On Friday, the one day of the week when I don’t have afternoon office hours, I left work, swung by the pizza shop, and met L. for lunch at his school. With the new changes in place for this second quarter, two days/week he has Lunch Bunch in the guidance counselor’s room (he gets to pick a friend to eat with him) and on Fridays I try and bring him pizza and eat in the cafeteria with him. Scott usually swings by on Monday afternoons—sometimes to bring him a slice, if the timing works out—other times just to check up on how he’s doing. So on any given week, L. really only has to deal with Wednesdays in the cafeteria, and sometimes Mondays, too.
On Fridays I usually stay for recess, too—or at least part of it. I don’t really like staying for recess, I’ll confess that up front. It’s chaotic, noisy, and sets my nerves on edge. It never fails, too, that a teacher will step up and reprimand L. for doing something he’s not supposed to be doing, although to me, what he was doing didn’t seem dangerous in the least. For instance, he likes to swing on the parallel bars, and I can’t seem to keep the rules on the bar use straight. Sometimes he swings upside down and no one says anything, other times a teacher will walk up to us and point out to L. that he can’t swing upside down.
This past Friday, L. talked me into staying for the entire recess, and I didn’t have the heart to say no. It was clear that my presence there was very much wanted, and given that recess is always such a difficult time for him, I felt I should stay. At the very end, as the kids were lining up, and other kids were zipping around in and out of the line, I overheard a child say something mean to L., something ugly about his small size. I turned on that kid—so suddenly I surprised even myself, and told him that what he’d said was unkind. “How would you like it if someone said something like that to you?” I said and I had to almost literally bite my tongue to stop from saying what I wanted to say: “How would you like it if someone said something to you about YOUR size?” But I didn’t say it, because the child in question is quite heavy set, and I’m the adult, and it is never right to say things like that to a child, no matter how much you want to, and how the Mama-Bear feelings are just coursing through your veins.
But when I drove away my hair was still standing on edge, my hackles raised, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how it is that some kids just tease and bully no matter what they look like, or what teasable traits they themselves might have, while other kids are forever at the receiving end. I thought about kids who had teased me, and others, back in my own elementary school days. Those kids had seemed so self-assured, to hold so much power over everyone else yet, looking back, I can see that they could have invited teasing, too. What makes one kid be the teaser, and the other kid the teasee? How do these kids learn to mend their own poor sense of self-worth through cutting down another? What is their home life like? What do they hear their parents say to each other? To them?
Anyway, I was not happy about it. I wasn’t happy that this child at L.'s school had said something unkind when he knew I was there. I walked L. all the way back into the building instead of leaving from the playground as I had intended. But I felt powerless. The most insidious form of teasing and bullying, I am realizing more and more, is the one like the teasing I witnessed: words thrown out at line-up; harmful, mean-spirited words and epithets. Teachers and schools can do much to stop out-and-out physical bullying, but not much is done to address the damage that words can do.
What can we do about it?