Where adults fit in
When we discuss curing bullying, we often avoid talking about the part adults play, especially in school. At this point my narrative gets more speculative. At 12 or 13, I couldn't really get into the adult head. But I can put two and two together now.
Let's start inside the school, with the teacher/guidance counsellor; we'll call him Ed.
When I got the goods on Ed from other teachers, as an adult, the assessment was that as a teacher he didn't want anything coming from students that challenged him in any way. Any sign of student intelligence threatened him. As a counsellor he had the power to punish any students who annoyed him for the rest of their school career. Let's also not forget that the teachers knew their status as well as the students. Possibly he was not thrilled at being #3. Would such behaviour be tolerated in a middle school today? We wonders, yes we wonders. A lot would depend on adult status games.
Where and how did seventh grade students learn their supposedly confidential status only a few weeks into a new school? Where indeed, if not from teachers? As far as I ever knew, teachers of elite classes didn't benefit financially in a cash-strapped New Hampshire school system. But perhaps their social status benefitted, if they were seen as teachers of the elite. On the other hand, teachers like Ed might have been typed as first of the losers. I don't recall any of my seventh grade teachers who didn't have a chip on their shoulder of some kind. Perhaps that was it.
Point is, if teachers gain an intrinsic benefit from supporting a class-conscious social structure, I suggest that they lose a degree of control over physically or socially aggressive behaviour. Granting Bazelon's hypothesis, the elite and their teachers were more or less immune from bullying by the lower orders. The latter, though, were opened up to becoming a social snake pit.
A principal determined to keep this sort of thing under control would make a great difference: my junior high didn't have one. Mr. R. was either focused on keeping the children of the elite in public school, or was an enabler by inclination, or (he was elderly) he just didn't care. Losses to the private schools were a problem, for sure, although some of the students who went this route were no loss indeed. It was interesting how a dying but determined high school principal, and his annoying but vigourous successor, kept a tight rein on cliquism from the start, making team players of almost everyone.
How I became almost popular
Ed accidentally helped me in junior high. I doubt that he meant well by thrusting me into the industrial arts track, although that was the short-term result. However, bad evaluations have a way of living on in bureaucracies and the minds of students. Assured that I had a bright future in mediocrity, I met Ed's expectation until the middle of my Junior year. Then came the results for PSATs and the Merit Scholarship exams. Everyone in the college prep track had had to take them early in the year, even the mediocre. It was a one-two punch for the faculty when I scored above the 95th percentile on both. Suddenly they realised the good opinions of a couple of my teachers were right, that they were wrong, that Ed's assessments were wrong. When the gates to better academic opportunities opened, it was as much to avoid embarrassment for the faculty as it was for me. By the time my first SATs showed the results were no fluke, I was set for a couple of senior Honours classes (no AP in those days) and the faculty had vigourously exercised damage control in what admittedly were my weakest areas, math and science. My seventh-grade attackers were still among the flounderers. I was recruited for the debate club, and began a series of improvised satires on the new administration that turned into my first major creative effort, part novel and part guerrilla theatre. The main thing was that by being recognised as bright, I started sitting in classes with bright people, which was stimulating.
All during my years of exile, though, I had made some friends to whom the gates were still closed. Remembering my own experience, they stayed my friends. It's perhaps human nature that I did not respond to friendly overtures from the leaders of the seventh grade pack. The unfortunate lessons of a harsh bullying experience are never trusting authority, being slow and careful to befriend anyone (which raises hell with dating*) and never, ever, forgiving those responsible for your experience. Again and again, I read stories of people extending their forgiveness to their quondam bullies. They are better folk than I am. I also read of former bullies expressing their remorse, and I can't believe them.
Adults and teachers outside the school deserve thoughtful consideration. As I've said, it is they who set the social context. It is they who can and should take proactive steps before a bullying culture sets root. Far too late, I regret missing out on the junior high chorus. What if someone in charge of that sixth-grade city-wide chorus had taken a little extra effort to introduce us to the teacher who conducted the chorale, made the connections before we arrived at junior high? That seems more efficient all around, and it's a recognition that at grade 6-8, some of us need a gentle shove in the right direction. Our school had a dismal football team, and an inert group of Boosters. The city's Catholic high school was new, but it inherited a tradition of excellence from its predecessor, and a tradition of scouting potential talent from fifth grade onward. Doing things like that beats hell out of hand-wringing. There's an opportunity to match children with school organisations that need their ability. This isn't perhaps the whole answer, but it can minimise the number of entering students who don't have an obvious connection and may be too shy to advance themselves.
I wonder if those junior high socials in my city still exist. The motivation still does. Because whatever accidental benefits those functions provided to people like me,
The adult organisers were I think less do-gooders than snobs trying to train up the next generation of snobs. I suppose they have to be equal-opportunity snobs now.
What I can't address is how this worked amongst the girls, and it seems they have long had a corner on the nastiest social aggression. I did have a female cousin, overweight, who had a miserable time at the same time I did. She was saved by two things: she lost weight, partly due to illness, and she switched to parochial school. By the time she was able to bloom, she was in a totally different context. One would like to think girls could thrive with less extreme changes.
The best response to Bazelon is that maybe adults can't overtly act to help the bullied in ways that reinforce victimhood, but they ought to be bright enough to find ways to act pre-emptively. I don't buy surrender as a strategy.
*It may say something about the effects of social scar tissue that when I began going out with someone regularly, she was from the Catholic high school.