Mean Girls Alive And Well In Our Schools And Neighborhoods

I had a “Hey! That reminds me!” moment while reading a post by The Kitchen Witch this week. She addresses the topic of bullying. It reminded me of a difficult time in my parenting years and I started worrying all over again….

When my daughter was young, she went to school where I taught. A snobby, elite college prep school. Because she was “a teacher’s kid” all the other kids knew her place in the social pecking order. But because her personality was so bubbly and charismatic she was easily one of the most popular kids in her class. Plus, the school was small. And the thing I loved about our school was that because of our size (or lack of size)  – if you alienated an individual or another small group you were committing social suicide. Because next year? That group of kids you ostracized may be the only ones in your classes. And you might have to go friendless that year.

I taught in the high school. There was very little drama. Few cliques. Everyone was pretty much accepting of one another. And we had a quite a mix of students. Mix of skin color, economic status, social abilities. We had students with Tourette’s or weight issues that were part of the “IN” crowd. I know it sounds idyllic – but that was the amazing thing about our school. Small class sizes = Big acceptance.

My daughter started gymnastics at age 6 and by the time she was 8 she “would just DIE without it.” (Her words. Not mine.) So we found the best gym we could afford (1 hour away) and made the sacrifices necessary. By the time she was 9, she was working out 20 hours a week. At this level of competition many of the other girls were homeschooled. To preserve our sanity, we followed suit.

For four years.

And then suddenly, she quit. Without warning. (A story for another post)

So we offered her the option of continuing homeschool or going back to the private school or public school. She chose public school.

We found a school system, closer to “The Big City,” that we felt would be more diverse than the area schools where we currently lived that also offered a sound education. We moved into a lovely subdivision with a country club name. I foolishly expected educated, accepting neighbors. Because the school was more diverse than the area we last lived, I expected open, accepting students for my daughter to bond with.

Eye-opener #1.

While homeschooling, we saw the movie Mean Girls. We laughed at the over-the-top dramatization of high school life, of a girl assimilating to organized school after being homeschooled. When it was time for my daughter to start school, she jokingly asked if I thought the cafeteria would be like the scene in that movie. Of course not, we laughed.

Eye-opener #2.

And then there were the bus rides home. Sheer torture. Our school system has middle school and high school students riding together in the same bus. My daughter was an 8th grader. She hated it. She begged me to drive her to school. But I wouldn’t. I told her there was good and bad in every situation and she had to figure out a way to deal with the bad. Talk to the bus driver. Sit by the bus driver. Ignore it. Figure out a way to work it out. She wouldn’t tell me exactly what was going on, just that there were some mean girls on the bus that liked to pick on her.

Eye-opener #3.

Our subdivision was large enough that every kid on that bus lived where we did. They were our neighbors. About a month after riding the bus and days coming home with tears in her eyes and then racing to her room and slamming the door, she finally told me what was going on.

Her brothers were about 2 and 3 at the time. #1son is also adopted from Korea and he absolutely idolizes his big sister. Many days, if they heard the bus in time, they would race to the front door and look out the window shouting her name, hopping up and down as she got off the bus. This particular day I could see the agony in her face. Girls were shouting out the window. But as soon as they saw me, they slunk back down in their seats. As she walked up the steps of our front porch she saw the boys. She started to smile but as she opened the door she fell to her knees and clutched #1son and started sobbing.

She said she saw his pure, happy face and she never wanted him to ever have to hear what she was hearing.

That’s when it all came pouring out…

“Chink,” “Gook,” “Got any eggrolls in that backpack?” “I hear Chinese girls like it _______,” “Go back to your real home!” “Are you a Chink or a Jap?”

I. Was. Mortified. I felt like a failure, unable to protect my daughter from such evil. I had told her to ‘just handle it.’ ‘There was good and bad in every situation.’ But this wasn’t just bad. It was pure evil.

I wanted to call the school. Call the bus driver. Intervene in the biggest way possible. Drive her to and from school every day. But my husband, voice of reason, had a better idea. We sat down. We talked to her. We talked about how to cope. How to handle different situations. We talked about what it meant when people acted that way. And then she decided to continue riding the bus. She decided how to handle any future confrontation.

My husband said, “Better this happens now, while she’s living at home, when we can help her deal with prejudice than if we shelter her all her life and then set her loose in an unpredictable world.”

Her new approach worked. A few weeks later, a minute after she got off the bus, a car pulled up in our drive-way. A young boy started walking up our steps. I asked my daughter who it was and she shooed me away and went out onto the porch. They talked for about 30 seconds and she came inside.

“He told his mom what was happening and she made him come over and apologize. He said he was really sorry.”

A day or two after that, an older boy on the bus apologized to her for the other kid’s behavior and how sorry he was for not stopping it. But she didn’t believe him. She told him so. He said he meant it. After that he always sat a few seats away from her. Whenever the “mean girls” would start at it, he’d tell them to stop. One day he even got in their faces with a heated exchange. He was a fairly popular boy with them and they listened. The “teasing” stopped.

I was never bullied. I was never a bullier. But I never leapt to anyone’s defense, either. I never had the courage to step up, as that young man did on the bus. And as I read TKW’s post I thought about the parents of the bullied. How helpless we feel. Shamed. Stunned. Inadequate. Unable to protect our child during every minute of every day.

This event happened in 2006. At a time when I though we, as a nation, were beyond such hatred and ignorance. My sweet #1son is now attending a small, private school with such close supervision and such diversity we haven’t had to address this issue yet. I would hope that by the time he is 14 we won’t have to. He’ll be off to a bigger school by then. But there are no guarantees.

How do I stop it? How do I prepare him? How do I protect him?

And how do I keep myself from these inadequate, shameful feelings?

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26 Comments

Filed under parenting, Self Image

26 responses to “Mean Girls Alive And Well In Our Schools And Neighborhoods

  1. I’d love you to write down basically what you told your daughter because I’d have had *no* idea how to deal with this. I’ve had to deal with *a* bully once in my older daughter’s school career. I won’t tell you what I did because I’ll just sound psychotic, but trust me, you had to be there and it *did* instantly solve the problem. I’ve equally defended a girl from a terrible bully when I myself was at school.

    However, dealing with today’s brand of teenage ‘Mean Girls’ – *especially* when kids verbally attack as a mob – is well beyond my realms of experience and hearing this just makes me angry and upset. I’m convinced these kids behave like this because they are not told otherwise at home. What kind of world are we developing?

  2. Wow, Jane. My jaw dropped when I read what the girls were saying to her. I, too, had bad experiences on the school bus, but nothing like what your daughter had to deal with. I don’t know how I’d sleep at night! I’d want to hurt them, and hurt them bad.

    I think you handled it well. I recently wrote about this kind of issue on my blog “Raising a Girl.” Mean girls is a thing I worry about. But of course, as every ’80s’s movie tells us, there are also mean boys.

    I taught at a private school and a public school. While at the private school, I often felt there was too much groupthink, too little diversity. I raised those issues in my class, where students felt comfortable–I hope–sharing their opinions. And then I taught at a public school. I was shocked by what some of the kids said to each other with regard to their race or ethnicity. One girl commented on a boy being Puerto Rican; he retaliated by calling her a slave. I really didn’t know how to handle it, and while I’m all about sitting down and talking through these issues, the classroom was so hostile that calm talk didn’t seem possible.

    So this is why I’m not so eager to go back to work, you see.

  3. So sad about your daughter, but grateful that it stopped for her and that someone spoke up in her defense. Few kids are so lucky.

    My daughter got her first racial remark on the bus in first grade. I thought, “Jesus.” Now it begins.

  4. I’m so sorry your daughter (and you) went thru this. How cruel. I’ve tried to raise my kids to stick up for others when crap like this happens. I’ve told them they’re probably never the only one sitting there thinking how terrible it is, and that if they speak up maybe others will.
    I don’t think all kids can do this. But I wanted them to think bullying happens because people nearby do nothing. And expect something more from themselves.
    Your daughter sounds very brave. I’m sure your sons are too.

  5. Hugs to your daughter. Honey, THAT’S a steel magnolia you have there.

    Haven’t psychologists now decided that bullying has deeper implications than they realized and should be addressed by teachers, bus drivers… anyone who can challenge it?

    I’m so impressed with the mom and the boy in your story. He displayed the same kind of courage that your daughter did. I’ll bet he’ll go places in life! (Not that he’ll be able to catch up with your daughter, of course! :) )

  6. This is a great post. I hope it makes everyone stop and think. Because standing up for someone is just as important as not bullying. My kids’ school has an entire “anti-bullying” program that they teach and the number one component is to stand up for others. That group mentality can be an awful thing…but it can also be a wonderful thing. I’m glad your daughter was so brave and that you taught her how to handle herself. And I’m glad the boys on the bus were brave too.

  7. Sadly, I’m forced to admit, I’m not surprised. (I’m seriously considering making that my official motto.)

    Mean girls, mean boys, mean men, mean women. We’re all just different sized versions of each other and some of us happen to be mean. I really don’t know why it has to be that way. I really think it’s some weakness in the mean person.

    This is a fascinating and powerful post. Thanks for sharing it. I’ll just add that I went through all those awkward and painful moments, too, like riding the bus. Sure, I would have preferred my own private car rides to and from school, but it wasn’t done that way back then. And those experiences helped make me who I am today. Now when I think back on them I almost feel a sense of accomplishment, even though the mean kids did suck. :)

  8. I am so sorry your daughter had to endure this. It is sad, but it happens in more situations than most realize. My hubby and I had to deal with this in Sunday School. We taught middle school and there was a clique that were so ugly to the other girls. We were forced to address it almost weekly. The saddest part was that these torturers were the offspring of the so called highly involved Christians of the church who refused to believe their daughters would ostracize anyone else. Eventually, the other girls banded and the mean girls lessened their tactics but it took until their senior year…five years! Kudos to your family for the way you handled this.

  9. Oh, Jane, I am so sorry that your daughter and your family went through this.

    Kitch’s post also made me think about what I did as a kid when I witnessed bullying. My younger brother has special needs and I was a lioness defending him whenever he was harassed by other kids. I think that experience did make me more likely to stand up against the kind of harassment your daughter suffered.

    But I wasn’t as good at speaking out against subtler forms of bullying (exclusion, making fun of someone’s clothes, etc.) – mostly, and I’m sorry to admit it, because I was afraid of being an outcast myself once I had finally entered the social mainstream in high school.

  10. I find it upsetting how not-surprised I am also. For all the ‘zero-tolerance’ talk and anti-bullying programs that are spouted off about, I just don’t see school staff reacting concretely in actual bullying situations — my friend had to take her ten-year-old son out of school two months before the end of the school year on the advice of his counsellor because he was relentlessly bullied mentally and physically by another boy that the school WOULD NOT keep away from him. I would love to think I have the kind of kids who would stick up for others but I’m pretty sure I never did — it takes more strength than a lot of kids have, and in a way it’s understandable that they don’t, when they see that adults don’t do anything either. Ugh.

  11. unabridgedgirl

    Seriously, this made me tear up. I am so sorry your daughter, or anyone, ever has to face this sort of issue. It is terrible. I remember when I was twenty-one I had someone spit in my face – - MY FACE – - because of my religion. So sad. I think that, when the time comes, you will be able to help your son. Already, just from your posts, I know you are a great mother and have amazing parenting skills.

  12. bookworm27

    Isn’t it absolutely horrific that in this day and age, prejudices and bullying are still alive and well? It’s ridiculous that there are people who teach their children such hate, because, honestly, where else does it come from? We should be past this, as a nation, as a worldwide community.. After all, when it comes down to it, we’re all the same – we’re all humans with feelings, emotions, no matter what country we were born in, or what color our skin is.

    I’m sorry your daughter ever went through that, but her courage in getting back on that bus, confronting and coping (skills no child should have to use, but nonetheless the world is cruel!) is amazing!

    Your children sound like such wonderful kids, and your love for them shows through in every word.

  13. Holy Bawling in My Living Room, Jane. Aside from making sure every child on the planet feels love, a full belly, and self esteem, I would make sure nobody was exposed to the cruel, heartbreaking nonsense of bullying. Especially about things they can’t change, the who they are stuff. The way you look, who your family is, how much money you have, what and whom you love…that stuff should be inviolable and celebrated.
    I wouldn’t go back to K–12 or high school for $12 million.
    So sorry they did that to your daughter. So glad she finally told you. So glad your husband helped you all find a way to make it a teachable moment. And so so so so so hoping #1 son never experiences the same. If he does, he’ll tell sister and she’ll teach him what you taught her…and that means you’ve changed the world.

    • Reading all these responses, and then yours especially, Nap – caused ME to tear up. Thank you for your beautiful words of encouragement and support.

  14. I am so angry. I am angry at the racial slurs these kids toss out like candy. I don’t have to deal with racial issues, but I NEVER would have said something to a person of a different race than me. It is just not in my nature. I am stunned that your daughter is struggling with this at her school.

    Cruel, cruel people.

    Then I think about the bullies. Why do they bully? Is it because there is something they are struggling with? Is it because of peer pressure?

    Your husband gave excellent advice. Like you, I my initial thought would be to shield my child, protect them, but what you two have taught her is invaluable.

  15. When children hurl racial slurs, it’s easy to think, “those darn parents.” I mean, that sort of attitude and behavior has to come from somewhere, right?

    The old view came from Freud and said that parents were the center of a child’s universe. The new thought is that parents have much less impact than we ever possibly imagined. The new view says that peers matter much more than parents.

    Do Parents Matter?

    So if your child (or someone else’s) ever does something wacky maybe don’t beat up the parents too hard. :)

  16. As someone who was bullied endlessly through grade school, I can say that she will be better for it. Kids teased me for being “mixed”. My mom is Hispanic, my dad is African American. Most people are unsure of my background and always ask me the question, “what are you?” When I was younger, I got teased when I gave my answer. Now, I always say “I’m a person, what are you?” I have learned to be proud of my heritage, but I still always assume someone is racist when I meet them until they prove me wrong. I always have my guard up.

  17. I’m so so sad that your daughter had to go through that. And I hope with all my heart that your son never does. I dealt to a much lesser degree with comments when I was in grade school because I was the only Jewish kid in my school. And the saddest part? Because I didn’t know how to cope I just joked right along with them About Myself. I was so weak and so afraid of being ostracized that I’d laugh and pretend to agree with them. And then I’d go home crying. You and your husband are AMAZING parents who handled this next to impossible situation with strength and grace. Your kids are so lucky to have you behind them.

  18. Oh Jane, I couldn’t tear myself away from your post, yet I wanted to tear myself away. Memories of “mean girls” flooded back to when my oldest was the new, “rich” girl in 5th grade when we moved to a new town. We were not rich by any means, but that’s the name they gave her. She was blond and cute…and evidently a threat to the 10-year-old girls’ status quo. For 6 years she fought the likes of these mean girls and their cliques, well into high school. Never part of the “in” crowd, I could tell it bothered her and affected her in some not-so-positive ways. Eventually she found her niche and has since grown into a beautiful young woman who has a serious “lost puppy” passion for trying to make things right for those going through the same thing. I hope and pray your daughter will be a shining example of high character and integrity in the face of such prejudice and ignorance. And trust your mother bear instincts. True, we can’t shield them from everything, but we can try and protect their minds and train them to fight for themselves and for what’s right.

  19. Wow, what a post. I was riveted. Even though I am almost 30, I still feel closer to school age kids than mothers. So as I am reading this post I am thinking back to my childhood and not, how would I help my children. First of all, the bullying thing is horrible. Wrong. Bad. All that. But, for the kids involved in it – on all sides, it so much more complex. In my experience, the bullier and bulliee were always rotating. It was a constant war of insecurities, hurt feelings, power, adrenaline, sincerity, anxiety. I strongly believe that helping our girl with self-esteem and confidence will go a long way but I don’t have any answers. I wish I could say that I am so glad to be grown up now and that all that stuff is behind me, but it isn’t. The whole women on women hate thing, to me, is just an extension of what we all did to each other in 8th grade.

  20. That is such a sad story. I would much rather have my child be the tormented than the tormentor. It would be horrible if I found my child was a bully. Still, none of us want our kid to suffer and be attacked. I’m glad she found a way to deal with it and that eventually people came to her support.

    My daughter has been picked on to a lesser degree and I’ve always tried to show her how people’s words reveal more about themselves than the ones they’re talking about. That has helped her cope with the cruelty that spills out of some girls’ mouths.

  21. I’m so sorry your daughter had to go through with that. I’m really pissed the bus driver didn’t do anything. I was bullied as a kid, and in my experience, the adults in charge never wanted to do anything about it. I thought we learned after Columbine that we have to deal with bullies. I guess we’re still learning. I think you did a great job. I hope this is the last time you have to deal with this issue.

  22. This broke my heart, but then it swelled with such pride for your daughter. How she handled herself, she’s incredible! Absolutely incredible.
    I’m so sorry this happened though. I’m appalled that it seems as though bullying and name calling is getting worse and not better as time goes on…

  23. “Better this happens now, while she’s living at home, when we can help her deal with prejudice than if we shelter her all her life and then set her loose in an unpredictable world.”

    Oh how I wish more people thought like that! A parent’s first instinct is to indeed shelter her child, but too much sheltering will hurt the child in the long-run. But so many people just don’t see it that way.

  24. You know that I have been reading your posts by email religiously right? This just makes it so much easier to do, esp. When I am at work or on the train! I dare not leave comments during work hours as often as I did any more. I am being paranoid: what if someone at work finds out about my blog, and then links to other blogs? They can easily tell that I have been slacking since all comments are time stamped!!!

    But I do have so much to say about your posts, esp. this one about what your beautiful and strong (inside and outside) daughter went thru. I have been replaying this post in my head over and over ever since I read it. I didn’t leave a comment because I so want to jump in the TV screen (so to speak) and beat up those girls! Where is the time machine when you really need one?!?!

    I can’t form any coherent, constructive, comment so I didn’t. All I wanted to do was to punch somebody, see justice served. I wanted to be Justice Girl!! *Taking a deep breath now* Please give your girl a big hug for me. She is going to shine, she is going to be somebody, and I am so proud of you, your husb and your girl for pulling thru so gracefully. I would have gone to school with a torch and a pitchfork and it wouldn’t have accomplished anything.

    I am so glad I will be able to channel your wisdom, grace under fire. I am sure one day I will face a situation when I will need to draw upon your strength and wisdom. Thank you so much.

  25. ck

    You and your husband are such wonderful examples of how to really, really teach your child. How to be supportive and encouraging parents, who helped her find her way. I was gripped by every sentence of this post, as we currently decided to enroll our daughter in public school this fall instead of private. The idea of public school makes me want to vomit a little inside, but I believe it’s the right decision. Thank you for your wisdom.

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