Thursday, November 12, 2009
Oh, the controversy
A few weeks ago, as we made our way out of the school parking lot, my seven-year-old released a sigh beyond his years and chucked the enormous backpack he carries on the floor of the mini-van. That's right, I said mini-van. When I asked him what was the matter, he said he'd been called "stupid" by a classmate, a little girl who, in my estimation, has already assigned herself the role of Group Browbeater. Apparently, name-calling is her weapon of choice, at least with my kid, and after a few days of heckling, he'd had enough.
Now, for the record, our way of dealing with playground conflict, or at least what we tell the children, is this: say no and walk away. It's very new age-y, I realize. Spiritually elevated, diplomatic. But possibly, I'm beginning to think...not working?
Growing up in a small town, I experienced bullying on a very personal level. Which is to say, I knew all the bullies by name and prayed to God every night they wouldn't come after me. It was a small school-everybody was your familiar, there was no disappearing into the background-but no way to stand out, either. Enter my leopard-print pants and coordinating tank top emblazoned with the likeness of a cheetah, glittering eyes included. Now there's a way to get noticed. That one outfit catapulted me straight to don't make eye contact/don't walk home from school alone/with-any-luck-she'll-move-back-to-West Virginia-land. It's unbelievable: the hell I, a mere child, had to pay for fashion.
These girls...skinny, ratted-hair, high-top-wearing, cussing....they were nasty, before Janet made it cool. They sneered, and what's more, I would swear they smoked. Fourth graders. It's funny-even now, they seem older than me-and I'm not talking about the mean girls as grown-ups--I mean their 1986 versions. They were always little, dirty 35-year-olds in too-small clothes. No wonder they hated me; my father owned a children's boutique.
I tried walking away. Mostly I ran away. And stayed inside. Looking back, I should have told an adult, or as they say these days: "tattled". Twenty years ago, whistle-blowing was the norm. And it worked, right? I recall detentions aplenty being dangled o'er us from a very young age. Some teachers even paddled-and if that alone wasn't enough to transform a bully on the road to Damascus, then I don't know...next stop: orphanage? My point is, being "told on" was legit. You got results. Of course, there were always those dissidents who bucked tradition, choosing instead to meet in a vacant lot after school; also very effective. Such events almost always included the serendipitous arrival of someone's cousin's cousin-who, despite being in middle school was able to grow a full mustache and perhaps even drive. There was usually lots of gravel to contend with, and its associated dust, but less blood than you'd imagine. But again: results.
Today, kids have ever-fewer options when it comes to putting the smack-down on bullies.
Case in point: I bang my fist on the steering wheel and beg my son: Tell your teacher.
But Mom, he says, that's tattling.
No-tattling is when you have a problem-a simple problem like sharing or taking turns that you could work out on your own and instead you just tell a grown-up, usually in a really whiny voice, I say.
He's not convinced. Looks out the window. I just don't want to get in trouble.
I ask you. Am I the only one who thinks this is a crazy system? We have these children here, with this laundry list of things they need to know, apparently, in order to be gain approval in society. Self-govern, share, count in Spanish, navigate the hot lunch line, not hit, learn the proper formation of letters using the D'Nealian handwriting system, recycle, read, for Pete's sake. And then, on top of all this, serve as miniature peer mediators? Listen, I'm all for empowering children to problem-solve, and since being a parent have delivered the stink-eye to MANY a tattler, mostly my own offspring. BUT-there is a difference between "telling on" and reporting. Reporting is necessary. Reporting is responsible, and reasonable, and no matter how much we, as grown-ups, want to trust our kids to navigate through the social garbage sans our intervention, they are...children. Children with iPods, and email accounts. The water is muddy, no?
So what was my problem? I was sensitive-beautifully, tragically, sensitive and tender-hearted and scared and in my head, working over my grade-school mini-dramas alone, imagining. Imagining that the next day I would be invisible, or the scary girls would have moved on; or moved away. To West Virginia. To be clear, though, aside from being bullied, I had a lovely life. I could compartmentalize what happened-and it was fleeting-I was able to tuck it away and enjoy... being loved by my parents, riding a bicycle through the neighborhood, reading in my bedroom, staring out the front picture window at the then-love of my life: the neighbor boy in tube socks. Be still my heart.
I am fully aware that there were children, even in my own school, who had it much worse. One kid, a dirty, scabby, down-and-outer sort of boy with a buzz-cut and torn--literally torn clothing-was teased, mercilessly, every day I can remember. He was more than an outcast-he was reviled; Pigpen, minus the campy goodwill. In my mind's eye he is this: flannel shirts and highwaters, cruel words trailing him like Charles Schulz's cloud of dust. I don't think I ever heard him speak.
There was one time, though, riding through town one fall afternoon-I usually walked home from school, but my mother had picked me up that day to run errands. We came to the alley that ran alongside what would eventually be the Country Scissors beauty shop, and there in the open, in front of God and everybody, was this boy, Jesse. Taking a wallop, once again, just for being alive. I started to cry, but my mother was already out of the car, having shifted to park right there in the middle of the street, leaving the driver's side door wide open. Whether it was a sense of social responsibility, or mother-love that compelled her, I don't know. I had sunk down to the floor of the car by this time, afraid of what my association with this Sentinel of Justice would mean for my own future-would I ever be safe again? Was there really such a thing as a truant officer? The humanity.
What my mother understood was this: some things are just wrong. Obviously, the shake down on Main Street is an extreme example, but she stepped in. Some teachers, I know, are of the mind that any relaying of information qualifies as tattling, so long as no one's on fire or bleeding- but what about chronic, unmitigated, ridicule? The emotional damage caused by these types of behaviors can run deep. Jeffrey Dahmer-deep. But what to do?
Children, especially, are looking for a hero. We're the hero-the safe place, the inbox they should feel absolute freedom entrusting their requests to. Because listen: buried in with the minor sandbox tussles are predicaments beyond their capabilities. There are some situations that require maturity, nuance, a degree in psychology....law enforcement. Last time I checked, SpongeBob** just kind of glazed over these things. What's the worst that could happen, you ask? Besides an entire generation of children afraid to speak the truth of what is wrong in their world, reluctant to blow the whistle, self-medicated, tuned out, wrapped up in the latest gadget's technology cream-puff, safe and snug with their earbuds in? Do we have an app for that?
Oh, wait. Too late.
I propose a movement wherein we re-visit "tattling". I'm willing to admit that my child could be the ONLY individual who's confused about the term, like when he thought a deflated balloon tied to a chip clip was, indeed, a Power Ranger. Maybe everyone else understands the difference, and he'll get it, eventually. It's helpful to remember that he is, after all, his mother's son. Internalizing, waiting, figuring out the cost. Sensitive. The boy who, after a similar encounter with teasing last year, said wistfully: "I wish Martin Luther King were here."
Shortly after college I was flipping through CD's at the record store (remember those?) and came across a disc bearing the image of a sort of countrified Fabio on its cover. The artist's name? That little boy from my childhood, Jesse. It was even his last name, too, and what's more it looked like him, in the Glamour Shots sense of things. My best friend and I stood in silence, clutching what appeared to be just another mediocre country effort- but was really hope: for justice, restoration...resurrection.
Oh, please let it be him. We walked out in tears.
There was no way to know for sure. Since then, I've Googled him with varied success. Meaning, there are some images I think...maybe...could it be? Other results I click closed right away, because they don't suit the fairy-tale ending I've imagined for Jesse. That day in the store reminded us, though: not only how lucky we were to escape unscathed from our own childhoods, but how it would have required so little, on all our parts, to help someone so out of favor. As adults we know this, it is clear; palpable. As children, though, the picture was blurred. We needed a hero.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Or, all of us kids, together saying no.
*My son hasn't complained about being teased since the day I was inspired to write this post, which I can only attribute to the kick-a*s comebacks we've been working on together. Turns out I've got some real zingers (never used) saved up from my youth. Apparently they are still quite relevant.
**My children do not watch SpongeBob. Yes, I am that parent.