Perhaps one of the most painful meetings of my checkered career of more than 40 years in journalism occurred Monday night in the Wayland Board of Education session.
A very distraught Becky Northrup DeKoning spoke to the board during the “public comment” portion of the meeting about the continued bullying of her elementary age son. Her commentary was so distressing that she asked that all children still in attendance at the meeting be removed to the hall.
Some may consider her comments inappropriate, but knowing Becky, her mother and her brother, I am beyond convinced that she was at her wit’s end and was making a desperate, but futile plea.
School board members listened respectfully to her presentation, but there really wasn’t anything they could do for her. So all her courageous appearance could do was once again call attention to a cultural and societal problem that is not unique to the Wayland Union school system. It is all too commonplace in modern America, much of which deliberately turns its back on victims of violence and bullying, calling them “wusses” and “pansies” and telling them to “suck it up, buttercup.”
I cannot in good conscience place the blame for this distraught mother’s story on the school board members, elementary school officials closer to the situation, teachers, playground ladies or even parents. Frankly, all of us have let down such mothers of bullying victims, and we refuse to recognize the problem. We’re in denial.
I have no idea how we collectively can put together useless, feel-good support programs such as “OK to say” or “Be Nice” at the same time we worship at the altar of bullies. The greatest example of a bully today is President Donald Trump, whom most folks in these parts voted for 2016 and continue to defend, despite his obvious contempt for those who don’t exalt him or those he sees as weaker physically, mentally or emotionally.
We also have loved the likes of former Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight and many successful football coaches such as Woody Hayes, Bo Shembechler and, closer to home, Bob White at Middleville. They all have insisted their indentured servants “be men” and suck it up, just like what George Patton told his troops. These guys are admired because of their guts and no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners attitudes toward their underlings.
This spills over into football coaching most commonly, so much so that I ran afoul of Wayland schools officials about five years ago when I contended one of their football coaches bullied me on the sidelines during a Wildcat game against South Christian. As a result of my protest, Wayland school officials circled the wagons around the coach, who now is longer here, and attacked me for making such an assertion. I swear on the grave of Shostakovich that he tried to intimidate me when I merely questioned him.
I refuse to suggest this is just Wayland’s problem. It’s America’s problem, and it’s showing up most recently in all the reports we’ve seen and heard about men sexually harassing women. Oprah brought it up at the Golden Globes ceremony, and it’s connected to our lifelong collective free pass and appreciation for bullies.
I deeply believe human beings are hard-wired to be bullies in the same way some animals, such as lions and tigers, pick out the what they believe to be the weakest member of their herd of prey and attack. If you watch enough nature movies, you realize they identify the most vulnerable member of their targeted group and proceed accordingly.
I suppose some will say it’s the survival of the fittest, and that’s a good thing, but what if somebody would have identified Albert Einstein as the most vulnerable victim of a Jewish tribe? Don’t forget that in ancient Sparta the weakest, but not least intelligent, were separated and targeted for destruction.
I really do wish there was something I could do for Becky and her son, now banished to Thornapple Kellogg because they had the audacity to cry foul. But I can’t. And neither can the Wayland Board of Education, nor school officials at Pine Street Elementary.
I suppose there are among us some people who very easily get identified as weak and not worthy, so they get attacked by bullies, with our passive complicity.
It’s because “If you’re not good enough to run with the big dogs, get off the track.” Thus spake the gospel of NASCAR.