Janet Williams* was sitting at her desk performing calculations on a difficult problem. The work was fulfilling, and she was so absorbed in it that, until she sat back and scratched her head, she hadn't noticed how silent the open-concept room had become. People milled about in the corners, chatting as they often did, but their voices were subdued, and eyes often slid her way.
That wasn't uncommon. It was a painful reality of everyday life. The family budget was tight, and that set her apart from her fashionable peers. She wasn't well-dressed, and she wasn't pretty to begin with. But she was smart, and she kept to herself. She was reliable and hard-working. She was upsetting the social ecosystem.
She counted herself lucky, being this frugal - saving money by bringing sandwiches and drinking water from the fountain, buying new clothes only three or four times a year, eschewing make-up, showering a little less and letting her hair grow long.
Someday, she would bring in real money, and as frugal as she was, she would be able to build her savings by leaps and bounds. She dreamed of retiring ten years before anyone else - the reward for hard work in the here and now.
But others didn't see it that way. Every day, they had something else to say about her, some new speculation - divorce, bankruptcy, single parenthood, drugs in the home, mental illness.
She let them gossip. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.
She wished she could call it fascination. But when she answered a question, or if her voice rose above the ambient din of conversation, lips curled back in mild disgust. Some of her peers were shallow and outspoken; others avoided her like a strange and unpleasant smell.
But this afternoon was unlike any other. People were standing behind her. She felt them slip into assigned places, like rooks and bishops. Everyone else was watching what was about to unfold.
Inevitability, she thought. This is what inevitability means.
Before she could escape, she found herself surrounded by four of her peers, with her back against the desk. One of them was watching the door, another watched everyone else.
My fault, she thought. I should have seen this coming.
"You think you're so smart?" Angela was the leader of the social committee, the trendsetter in fashion and music. "You've got an answer for everything, don't you?" At her side was Bridget, whose mouth was perpetually pursed at the side of her face in a terse, know-it-all smile. "Just who do you think you are?" Angela asked. "You trying to make a fool out of me?"
"What are you talking about?" Janet asked.
"You know what I'm talking about."
Janet tried to escape between Angela and Bridget, but Angela jabbed her fingers into Janet's upper chest, pushing her against the desk.
Janet had nowhere to look. She couldn't make eye contact with Angela. Eye contact was aggression. But Angela leaned every way that Janet looked, peering, probing, exhaling what Janet breathed in. This is what "getting in your face" really means, Janet thought. She closed her eyes.
Angela said, "Hey! Look at me when I'm talking to you." She took Janet's chin in her fingers and shook Janet's head. "Hey! I'm talking to you!"
Janet opened her eyes and stared back at Angela, trying to convey no emotion.
"Oh, look," Angela pouted. "Now she's all angry. Ooh, I'm so scared! You gonna stare me to death?"
There was no saviour here. If anyone tried, they would only make matters worse.
Is she going to punch me this time?
Bridget opened a compact. "Here, you need a little help." She gouged the concealer with a triangular sponge and applied it to Janet's nose. "You've got a little brown right there." Janet flinched away, and the corner of the sponge pricked Janet's eye.
Angela laughed. "Oh, now the poor baby's crying. Way to go, you made her cry."
"Why are you doing this to me?" Janet asked. She didn't dare wipe the tears away, but her eye stung.
"Why are you doing this to me?" Angela echoed, whining and pouting. Bridget laughed and daubed more make-up on Janet's nose and face. "Why are you doing this? Oh why oh why? Boo hoo! Oh poor me! I'm just a poor little thing - "
Janet screamed, "Leave me alone!" It was a dangerously loud alarm. "I never did anything to you!"
"You want me to leave you alone? What if I don't want to?"
Angela flicked out both hands, thrusting Janet backward. Janet lost her balance over the tipping desk. Her foot flailed, knocking the make-up case out of Bridget's hand. Before Janet could recover, Angela grabbed both sides of Janet's frumpy collar.
The door swung open, and Mr. Henry Poole examined the frozen tableau with narrowing eyes.
Angela stared at Janet. "Whoa," she said. "Are you okay, Janet?" She pulled Janet to her feet. The pale blue eyes were full of warning. "I thought you were going to fall right over the desk."
"Yeah," Bridget rejoined. "You've gotta watch where you're going. I slipped and fell almost in the exact same spot!"
"What's going on here?" Henry asked.
Angela let Janet go, and Janet fixed her blouse. "Nothing," Janet answered. She looked no higher than Henry's shoes. "I have to go."
Henry watched her pass by.
She spent more than 20 minutes in the washroom, until a female staffer found her and asked why she wasn't back at her desk yet.
At break, Janet needed air, despite the rain.
Angela, Bridget, and six others were waiting for her.
Someone closed the door and leaned against it.
Angela was eating a bag of chips; now that Janet was in the middle of the circle with her fists clenched and her eyes on the pavement, Angela spat out what she had in her mouth. It landed in Janet's hair.
About an hour later, Phil Willliams came to pick her up at reception. Janet's hair was a disaster, and there was a burgundy stain along her cheek, as if someone had drawn a streak across her face with lipstick and smudged it. She didn't cry. She bowed over her stomach as if she was cramping.
"What's wrong with her?" Phil asked the receptionist.
The woman behind the desk shrugged and said, sympathetically, "She's having a bad day."
* I made up the names and the details of this story. Fiction is what I do. But I write fiction to make a point, and sometimes fiction is based on facts, and on personal experience.
When a victim is forcibly confined, it's called "forcible confinement". When someone punches somebody in the mouth at a bar, or at the office, or at a sports complex, we call that assault. When a victim is humiliated by someone's words or by actions, we call that harassment.
It doesn't matter if the victim belongs to an unpopular minority, or if they're gay, or if they abide by one religion or another, or if one person simply doesn't like the other: regardless, if it’s assault or harassment, we call it a crime.
So long as it's between adults.
If this was a story about Janet Williams, aged 36, married with two children, you would say she was assaulted. But if this story was about Janet Williams, grade 8 student, would you say she was being bullied?
Why is it that when we move crime to the schoolyard, do we call it "bullying"? That's like calling a violent crime "murder-lite," or "sugar-free rape".
When we call it "assault", we treat it like a crime; but when we call it "bullying", we treat it like a crying shame - and nothing more.
We lock up child abusers and prosecute them to the full extent of the law. But bullies – who are in effect, young child abusers – need to be "treated", medically and psychologically, and bullied children need to work harder at blending in.
And there's an air of inevitability around the word "bullying". It happened in my day, it happened in yours, it's happening now, and it will happen in future. But "inevitability" implies that a thing cannot be prevented. Child abuse is not inevitable, so why should we treat bullying any differently?
I'm not saying we should change the justice system. And education systems are trying to do something, anything, to investigate and prevent violence in our schools, I won't deny that. There is far more sensitivity training - inside the classroom and out - than was available back in my school days.
What I am saying is that we, globally, need to take it a step further.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words make the difference between medicine and law, and between help and helplessness.
It's harassment, it's assault, it's abuse, and it's a crime. We need to call it such. Until we do, our playgrounds will remain poisoned, crime will go unpunished, and our children will believe complacency is socially acceptable.