In watching the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, I thought back to my years as a high school teenager. Unlike the show, my experience was virtually absent of extreme scenarios involving drugs, crime, or even alcohol. Some of these issues hovered around me but, somehow, the environment created by my school, my family, and my personal practices shielded me from going down a road like that of the traumatized characters in the fictional Netflix series. I can relate to the show when it addresses teenage romance, rumors, and the pursuit of self-discovery. Though, for the most part, there is a clear difference between what I relate to and what is far-fetched. It is worth noting that there is one high school threat that I felt could have dramatically affected my life if it had chosen to — bullying culture. Fortunately for me, it never did.
Back in the late ’90s, I noticed that the ratio of adolescents to adequate supervision was grossly imbalanced. This is to say that bullying could find a way to exist outside the protection of an adult presence. That being said, there is an enormous difference between a case of bullying and a bullying culture. Cyber-bullying did not exist yet since the era was void of smartphones, social media, and even the internet as we now know it. I am not saying that bullying incidents did not happen, because they did. Like the lunch during sophomore year when the table next to us started throwing food in our direction, prompting my group of friends to stop eating early so that we could retreat to a safer location. Or the times I would witness a verbal dispute or a shoving match between classes only to be ambushed by faculty intervention before a punch could be thrown. The problems that troubled me as a high school teenager were, for the most part, personal and not related to fear of being safe among students. Credit should probably go to my parents for deciding to move our family to a more affluent suburb of Los Angeles compared to the one where we lived when I was born. I also credit the school for working their magic and providing a relatively safe environment where students could focus on learning and enjoying that precious time just shy of adulthood.
While watching the Netflix series, I thought about the would-be bullies on our campus that chose to leave us be. Like the show, I can think back to the names of a handful of would-be bullies who were capable of bullying whomever they wanted without facing significant consequence. Also like the show, these would-be bullies were usually good-looking, popular among students & faculty, and involved with extra-curriculars. I had no idea what issues they may have been going through themselves, or if they even categorized themselves in the way that I did. Where the show separates its story from my story is how it portrays the bully characters manipulating the plot because of their untouchable status. The show 13 Reasons Why portrays these bullies as selfish, egotistical, and willing to do whatever it takes for the sake of their own interests. It is the actions of these characters that create the bully culture that leads to the demise of its main protagonists. If students during my time in high school behaved the same way, it might have been possible that the bully culture would spread throughout our campus also.
Lucky for me, our campus did not follow the same narrative. My experience remembers these would-be bullies as mostly regular, pleasant, and even enjoyable company. Sometimes they were distracted or inattentive, but never abrasive bothersome without provocation. Save for a few occasional jerks, these individuals could have corrupted group projects, events, and common areas like the library and locker rooms. I never saw it or experienced it. What was it that kept these would-be bullies from creating a bully culture on our campus? Was it their own empathy for the rest of us? Was it the adult influences in their lives? Was it the infrastructure of other productive options? Maybe it was the absence of electronic devices that enable cyberbullying. Or maybe I subconsciously positioned myself as an unattractive target. I may never know why these would-be bullies saved me but I thank them anyway. Because of their decision not to impose their will on me, I will never have to face the traumatic events and memories portrayed in 13 Reasons Why and have gone on to live a life of meaning, fulfillment, and accomplishment. The would-be bullies have benefited my life in a way that is beyond measure. Now I realize that, even if they likely never will.