October is National Bullying Prevention Month
If I had the opportunity to talk to school aged children, I’d ask them which child they’d like to be. Which child would they like sitting next to them in class?
I would tell them I have a daughter who, in Kindergarten, was teased by other children, other five year old children, because she chose to sit underneath a table in class. She wasn’t the only one under the table. There was a little boy in her class who wanted to spend his time there. It was his comfort zone. This little boy was autistic. By the children is the class, he was misunderstood. He was different. For my daughter, he was a friend. And she didn’t want him to be alone under the table. Instead of only making fun of him, as they had at first, the children in the class chose to tease both of the children under the table. Why? Because they didn’t understand why they would want to sit and learn under a table. At some point in the year, the teacher encouraged me to ask my daughter to leave her space under the table and sit at the groups of desks like the other children did. My question to the teacher was, “Is being under the table affecting her learning? Is she distracting or distracted?” All answers pointed to no. But the teacher was concerned that she was being teased. She told me my daughter had put herself in a situation to be teased. After a long pause, my response was simply, “It’s your classroom. How can you make it a situation of acceptance? This is not just my daughter involved. There’s a little boy sitting under that table, too.” The year passed rather quickly. She spent some time under the table, and there were days or activities during her day where she would join the rest of the children at the desks grouped together. But she was always teased. She’d created her place with her peers. Without knowing it, her peers had decided she was weird. They didn’t understand her. She was different. In my eyes, as her mother, she was amazing. She had compassion. Her love had no boundaries. And she didn’t mind that she’d lost friends by befriending an autistic child. All she cared about was that she had a new friend, and he had someone that cared. And they had a special place for their friendship – underneath the table in their classroom.
The following year, in first grade, that little boy’s parents decided to homeschool him. My daughter’s peers, however, remembered my daughter. They remembered she is different. Weird. Not like the rest of them. They remembered they could tease her – and get away with it. In first grade, she made a new friend. She was a young girl that enjoyed my daughter’s company any time of day, with no reason and no expectation. That year, a group of girls decided to tell my daughter they would tell the teacher if she stayed friends with her new friend. They continued to tell her this, week after week. It took me months to convince her to let them tell the teacher that she was friends with this girl. As a mother, I knew. I knew having a friend was a good thing. I knew the teachers would support the friendship. I knew the group of girls trying to scare my daughter didn’t have anything a teacher would want to use for reprimanding any child. Using scare tactics, these girls convinced my daughter making a friend was wrong.
My daughter is small. She’s shorter than her peers. I’m shorter than many of my peers as well. But for some reason, this fact seems to bother, not my daughter, but other people. In second grade, the seven and eight year old children grew more than they had in years past. They were big kids now. They weren’t in preschool or Kindergarten. They weren’t experiencing their first year of big kid school. They were starting their elementary career as kids that had paid the dues young children have to pay. They had learned the routines, where the bathrooms were, how to handle lunch money, and recess was about socializing and sports. Second grade is where the little kids start their path to becoming big kids. My daughter didn’t grow as much in the summer between first and second grades. She didn’t grow much during the school year either. She was teased relentlessly for being shorter than her peers. Second grade was also the year her classmates discovered her food allergies. For many of them, having food allergies was one more thing to tease her about. Was she not a whole person because she can’t eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? She was okay with not eating peanuts or any other nuts. We’d worked for years at home with her; we taught her how peanut butter smells, what peanut butter cookies look like, which candy bars contain nuts. She was well past fighting the facts. She had food allergies, and she was okay with it. But the other kids were not okay with it. They teased her about it. They let her know she was less a person than they were because she couldn’t eat the same foods. It was the year hide the peanut became a game in her classroom.
In third grade, hide the peanut game moved from kids putting a peanut on her chair while she was away from her desk to hiding peanuts in her notebooks, in her lunch box, and inside her desk. All I could think was how lucky we were her allergy wasn’t life threatening if she’s near nuts, and how lucky we were these kids didn’t push the limit so far as to hide them inside her food. A cruel prank such as that would have sent her to the hospital. In third grade, the kids are bigger. The usual teasing for her size continued. She was much smaller than her peers. Some even said she was the size of many of the first graders. At recess one day in September of her third grade year, three boys, much bigger than she, two of them fifth graders, held her down on the ground. They placed a sweatshirt over her head and kept her pinned in the dark for several minutes. For six weeks, she slept in my bedroom, afraid of the dark. Her principal at that school told my husband and me in a meeting about the incident, “Maybe you should teach her to be more assertive.” I’m not sure how assertive a small young child should be on a school playground. Each incident after this, that particular school pointed at my daughter and let us know how she was reacting and how wrong it was, or how her behaviors were inviting this type of treatment.
Near the end of third grade, we were in a very bad car accident. My daughter was badly injured. For the next several weeks, she had to visit her plastic surgeon several times. After her surgery, she was left with a scar on her face. As her family, we tried our best to let her know how beautiful she is, how strong she is, and how brave she is. She was eight years old. Her life changed forever. But, personally, she adapted. About eight weeks after her surgery, her bandages came off, and we were able to see what the wound looked like. I walked her into the school office to show the administrative staff. As an adult and a mother, I was looking for support for my daughter. Most adults would know how to provide this simple support. One could tell her how brave she is for going through all these procedures. One staff member showed my daughter a scar from a wound he’d had when he was her age. His goal was to show her it won’t look as it did that day forever. The principal of that school looked directly at my daughter and told her she looked like Harry Potter. Of all the supportive things the adults could come up with, the leader in charge compared my daughter to a magical and fictional character that was teased for the fame his scar brought. It was the first time I truly understood why the children in that school continued their behaviors. The leader of the school thought it appropriate to tell my eight year old daughter she looked like Harry Potter. Absolutely floored, the only response I could come up with that I wanted to say in front of my daughter was, “She’s not going to want to look like Harry Potter at her prom or on her wedding day.” This was spring of third grade, there were only a few weeks of school left. It was the spring of the band aid teasing. That kind of teasing hasn’t ended yet.
When she was in fourth grade, I used the words bully, bullying, and bullied for the first time. I had spent years teaching her to accept other people for who they are, just as I wished people would simply accept her for who she is. We spent years accepting the teasing, the food allergens deliberately put in her personal space, and after three boys overpowered her on school grounds, the school still wanted us to have her assert herself. Before the year started, I thought long and hard about moving schools. But all of my children had friends at their school, and they all wanted to stay. Fourth grade brought many issues, from my daughter’s teacher accusing my daughter of stealing something because, as she said, “It’s what I would have done when I was her age,” to more violent bullying. Fourth grade brought more teasing. Teasing about her size still, teasing because she was ‘defective’ as some kids put it because she had to wear a Band-Aid on her newly forming scar. Recess became more vicious. She was pushed down several times. In fourth grade, she befriended a classmate who was special needs. Much like in Kindergarten years before, she was teased because she was friends with the kid no one understood. She understood him well. They are still friends today. Even though he was eleven years old, his mind was about that of a four year old. My daughter just happened to have a four year old brother at home. She knew how to talk to this boy at school. She know how to get him to listen, to do tasks. She was his protector and he was hers. He listened to her. He responded to her. And she felt good about herself when she was around him. In our family, we’ve spent years talking about how it feels when we are kind and helpful to other people. She was realizing how full her cup was when she was with her friend no one else seemed to like. Children teased them both. She was a big target for teasing because she was the kid that befriended the kids no one else wanted to. In April of her fourth grade year, she was punched in the mouth by a girl who’d spent weeks teasing her. I’d met with the school on several occasions about this particular girl and the tense relationship my daughter had with her. When that girl, who drew blood from my daughter’s mouth after choosing to punch her, showed up to school the next day without consequence, we left the school. We spent our last five weeks of the year at a new school. My daughter had to make new friends, learn a new layout, get used to new policies, different teachers, and explain to a whole new group of kids why she has to wear Band-Aids on her face when she is outside in the sun. Those last few weeks weren’t all that bad.
We started fifth grade at the new school with a new positive attitude. But she was still a misunderstood little girl. She was still smaller than her peers. She was still a child. At ten years old, she still wanted to play, accept people into her life, and be accepted. She still had food allergies. She still had to wear Band-Aids while outside. Inside her classroom, boys tripped her as she walked past them. Classmates stepped on her lunch box on several occasions. In the fall, three boys, much bigger than her, held her down at the top of the playset as she tried to walk to the slide to slide down. One boy blocked the path down, one blocked the slide. Once they had her down, the three of them kicked her. One kicked her in her head. One kicked at her chest while the third kicked her legs. She was kicked for a few minutes before a teacher was notified to help. At least some of these three boys spent the rest of year bullying her. They threw ice at her face in the winter. They and a group of girls called her Band-Aid Bitch every day. One of the boys talked to her about intercourse; an adult conversation held on the playground at an elementary school with a few ten years old kids. The same day he told her about intercourse, he touched her chest and talked to her about her vagina and his penis. She was threatened by a few boys. They told her of all kinds of physical harm that would come to her if she didn’t do as they asked. A popular book series in elementary school is The Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. In one of those books and in the movie, the kids in the middle school face the challenge of an old myth. We had something similar at my high school when I was younger. It’s an age old problem. In the books and movie, there was an old piece of moldy cheese on the playground. If a kid touched the cheese, it meant for everyone in school they had the cheese touch. It’s something very similar to having cooties. And we all know how we’ve all died ten times from cooties. In fifth grade, a group of kids started this kind of cootie touch with anyone that came in any sort of contact with my daughter. They called it the her name touch. So if her name were Jane, they called it The Jane Touch. For these kids, it didn’t simply mean if she touched someone they had the Jane touch. It meant if she sat at a lunch table, the table had the Jane touch, so no one would sit with her. If they were playing ball in P.E., and she touched the ball, they’d all tell her they had to go to the bathroom to wash their hands to get the Jane touch off. If she was on a swing, the kids wouldn’t allow themselves to use that swing because it had the Jane touch. This followed her much of the year. One day she came home and told me she had no friends. Everyone was playing the Jane Touch game and no one wanted anything to do with her. No one wanted to be near her except to call her Band Aid bitch or tell her how gross she is. If Band-Aid bitch wasn’t enough to challenge her emotionally, her 5th grade teacher tried very hard to convince her to not wear her Band-Aids at recess, but instead wear a hat. After a couple of weeks of these daily conversations, I approached the teacher and the school, notifying them we are under doctor’s orders, and they are not to challenge those orders. It occurred to me this was a young, inexperienced teacher with no children. It took us almost a year to get our daughter to feel confident wearing those Band-Aids while outside. It took a year for it the become a habit for her. After almost three years, she wears them inside as well, and when we tell her she can take them off, she often refuses because she’s not bothered by them anymore. After her surgeries, it was weeks before her activity level was increased beyond walking. That first summer, she had to give up gymnastics, swimming, biking, jumping on a trampoline…basically childhood because her risk of another head injury was high. Those two years of working on her confidence with a Band-Aid on her face, the time it took to create the habit of putting them on before going outside, and the level of care my daughter had shown for the future appearance of her scar was almost wiped out by a teacher. A young, naive teacher, who told my daughter she thought it was a good idea to wear a hat to cover the scar instead of following doctor’s orders. When I asked why, she told me she was worried she would be in a position to be teased in middle school. I was reminded of the Kindergarten teacher who wanted my daughter to move from underneath the table because it would somehow make others feel better. Instead of not tolerating any teasing for any reason, her teacher was trying to change how my daughter lived her life. In other words, teasing will be accepted, and if one doesn’t want to be teased, change should begin with that person.
This is the year of middle school for her. It started off well. The biggest change I see in my daughter is how she copes. She handles other people’s poor decisions much better than ever before. But she’s still teased. The words are harsher. The cuss words are much worse than Band-Aid bitch. She’s heard more bad words than any young girl should know. Last week she was kicked by two boys. It didn’t take long for girls in the locker room to tease her because she’s not as developed as some are. Body shaming in the locker room at school is somehow an appropriate activity for young girls. She’s been told by peers she should change who she is, be more cool, like the people telling her to change think they are. She accepts the people in her life, but the people in her life seem to think it’s okay to tell her to change. She carries her favorite stuffed animal to school every day. Kids tease her about that. They think it’s immature to carry a stuffed friend to middle school. I can’t understand why they care. I know she wouldn’t be bothered by what they choose to carry to school as long it doesn’t harm anyone. Her little pink bunny certainly isn’t harming anyone. Yet, the children at school are so bothered by it, they feel it’s their place to tell her she shouldn’t bring it to school. I can’t begin to understand why friends don’t support friends. If a friend tells someone to change, they are probably not a friend with best interests in mind. Yesterday I told two girls at our bus stop to stop whispering about her and laughing at her while she’s a few feet away. It’s something that has happened every day we’re at the bus stop. We walk up, these two girls are standing about a foot apart from one another, and by the time we stop walking, they are mere centimeters apart, whispering and looking at my daughter, then giggling. I’ve heard the comments. I’m an adult. Not only do I understand body language children might not think we see, but I can also multitask. I have three kids. I have multiple conversations all the time. I’ve heard their unkind words. They say things like, “Did you see what she’s wearing?” and “God! She’s so immature.” I’ve heard it. I’ve ignored it. To my daughter, when I hear those things, I encourage her to be exactly who she is. So if she’s acting silly while waiting for the bus and they are talking about how immature she is, I encourage her to be more silly. We’ll make silly faces, she’ll run, jump, skip, and just be herself. I love her so much. I love that she’s not afraid to be silly. Not afraid to be who she is. When I hear them whispering about her choice of clothes, I’ll point out something to my daughter that I think she did really well, like pairing a certain pair of shoes with a certain pair of pants. She rides her RipStik to the bus stop every day. She’s very good on it. I’m not even sure I could stand on it and keep it balanced. She does tricks, rides fast, goes up and down the curb, and feels great doing it. Her RipStik bothers these girls. I’m not sure if they think it’s not appropriate for a girl to be on a two wheeled skateboard, but for some reason, it’s a whispering point for them. I tell her how proud I am of her. Yesterday, she fell from her RipStik right onto her bum in the middle of the street. She lost some pride points, was injured, bleeding, and left crying. Just like we do every day, we walked to the corner where these two girls were standing, suddenly only centimeters apart, whispering and looking over their shoulders at my daughter who was then sitting on the curb crying. Hard. She was bleeding and hurt. She was sad. She was angry. She was embarrassed. And these girls that whisper and laugh about her every day thought it was a good time to whisper and laugh about her more. I’ve never wanted to approach them. I want my daughter to learn to blow off talk such as that. But I spoke up. I told them every day I watch them whisper, look at my daughter, whisper again, and then laugh while looking at my daughter. I asked them why they had to be so cruel. I told them I see it every day, but today, she was crying, and they still did it. Kids are cruel, why? Why do they have to continue to be cruel? Why is it so hard to be kind? One of them tried to tell me she was my daughter’s friend. I stopped her right there and said, “No, you are not. You’re laughing at her. You stand here every morning and talk about her, laugh at her. That’s not what a friend does. She’s sitting down on the sidewalk crying, and you’re standing there laughing at her. She’s bleeding. And you’re laughing at her. Does it make you feel good?” That afternoon, my daughter came home with many stories about these girls and their friends telling her much of the day how their mother was going to call the police and send me to jail. Because I called them out on their behavior. Yesterday was filled with unkind words for my daughter. She was told over and over she’s gross. Someone told her she shouldn’t exist. More bad words were thrown her way along with names that carry only hatred. One boy told her he’d kick in her teeth if she ever touched his hair again. She was stretching in class, and the pencil in her hand touched the top of his hair. And he thought the appropriate response was to threaten a lifetime without her permanent teeth. One boy that kicked her a week ago, pinned her against a table after pushing her. Each day she comes home, coping better than ever before, but with stories of hatred. I’m saddened each and every day at her stories. I’m her mother. I think of her future. I know what years of bullying has done to some children. I’ve cried reading stories of children that gave up their lives before they even experienced high school because each day was worse than the last. All I can think is, we can never be there.
So, going back to how I started this sharing session. If I could talk to school age children, I’d ask who you want to be. Do you want to be the person that is responsible for the tears someone cries? Or do you want to be responsible for making someone smile? I send my children out into the world every day and ask one thing of them – bring a smile to someone’s face. We have round table conversations at dinner each night. We’ll talk about our day, how it went, what we learned, but most of all, we talk about what nice things we did for someone else to make them smile. My children are not perfect. They are not always kind. It’s a learning process. But they are forgiving. And they understand kindness isn’t difficult. If I can get my children to understand the basic idea of being kind to everyone, why can’t others understand how important it is to ensure our children are not only taught kindness, but expected to be kind?