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.
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.
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.
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?