I had the orange bow torn off of my brown plaid dress. I was on the playground of my elementary school. It was one of my three new school dresses that I had gotten from the Sears catalog that Fall. I do not recall what caused the scuffle but I do remember being angry at the time. I remember not telling the teacher because I didn’t want the girl to get in trouble. Over forty years have passed and I still don’t want to call her by name for fear I might embarrass her. I wonder if she remembers, she had a lot more going on in her life than I did. I think there were four kids in her family, two older brothers and a little sister who looked just like her but with lighter hair. My dad had taken her one brother with my brother to see the Minnesota Twins play on school safety patrol day because there wasn’t a dad at their house. Her mother passed away while her little sister was still in junior high. By age 50 she had two boys but had outlived her husband, her oldest brother passed away recently. Whatever caused the fight on the playground that day, we worked it out and remained friends throughout elementary school.
I remember getting slugged in the stomach once by a boy in the grade ahead of me. He had chased me and cornered me by a garage while I was playing at a friends house. My friend ran off and got her mom who saved me. I remember that it really hurt. His parents had heavy accents from another country and he and his brother had unusual names that to this day I have never heard anyone else named. I won’t mention his name because it seems likely he grew out of it, a mutual friend actually invited him to a surprise party for me recently, which he declined. I wonder if he ever thinks of that day or what his motivation was. I just avoided him until junior high.
There was another boy in that class who pulled a knife on me when I was in fifth grade and he was in sixth. I may have been the only girl in my class to carry a knife but at that time it was a pretty common thing for most boys. Other than this situation I never recall any knife related incidents. I can’t remember what his threat was but I actually do remember being scared of him. I likely mentioned it to my mom who must have called my teacher or the principal. I remember being called into the principals office where the boy and his mother were. He denied that it happened and his mother insisted her son would never have done such a thing. I remember being more upset that someone would think I had lied than I was over being threatened with a dull pocket knife. By the time I got to junior high he wasn’t spending much time in school, I’m uncertain if he actually graduated. He’s a single dad (widower) now and seems to be making a pretty fair go of it. I read his posts on Facebook after accepting his friend request. Many of his posts are about what a storybook neighborhood Linden Hills was to grow up in. I seriously doubt he recalls that particular day in the principal’s office or the circumstances, my guess is over the years that was simply one of many trips there for him.
My daughter is an adult now, she has always been a fairly quiet peacemaker type. In elementary school she was friends with a girl who had some physical, emotional and social issues (who was being raised by a grandmother) making her a frequent target for mean-spirited kids. One day on the playground a boy was saying unkind things to her when my daughter asked him to stop, he persisted and a small group began to gather. My daughter again requested that he stop. As her friend became increasingly distraught and the boy continued to agitate her my daughter wound up and punched him in the stomach, dropping him to his knees. He stopped. I know this story not because of a phone call from the principal or a note from the teacher, I know it because she told me what happened when she got home. It sticks out in our minds to this day because it is the only incident like it from her growing up. That particular day the words just were not working, so she resolved it another way. As she recalls the teasing of this girl decreased substantially that day. I suspect that boy remembers the incident all these years later and I am certain the little girl she stood up for did too. She was really sad in third grade when out family moved away.
The difference between my childhood and my own children’s is that bullies were dealt with in a situation by situation basis. Now it is discussed annually and everyone is required to participate and time is taken away from academics. Bullying has not gotten worse, our techniques for addressing it have. The curriculum for anti-bullying is basically a how-too guide for those who are predestined to bully. While every kid is capable of bullying and some might say that briefly every child might dabble in it as a normal part of defining who they are, I believe that the vast majority of the truly misery inducing bullies that make life hell for some kids are easily identifiable and have issues of there own. We would be better served not making all children fearful of the potential by discussing it year after year but by letting kids know on the first day of school each year “if you find yourself in a situation with another student or adult in the school please notify Mr. Teacher or Mrs. Principal.”
I don’t think it’s helpful to point out that it’s wrong to make fun of; looks, clothing, accents, religion, hair, your two dads, where you live, and the foods in your lunch. All this does is provide a basic checklist of items which likely never occurred to most kids would even be something to antagonize somebody about. What we would be better off doing is finding the few kids with the propensity to exercise this behavior and see why. Looking back at my elementary situations I can tell you there were parenting issues, neglect, substance abuse, poverty and culture shock that attributed to every situation I had.
When I was a kid, I struggled to learn how to read. The solution for that was to pull me out of class and give me some special attention and resources until I was performing at the same level as my classmates. That is what I am suggesting for bullies. It would have been foolish for my classmates to have participated in remedial reading activities until I caught on and the same is true with bullying. Most kids don’t need it because they are not the perpetrators of it and are behaving appropriately.
From birth to death the human experience is somewhat the same for each generation. As adults we can’t prevent all the disappointments of childhood, struggles of puberty or challenges of adulthood. It seems that our generation has tried so hard to buffer the realities of youth that we have perhaps not equipped our sons and daughters for the inevitable losses and failings that are simply part of life. It began with participation ribbons and having youth teams that didn’t keep scores. That doesn’t work when they graduate from college and go on an interview and don’t land a job or date someone and it doesn’t work out. We will live through having our feelings hurt, even if we don’t like it. We may only be delaying the lessens and that is helpful to nobody. So much of what we learn in life can simply not be taught, it must be experienced. We need to step back and realize that they can handle more than we think and that we have already lived through that stage of life and survived and we need to give kids the space to do the same.