By Victor D. Infante
“How strange a world where our children would rather go than stay.”
When I first heard Daniel McGinn read those words, in a poem written after the suicide of a mutual friend’s daughter, I forgot how to breathe. What has stuck with me these many years is the raw sentiment, the alien way the world feels when a young person dies by his or her own hand. There are a million question marks that permeate those moments, a million demons we will never truly know.
“Strange” is a somewhat empty word. It smacks of understatement. It is a word you use when you have no words for the thing in front of you. And in the decade-plus years since I first heard McGinn’s poem, the knot of conversation about these sorts of tragedies has only intensified.
Every day, it seems, brings some new horror story — a young person, often a teen or even younger, kills his- or herself after being tormented by his or her peers, often online. Frequently, this young person is gay, or perceived to be. Sometimes they’ve been scandalized after some sexual encounter has been publicized, usually abuse by an adult. Sometimes, the young person is just perceived as odd, and ostracized. Sometimes people, especially children, need no reason to be cruel.
And then there’s the other side of the coin, the young people who dish out seemingly senseless violence, be it physical or psychological, in flashes of aggression that often seem random from the outside. What demons and pressures are molding them? Are they, too, paying a price for this violence? When we’re dealing with children, is there a level where you need to step back and wonder if everyone caught in this vortex is not, in some ways, a victim? How does this anguish, on both sides of the torrent, connect to the damaged, broken boys who seem to be acquiring weapons with alarming rapidity? It would seem, at first glance, that these would be disconnected phenomena, but it only takes a small amount of perspective, and perhaps a tiny capacity to empathize with monsters, to hear a startlingly similar chord in their respective screams.
We can quibble over definitions of “bullying” — and indeed, I heard two academics do so for ages on NPR mere weeks ago — but that seems beside the point, a distraction from addressing the knot of violence and torment that seems to haunt our children’s lives. And the advent of the Internet leaves children no refuge from the harassment, bringing the violence into the young people’s homes. What those of us who are adults now might have been able to shut out easily in our youth haunts every corner of today’s children’s lives.
There are no easy answers to any of this, and we would not presume to insinuate otherwise. Instead, what Radius intends to do for the next few weeks is explore the topic from a variety of angles — mostly how it touches youth, but sometimes how adults wrestle with it, too — with poems and essays that approach the subject from diverse viewpoints, and which also look at the relationship between art and bullying, how the torments of youth have shaped artists, and how works of art — from poems to pop songs — can become places of refuge.
We may not accomplish everything we set out to do. The terrain is strange, after all, and more than a little terrifying. Bullying is a systemic problem, and not a series of easily isolated incidents. Likely, we won’t even begin to scratch at the agony that has perhaps always permeated youth, which seems magnified in these technological times.
Quite frankly, the best thing we can do is listen to what these voices are trying to tell us — both the voices presented here and the ones whispered in hushed tones in the schoolyard halls and playgrounds. If nothing else, that seems the best place to start.