The (School) House of Mirth

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In an effort to organize, I had a topic planned for today, but—as always—a subject more pressing fell into my lap. Standing with my students at the end of the school day, I checked the news and noticed an item that saddened me immensely.

In Florida, yet another young girl had killed herself because of relentless bullying. And what struck me was the utter lack of remorse the “main” bully felt (just a young girl herself).

“We remember old bullies like we remember old loves,” I’ve heard. And isn’t it true? Don’t they both crawl beneath your skin, settle in your blood and flesh, and rummage around in that secret place where no one else is allowed? Bullies become just as integral to your character as lovers.

Bullying happens with adults, too. It was only while doing research on this article that I realized that the dark period I had just weathered only by the skin of my teeth had occurred because I had been bullied.

Always a lifelong shut-in, I had decided to let my outside forays into adventure finally catch up with the interior ones, so I transferred to a new place to work and perhaps make friends. One evening, we both arrived at the door at the same time and she smiled at me, asking if I wanted to walk in with her.

Beautiful start.

Fast forward through unanswered texts, rolling eyes whenever I came around, wounding passive-aggressive comments, whispering about me with people I thought were my friends, and social shunning. It ends with her frantically waving at me some months later, and me coldly eyeing her down and walking away.

Why the coldness at the end? I endured months of anxiety, fear, depression, hopelessness, and social isolation because of her bullying tactics. I had been abandoned by our group of friends, because she was more popular and outgoing, while I didn’t have the skill or will to fight back. The ones who felt sorry for me perceived that helping me would constitute a loss in social status. Even the people in high places were either tacitly allowing the bullying or else completely ignorant. The sense of rejection hit me so hard that I retreated from life for months before finally mustering up the inner strength to return.

When your social world is gone, life is gone, especially for women, especially for young women. Cue the suicide of the young Florida girl.

Social murder is not remotely absent from Literature. Recently, I finished Edith Wharton’s Great American Novel, “The House of Mirth,” which chronicled the downward spiral of one Lily Bart precipitated by one Bertha Dorset. The two women were “friends,” but the latter eventually used her larger social prowess to exclude Lily from high society to Lily’s eventual disastrous end.

Readers, if you haven’t done so, pick up “The House of Mirth.” The wisdom of our old writers may not be able to prevent social ills like bullying, but it helps us recognize the signs and realize its effects. It’s only then we will be moved to prevent it.

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