I hope Keaton Jones goes to that “Avengers” premiere in Los Angeles, but next year is a long way off when you’re being bullied.
Keaton is the Knoxville, Tenn., middle schooler whose tearful video about being bullied was viewed more than 20 million times by Monday morning. Celebrities, athletes and politicians have been tweeting their support. Sean Hannity offered to “make the calls myself and fix this.”
Chris Evans, aka Captain America, had this to say on Twitter:
“Stay strong, Keaton. Don’t let them make you turn cold. I promise it gets better. While those punks at your school are deciding what kind of people they want to be in this world, how would you and your mom like to come to the Avengers premiere in LA next year?”
I’d love to believe Keaton’s tormentors will be awed toward kindness by their classmate’s new famous friends. But that sounds more like the plot of an after-school special than real life.
Some 3.2 million students are bullied each year, according to DoSomething.org, a global campaign to fight bullying. One in 4 teachers “see nothing wrong with bullying,” the group reports, and will only intervene 4 percent of the time.
Good-hearted celebrities aren’t enough. Schools and parents need to shut down bullying in the moment.
I listened to an NPR interview Saturday with James Han Mattson, author of the new novel, “The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves.” Mattson, a George Washington University writing instructor, said the book was partly inspired by the death of Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide after his roommate at Rutgers secretly recorded — and then publicized — video of Tyler kissing a man.
I thought of something Mattson said when I first read about the outpouring of support for Keaton.
Host Scott Simon asked Mattson about writer Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project, in which adults share videos talking about their own experiences being bullied to give LGBTQ kids hope. Mattson had this to say:
“I think if you’re actually a teenager going through bullying and you’re hearing this adult person telling you to kind of just ‘wait, it gets better,’ first of all, I’m thinking, ‘You’re an adult. You’re an old person,’ and so, like, I’ve automatically separated you into this other completely different world that I never think I’m going to populate.
“And then, I also think that if you’re being a bullied teenager, one of the worst things to say is ‘just wait,’ because every single day is so difficult and so torturous. And in the book, Jeremy kind of tells Ricky that he should wait, and Ricky just can’t. Ricky needs to — I mean, he only has a few months left of school, but every day is very torturous for him. So he can’t wait.”
I think there’s tremendous value in Savage’s project, and I’m grateful it exists. I feel the same way about the famous folks rushing to Keaton’s side — virtually and otherwise. (University of Tennessee wide receiver Tyler Bird tweeted that he and his teammates are planning a trip to Keaton’s school to show him “some love.”)
Kids need to hear that it gets better. They need grown-up perspectives and reminders that they’re not alone.
But I share Mattson’s wariness about focusing too much on the future. I think that’s only half of the solution. We also need to improve the present.
Bullying, we now know, causes harm that lasts well into adulthood. Studies suggest it causes more long-term damage, in fact, than being abused by an adult. There’s no healthy level of cruelty to endure.
That’s worth reminding ourselves.
It’s tempting to think of childhood as a thing that happens on the way to the real thing. We can be a little too quick to wave away challenges as “character-building.” We remind kids that this — whatever this happens to be — will seem like no big deal one day.
That may be true. But it’s not enough.
Keaton stirred something in a lot of hearts — celebrity and otherwise. I hope we find the resolve to do more than applaud the caring celebrities. I hope we vow to model kindness and raise upstanders and work with our schools and communities to denounce bullying wherever and whenever we see it.
Otherwise the Keatons of the world are left behind, while the celebrities — and the rest of us — move on to the next thing.
A movie premiere is lovely. A cultural shift would be even better.