“She’s stupid and ugly!” shouted one of my third graders in an outburst of rage and tears. She sat hunched over, fuming, pointing her back directly at another of my students who had wronged her in some mysterious way I didn’t manage to understand.
“Shut your face!” retorted the supposed perpetrator.
In these moments, which happen about once every other class, I remember that childhood can really suck sometimes.
Being the responsible adult in the room, I want to help diffuse this tension that has engulfed two of my students. I tell them that those comments are unacceptable, that they are part of a dance community that doesn’t tolerate that kind of behavior, that they are supposed to support one another. I want to think that my words will steer them towards a kinder, gentler interaction but within seconds, I see that they don’t. From my own experiences as a kid, I know that these wars are fought by the kids themselves and any attempt to soothe will most likely be brushed off, forgotten, as both sides search their minds for more powerful ammunition. Without making an extreme gesture, I have little hope of sorting out the aggression between these two girls.
With kids, it’s easy to assume that the fights are a passing phase and that they hold no real emotional water. But, ask any adult and they’ll probably be able to remember being on one side or another of the bullying coin.
At their age, I was the victim of a very mean, manipulative bully. She, along with her two lackeys, one of whom was my ex-best friend, made a point of ruining my life for three whole years. They excluded me, spread rumors behind my back and dumped the contents of my desk three times a week, along with many other hideous things that kids do to each other. Years later I realized that her torment didn’t stay locked in the hallways of my grade school. It followed me through life, haunting me like a monster in the closet.
Bullying is a very hot topic right now. Around the world, a handful of tragic suicides have brought the dangers of bullying into the forefront of the educational system’s attention. Luckily for me, at the time that I was bullied, there was no online expression for the harassment. My predators used the telephone to torment me after school hours. Today’s bullies post on Facebook.
Just this week, a Channel 2 program about bullies, featuring the story of David-El Mizrahi, was aired in Israel. At fifteen, Mizrahi committed suicide. His Facebook page was left open with horrifying comments made by his fellow students. After months of investigation, the two students who had tormented Mizrahi were found not guilty. Though they incited him publicly to commit suicide, their actions were not deemed outside of the law.
This sad tale shows the ways in which technological advancements have made bullying so much more unbearable. In my day, the humiliations at school stayed between me, the bully and whoever happened to be around at the moment. Now, tensions between students can go from zero to 180 within days. The snide comments, threats and put-downs are public, laid out for anyone to see. I can’t imagine the fear Facebook puts into the hearts of kids today.
Incidents like Mizrahi’s, which reach suicide, bring this long-time problem into our consciousness. However, it is always going on. Whether we are aware or not, school can be a tough arena for children. Kids prove over and over that an appetite for cruelty is often part and parcel to youth.
Mizrahi’s school also managed to wriggle free of taking responsibility. “I’ll never know what each kid is going through,” said the principle to Mizrahi’s mother.
Mizrahi’s parents, along with the parents of several other kids whose lives were disturbed by classmates, shared their feelings of helplessness. How could they have known that their child was being bullied? What could they have done?
I asked my mother how she knew I was having a hard time at school. “You cried every morning,” she said. “You refused to go to school.”
My parents turned to the principle and teachers who spent their days with me. Nowadays, thanks to a hopefully permanent rise in awareness, many schools have strong “No Bullying” policies. Back then, the school preferred to turn a blind eye.
They refused to take responsibility and suggested that my parents try to speak to the parents of the accused students.
“They refused to hear it,” said my mom. They said that they had never had problems with their daughter before and that it must be my misunderstanding. I don’t know how they thought that an eleven-year-old could misunderstand having the chair pulled out from under them and falling on the floor to the sound of the rest of the kids’ giggles. But, whatever, ignorance is bliss.
In the end, the responsibility falls on the parents on both sides. Always. Had my bully’s parents stepped in, life would have been a lot easier for us. But they had no way of knowing that their sweet daughter was a psychopath. And this is where I find the biggest problem in the whole issue. It’s easy to point the finger at the parents of the kid being thrown in the dumpster, at the bully doing the throwing, the kids supporting him and the teachers that look the other way. But where are the parents of these kids?
Statistics show that bullies are most often kids whose home lives are unstable. Their acts of aggression emerge from a need to feel in control. If we are willing to blame everyone surrounding these acts of violence in school, surely we can’t leave out the parents of the guilty children.
The student who is being victimized begins to act differently, to be depressed, his or her grades drop and the parents become aware that there is a problem. The parents, if they are alert, take notice and act.
But what about the bully? The bully displays far less symptoms of distress. I imagine that my bully had no pause when packing her lunch bag. She was at ease at school, happy to spend another day as queen of the class. But didn’t anyone ever tell her that dumping someone’s desk is unacceptable behavior? That tripping someone is wrong? The parents of the mean kids are just as responsible and just as necessary in correcting their actions. That said, with no change in behavior, how are parents supposed to know that their kid is a bully?
Negotiating the new arenas for misbehaving is a difficult parenting task. It isn’t enough to wait for parent-teacher conferences to hear how one’s child is behaving in school. Facebook pages, emails and text messages need to be monitored. Communication needs to be a goal no matter what state the kid is in.
The end of my story, which was much more positive than David-El’s or many other kids, came with an intervention from my dad. Furious at the school’s denial of the problem and desperate to help, my dad waited for the next assault. Low and behold, she pulled the chair out from under me again. The next morning, when my dad dropped me off at school, he made a stop in our classroom. I don’t really remember this event but, as my mom tells it, he told this girl that the next time she messed with me, she’d have him to answer to. That was the end of if. She never came near me again. After all, no eleven year old would dare take on my six-foot-three wall of a father. She must have been terrified.
Though I don’t wish for any kid to have a face-off like the one with my outraged dad, I feel lucky to have parents who made my pain their business.