I saw this video yesterday, from Upworthy on Facebook. It was about how kids grow up, the secrets they keep, the beatings they take – both mental or physical, both self-inflicted and perpetrated by others, the bullying, the self-doubt, and the inability to see the beauty in themselves. As most things seem to do these days, it brought tears to my eyes. Not tears so much of remembrance, as it might have done, but more so tears sprung from a mother’s fountain of complex fears and emotions. I worry so for my children – worry that although I tell them every day how much they are loved and how beautiful and smart I think they are, that a mother’s love will one day become like a target of gunshot holes, silenced by the rounds of ammunition fired by their peers.
Bullying is as old as time. Back in the prehistoric days, some brat who was bigger and meaner (though probably would have stood no taller than the height of my breasts) decided he wanted to be Muhammad Ali, and he decided my dad could help. My little daddy went crying to his daddy, and his daddy said – teach that kid a lesson. The next time he hits you, hit him back. Best advice. Ever. My little daddy popped that little SOB and guess what?? Muhammad never f*cked with him again. I suppose it doesn’t always work out that way…. And we all know it is no longer acceptable for kids to work it out in the schoolyard like they did in the 1950s. Or, it is definitely not acceptable for us mature and reasonable adults to encourage our kids to kick the shit out of their bully.
Today they teach the Bully-Free Zone in our schools. There are assemblies, classroom lessons, worksheets, and special round-table classes with the guidance counselors. The question though, is… does it work? Maybe it does – the kids are certainly aware of what defines bullying and the bully, they are taught proper tools for handling situations… and they do SO well on their handouts that the authorities are sure these kids “get it.” But if you ask me, I’d say the kids as a result have become hyper-aware. Bullying has not been eliminated – we’d have to be living in an underground bunker not to see that – but today virtually everything can be interpreted as bullying.
When my son was in kindergarten, he started having nightmares and would cry about riding the school bus. Turns out, a pair of 5th graders –who were not supposed to be sitting in the front of the bus – kept taking the shoes off of his friend riding next to him. He was so worried they were going to do it to him, he damn near worried himself into an ulcer. Now this – this is what I call bullying. These two mongrels were causing my son significant emotional distress. It took me a week to get to the bottom of this, and then I booked (how’s that for an ancient term) into the principal’s office the next day. She handled it swiftly and without further incident.
Years later, after 6 years of anti-bullying propaganda, when he was in 5th grade – he came home from school, after a particularly emotional exchange over finishing homework before video gaming, and exclaimed he was “sick of being bullied!” A stab of fear ripped through me. On my tree of parental worries, this is one that falls fairly close to the top branch. After some further inquiry, during which I had to clarify that making him do his homework does not make me a bully, it turns out that one of his classmates simply told him to “shut up.” Followed by, “don’t you ever shut up?” So, I was left to explain that this isn’t bullying but, simply put, the kid was being a jerk. Yeah, he is a jerk, said my son. To which I responded, then stay away from him. Seems simple enough, right? Don’t waste your time with mean people, I told him. You are a great kid, a good friend, always kind and compassionate toward others. If he doesn’t appreciate you, then F—him. Okay I didn’t actually say THAT, but I did say he isn’t worth your time. But not before I stirred the pilot light of compassion in him, by pointing out that sometimes people go through tough times, and they don’t know how to deal with it properly. Not Owen’s job to fix, but nonetheless invites understanding above the insult.
Am I the only parent who is afraid of their kids being bullied? I know how mean girls can be. I had a few bullies of my own. It’s funny, though, how it seems girls are better bullies when they have a clique of friends around them, like a halo of protection. Boys, as I have so far seen, don’t seem to need backup as much. My 3 bullies were most active with their posse, and otherwise left me alone when they were alone. The fear is a real one though, having seen the nauseating youtube videos of kids getting beaten to a pulp, with a group of onlookers cheering the crime on. While in 7th grade I was taunted by 3 girls whose ringleader called me tiny tits in front of whole classrooms, and called me ugly (which, to my little 12-year-old self, seemed grossly unfair considering who it was coming from) – the worst thing they did to me was stab me with a pin as we were walking to other classes. I wonder how the latter would have been handled by today’s standards?
Two years later I was confronted by two sisters on a field trip in an incident that might well have been part of a Twilight Zone episode. Apparently I had offended one sister in some irretrievable way, without ever speaking to or looking at her, that the other sister felt morally obligated to warn me to watch my step. I could say I didn’t even know these two existed, but that would be a lie; however, I never once gave them a passing thought and hence was left feeling like I’d slipped on a wet floor and had no memory of landing on my ass. Sometime later, yet another pair of sisters on my bus – in a seemingly random act of kindless - picked me to be the bitch on the bus. It wasn’t pretty, but thankfully it was short-lived.
Nevertheless, I worry about my kids being subject to these same weird and random and pointless crimes. And if they are, what will they do? Will they tell me? Will they tell anyone? I never told my parents, and it’s my own omission that generates that fear of what they will hide from me.
Case in point: earlier this school year, Owen and his “best friend” were hanging out at one of the football games their sisters were cheering at – hanging out like always. Like the adolescent boys they are, they wandered around the fields and school grounds, settling onto the playground for some combat and espionage and Nintendo DS gaming. For no apparent reason, “best friend” attacked Owen, pinning him up against the brick wall and strangling him. There were other friends around at the time, who Owen says pulled the deranged maniac off of him. I heard about this incident some FIVE weeks after it happened. He NEVER told me. He did tell his father, who had been there that day – but he didn’t tell him either until the day before I heard about it. Meanwhile, there had been subtle clues. He had told me on at least one occasion that he doesn’t really like hanging out with “best friend” anymore, and when I asked why, he just casually said, he’s just mean. What do you mean, he’s “mean”? He’s just mean to people. Okay, so I was momentarily proud that he’d made the decision to stay away from someone whose behavior he didn’t agree with. But weeks later I would be shocked to learn just how mean.
I know you’ll want to know how I handled this. True to form, ex-husband wanted to go tell “best friend’s” dad that if his kid ever lays a hand on his son again, he'd put his hands on "best friend." I took the reins and, fighting the (extremely difficult) urge to allow karma to run its course, suggested this was a bad idea, you know, to threaten bodily harm with people who look like they’re still suffering PTSD from the war. I spoke to the principal. I spoke to the guidance counselor. Both confirmed what I already knew – although it occurred on school grounds, the incident was not held at a school-sponsored event and, unless it had been immediately reported, the school has no business getting involved. UNLESS… Owen is still suffering consequences from the incident during the school day or that the incident has carried over inside the school. The guidance counselor offered to speak to Owen and to former best friend, separately, if I thought it would help. She also offered Owen an opportunity to move his lunch seat – yes, he actually sits at the same lunch table as the little asshole I want to punch in the throat – but Owen himself refused, out of concern of it appearing too obvious. Thankfully, after the holiday break, it is common practice to allow students to change up their seating arrangements if they want to… so he is now happily seated at a table with friends who don’t call other kids stupid. I did not contact the kid's parents about the incident. Call me a coward, but I failed to see what good could come of me calling Mrs. Best Friend's Mom to give her a "heads up" on an incident I didn't witness and only just heard about.
So, I guess I have learned to just pay attention. Talk to him, a little every day. Share dumb stories from my junior high days. He is very receptive to talking, once you get him going … I just have to redirect the conversation every 10 minutes or so away from his strategy tactics in Roblox. I thank God he is open with me. But the key is to open the door – and that, I have to do. With Ava, she is still so young – but already preoccupied with friendship and boys, and worried over people “laughing at me,” as she puts it. She has been acutely aware of how her diabetes sets her apart from her classmates, and this worries me too – but for a whole other set of reasons. She slammed the door shut on my suggestion that she was ready to carry her own supply bag from class to class – because her friends would just tell her she’s not allowed. She’s already been confronted by classmates about her pump – as she told me one student told her she’s not allowed to have a cell phone in class. (Yes – insulin pumps are often mistaken for cell phones.) She does not want to stand out. Nevertheless, she is a girl – and she loves to talk. To me, her mom, she tells virtually everything – which I hope never abates, even in adolescence when she is torn between love and hate for me. Both of my kids have a strength of character and a confidence in my presence that I find impressive (I am their mom, after all), and yet I wonder – will this continue to manifest into stronger individuals in the face of bullshit, or will it crumble under the weight of self-doubt?