend, that’s why he shoved me off the playground,” she said.
At the high school, she said, “I’ve given up on the teachers and the administration. . . . They drag us into the auditorium and give us a vague talk. ‘A certain person in this class is feeling threatened,’ ” she said they are told, followed by what she views as equally vague solutions.
In her classes at school, she said, “there is a boy who is very smart, he is very quiet, and he is emotional.” That, said Julia, makes him an inviting target. When the boy answers a question in class incorrectly, the boys seated around him moan, mocking him. “They heckle him. It is rude.”
Teachers usually don’t say anything, she said. “There is a kind of ‘boys will be boys’ attitude about it: ‘They’re just teasing him.’ There is a very fine line between bullying and teasing.”
She said the aggressive behavior toward her began in preschool. “A lot of the stuff was fairly subtle. I’d sit down at a table and everybody would get up. Or I’d be reading a book and somebody would grab it out of my hands.”
Her mother, Lori Marsden, has painful memories of that time. “She used to come home crying. When they’re little, you know how they would have to sit in a circle? No one would want to sit next to her.”
Ms. Marsden is critical of the training teachers receive for such situations. Citing as an example having children partner themselves, allowing for some children to be deliberately omitted. It is at that point that the teacher has to step in and not repeat the same exercise, she said.
As children grow older, the aggressive tactics of the bully are refined. “A little more sophisticated,” Ms. Tyson remembers. “They’d jokingly invite me to do something, then say, ‘We’re just kidding. We didn’t want you to come along anyway.’ ”
Things began to improve for Julia at the beginning of her fifth grade year. She’d lost more than 40 pounds over the summer, weight she’d put on because she is diabetic. “No matter what people say, they do judge by appearances,” she said.
Another change for her that year was discovering theater. “I decided to try out for [the school] musical. I did it and I loved it.” She performed in the school play, and has been auditioning and performing in her school plays ever since.
And, she said, “I started to get my own group of friends.”
The self-confidence she gained is the key, she feels, to ending bullying. Asked if she is ever bullied anymore, she paused. “I’m sure things have happened that would have driven me over the edge in the past.”
The local council of the Girl Scouts of America have approved her documentary project for consideration for the Scouts’ Gold Award, the highest honor the Girl Scouts of America bestows. It is given for completion of a project that requires a minimum of 80 hours of work and can benefit the larger community.
She has to complete the project by next fall for it to qualify.
As for her longer-term plans: “I’d like to go into acting,” she said, but allowed that directing was ossible career path.