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Teenagers and Bullying: Hurtful Language and Verbal Abuse by Students

In our schools, students, boys in particular, use terms that hurt and denigrate others.  Sometimes these words are innocently uttered, other times malevolently and vindictively.  Old fashion name-calling still breaks hearts and damages psyches.  The names du jour vary, but the one that almost innocuously and incisively strikes is “gay.”

Bullying and Slurs: Words Hurt

Before a wrestling match, I strolled through the boys’ locker room.  I overheard a student derisively say, “Dude, that’s so gay.”  I wheeled around quickly and angrily yelled, “Hey, what’s up with that?”  A quick apology materialized.

After the match, my thoughts returned to the locker room. I was curious why the boys felt comfortable using that word as an insult.  It might have been the safety of the space—a boy’s locker room, by its very nature, a sanctuary for boys to say almost anything; it might have been the homogenous audience—other teenage boys, similarly preparing for athletic competition; or maybe it was a sense of benighted ignorance that exists among teenage boys because few object to the word’s use. Why do students use hurtful language?

In schools, we encourage students to find their voice and to discover their identity: who they are and who they want to be.  When we succeed, students are prepared to contribute richly to their communities and support what is best and right.  When we fail, students may muddle through their lives, frustrated and seeking refuge on any island that provides succor.  Either way, maturation sometimes involves students trying on different personas and honing their voice by trying out hurtful words.  They explore the boundaries of acceptability. And in those moments when students voice nascent ideas or explore new selves, it can be uncomfortable for them and those who work with them.

Teens and Hurtful Language: What Words Really Mean

In my younger days, teenagers blithely said, “nigger” or “faggot,” or other slurs because society didn’t disparage such use.  Today, you rarely hear either one of those words in an enlightened community.  But teenagers find new words to express themselves, test boundaries and shock.  Soon after 9/11, NPR reported that teenagers took to calling one another “terrorist,” as a means of expressing disapproval and garnering attention.

Teenagers have a knack for employing language that is poignant, powerful and arresting. And so it is with “gay.” As noted in Urban Dictionary.com, “gay” is “often used to describe something stupid or unfortunate, originating from homophobia.  It is used among many teenage males in order to buff up their ‘masculinity.’”  The word shocks and titillates; yet, few object to its use.  I have heard it spoken at stadiums, on trains, at restaurants and on the radio, with nary a response from the people listening. When called on it, students say, “Oh, we don’t mean it that way; we just mean stupid.”  Or they hide behind the response, “I was only joking.”  Yet, there is truth in every joke. Words hurt, and certain words can cause hurt.

Stand Up For What Is Right

It might be easy to ignore this issue, especially if you feel as if it doesn’t touch you.  But, I think that it is our place to speak up for what is right.  As Pastor Martin Niemoller noted during the Nazi’s occupation of Eastern Europe: “In Germany they first came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.  Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me —and by that time no one was left to speak up.”

Words can inspire, and they can denigrate.  I urge all of us to admonish our children and our peers – on the golf course, at the ballpark or wherever we are – when the word nastily slithers into conversation.  In short, we must engage the enemy of common decency by not standing idly by when we are in earshot of ugly words.

Michael Obel-Omia

Michael C. Obel-Omia is Head of Paul Cuffee School, Providence, Rhode Island.