Adventure and the bullies

There is probably no one who has not come across it. Either as a target or as a bystander, or even worse, as a perpetrator. What ruminations and lamentations could have taken place in the deep recesses of one’s thoughts at that time are unlikely to be forgotten easily. For some, such memories are nothing more than a mere bump. For others, such memories feel like feeble guilt. Yet for many, they are nothing less than a time fraught with anguish and pain. Whatever side of the equation one may fall under, there is no denying of the scarring nature of the problem and the detrimental repercussions that it has on society.

Last week, as a part of a three member team from MIT, I was invited to a White House conference on addressing bullying hosted by President Obama and the First Lady. The conference was attended by families and individuals who have been victims of bullying, as well as experts trying to tackle this scourge. I applaud the President and the First Lady for having the temerity and empathy in organizing this event and casting a spotlight on this social menace. Several key members from the President’s cabinet were in attendance, underscoring the seriousness with which the White House views this problem.

My focus is on modeling the detection of textual cyber-bullying using computational linguistics., a project which I started last semester, but has since grown by leaps and bounds into a venture of its own. I had many meaningful interactions with some key people in this equation from the administration, the industry, as well academia. A powerful alliance to tackling bullying is in the making, one that would hasten the day when no child or young adult has to ever contemplate taking their own lives.

Listening to heart-wrenching stories by victims and families permanently scarred because of bullying has bought back memories of my own. I can say with  impunity that these memories are not a tad bit pleasant. I have come across numerous bullies both during school and during college. I was never overwhelmed by them during either of those periods, but I can’t say that they were just mere irritants. They certainly affected me, sometimes to the point of making me brood over their behavior for days, and I can certainly imagine the unspeakable pain that victims can endure.

I was an obese child till I turned twelve. I was mocked for having to get my school sweaters custom made for me. I was also routinely mocked for having a darker shade of skin. I was very much a precocious child from as long as I can remember, and was very often the teacher’s favorite in class. This invited some insults too. I was accused of being a brand ambassador for butter that would do anything to be loved my teachers, when in reality, my teachers liked me for academics and for my handwriting.  🙂 Some of these things continued even during college. I could sense an almost stark difference between people who were nice to me and those that were full of the same qualities as the bullies I encountered during school. I remember very clearly, in great detail, almost every blatant and subtle bully that I have met since I was in middle school.

Fortunately, I never let them get to me or influence me. And I never tried to fit in either, because beyond a point, I just couldn’t care. I had my own small circle of close friends  – my trust circle – and they were all that mattered to me. I was often too engrossed in things that I was passionate about. But I understand and empathize with victims who’s context and scenarios might be very different than mine, and who feel pain and suffer on a scale or severity that I never really did. Everyone is different, with different coping mechanisms. But in the oddly low probablity that this blog post is read by a victim, I will make these points based on my observations and my experiences:

1. If you are different, you are likely to become someone special and interesting – If you are different from peers and often get mocked for not ascribing to peer pressure, then there is a high likelihood that you will become a very interesting person in the future. The people who were markedly different from everybody else in my school have turned out to be some of the most interesting and outstanding people that I know of today. Your unique talents and traits are your strength – don’t try too hard to change who you are to fit into a group.

2. Stay away from the blatant and the subtle – Don’t spend too much time in the company of those that are blatant and subtle bullies, even if they are very popular. Better still, don’t spend time worrying about them. There are a zillion interesting and magical things to explore in the world, and wasting your precious memory cycles on such people is exactly what is is – a wastage of resources.

3. People like and love you – Your real friends stick with you through thick and thin. They genuinely celebrate your successes and help you when you are feeling down. You would do the same for them. They don’t judge you, nor do they impose their views on you – you are in your own skin around them, and they give you your space. Memory cycles and man-hours spent with them are truly worth it. Try to spend time with such people. It is good for health and a lot of fun.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help – There is nothing wrong in asking for help if you feel overwhelmed. Everybody goes through rough patches, and that is the truth. If you ask for help, it means you are being kind to yourself, and that is very important. What’s more, you will find that there are people who you know will be able to help you. You will learn to deal the same kind of problem in a better way if you ever encounter it again.

5. It gets better with time – I often do time-series analysis in a lot of my research. I can tell you both from my own experiences and my research that it really does get better with time. So try to imagine yourself a year, two years or even five years down the line and think of how you’d feel then. You will get busy and do interesting things in the future and your painful experiences will ebb and fade.

During his speech at the conference, President Obama rejected the naive notion that somehow bullying was ‘a rite of passage’ that everybody has to go through. He talked of how he was bullied in school for having big ears and a funny name. But today his journey to the White House is by itself such a profoundly inspiring story – that a boy ridiculed for having big ears and a funny name and of African-American heritage can become the most powerful man on the planet. Examples of people overcoming such obstacles are everywhere – from the extraordinary singer Susan Boyles to the record-smashing swimmer Michael Phelps.

My own advisor here at MIT, Henry Lieberman, somewhat of a polymath in computer science – from inventing garbage collection in programming languages to fill functions in computer graphics to natural language understanding and cross-modal interfaces, told me of his experience with bullies when he was a  child, and how clearly he remembers them. There are inspiring stories everywhere. You only have to open your mind to them. According to Ralph Emerson, ‘When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he is often surprised to find it comes off in his hand, and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid adventurers.’

Sparkling things are yet to come.

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