I see children. As an integral part of what I do, I talk to them. They talk to me. We discuss stuff. Words, events, stories, happenings, expressions. Language, communication. School. Life.
Oftentimes it becomes an opportunity for all manner of learning. Sometimes I even teach them something (I think that more often than not, I am the one who learns more!)
A girl came in the other day, a preteen with all the loveliness, precocity, and gangly limbs that time of life implies, complete with early social angst over boys, hierarchies and wanting to fit in. She’s a precious girl. Relatively sheltered, only child and doted on. Popular, I know. Loved by teachers. Not the best learner, but she’s gracious about what others do better and tenacious about trying to improve her own results. She had made amazing leaps in the few months I’ve known her.
She has also opened up some more. About what is not often spoken of. The real problems of childhood that are frequently hidden under layers of “fine”, “okay”, and “nothing much.”
Yesterday, she spoke about something that is both a numbing non-stop conversation and taboo: Bullying.
Non-stop in the almost weekly pedagogic instruction for “awareness” and “Zero Tolerance,” the speakers that the school brought in to talk to the students about the wrongs of bullying, the memos to the parents, the signup sheets for pledges, and the warning for absolute intolerance of it in the school. Taboo because it still happens, mostly underground and sneakily, and because in some ways it’s become even harder to bring it up.
She is not the first one to tell me of that snailing-in of bully-tactics. I’ve been hearing it. A lot. The children tell it like it is.
“No one wants to be the kid who gets another kid suspended or worse, thrown out of school!” the children tell me. “What do I need someone’s parents calling mine to find out why I’m making trouble for their kid?” These are schools parents line up to get a child into, and pay plenty for tuition and name recognition. Nothing can be allowed to blot a child’s resume. If there’s a problem, it is best handled quietly. The children feel the pressure, too. They know.
“We’re supposed to take care of it on our own, anyway” they tell me. “The teachers are like: ‘you have got the skills, use them’ or ‘sign the pledge, don’t bully, don’t become a witness, step away.’ It’s words, not action. They don’t really want to get involved. Anyway, half the time you can’t even prove it is bullying, and then you’re like, the bully.”
The kids tell it like it is. It’s tough. It’s complicated. Still, talking helps. Many of them are sick of bullying and are indeed taking action–from within. Like the girl.
She’s not the one in the cross-hairs of verbal torment (bullying in her school is the subtly demolishing kind–no heads in the toilet or smashed glasses or bruises–but eroding stings and code words of soft spoken wounding. Lethal still. We know). It is another girl. Two, actually, and creatively isolated from each other by the bullying company so that they cannot seek counsel with each other. The bullies? Four girls. All popular, great students, teachers’ pets, parents on committees, philanthropy going back to bedrock.
“They don’t say anything really mean,” she tells me quietly, anguished, “kind of. But they still do. It is hard to explain.”
“You are explaining,” I encourage. “Sometimes it is in the how you say things that the intended meaning comes through.”
She nods. “They KNOW things,” she whispers. “Stuff that’s private, what they don’t want others to know, small things, embarrassing stuff … I don’t know how they even find out, but they do, and then they say it, kind of in a joke but I can see it is not funny. Some kids laugh because they want to be popular and some really don’t see that it meant to be sneaky. They’re not all mean girls, those who laugh … some of them are my friends and all, but they laugh, and it makes it worse.”
I nod. I understand.
“The girls being bullied,” she continues, “they’re not really my friends. Not because they are being bullied … I mean, they weren’t my friends before, either. I don’t know why. I don’t really like them much. Do you think that makes me bad?”
I smile. “The very fact that you are wondering about it, tells me that you are not bad. Let alone that I already know you to have a very caring heart.”
She looks at me searchingly, but she knows I mean what I say. “Okay,” she says. I’m glad she doesn’t blush.
“I was thinking about it, about what to do,” she starts.
“My other friend said that we could find out bad things about the mean girls and we can tell them that if they kept on being mean we’ll tell everyone … but,” she pauses, “that’ll kind’a make me be a bully, too. I don’t want to.”
I smile. She knows what my smile means–another proof that she is farthest from bad.
“… so I told my friend, that we’ll just hang out more with B and C and be their friends more. Invite them over. Sit with them at lunch kind of stuff. They are a little weird sometimes, though,” she sighs. “One of them kind of gets annoying, you know, grabs your stuff, holds on to you, sticky. You know?”
She pauses. Ponders.
“But maybe it’s because she’s kind’a lonely. Or maybe she’s lonely because she’s weird. I don’t know. I don’t want to be mad at her. I don’t want to be mad at the bully girls, either. They are kind of my friends, too, sometimes. It gets me feeling stuck.”
I nod. Sometimes there’s nothing I can say that the child is not already saying, nothing that I need to add. Just listen. I hear her. She wants to think it out.
“It’s a little better, though,” she brightens. “I think. Today, at lunch, the mean girls wanted to sit with us and I was sure it was because they wanted to be mean to B and C–they were sitting with my friend and me, you know, like I said–and I got all like, mad inside, but then I decided that I didn’t want to be mad in advance. So … I just let it go. And you know what? …”
“They were not mean. They were alright.”