October is Anti-Bullying Month (among other things), and so I have been thinking some about the topic. As most kids were, I was at times the target of bullying, particularly during a period of time in 6th grade. As a teacher, I have had to discipline and deal with my share of bullies, including instinctively stepping into a fight between two 7th graders when I was 8 months pregnant. Not smart, I realize, but like I said, it was instinct.
At the beginning of each school year, I give my “teacher speech,” as do most teachers. I spent ten years teaching elementary school after having spent several years with other grades, and every year I told them that one way to earn immediate reprisal and “time out” from Ms. Literally was to intentionally hurt or bully another student. And I meant it. I do not like to see students harm or intimidate each other. However, as I observed closely throughout my teaching career, I noticed a curious trend.
Now, there are those bullies who are just…mean. They seem to revel in knocking over books, calling names, pushing past other students, and they don’t much care who the target is. They just enjoy aggression, or seem to do so. There was also, however, a type of sembiotic relationship that I sometimes observed between the “bully” and the “victim.”
I will use the story of Em as an example. Em was in one of my fifth grade classes. She was intelligent, creative, and sensitive. She was also…..unique. Now, I understand unique. I was reading at age two, wrote plays and directed them in fourth grade, read the dictionary for fun, and was the worst kickball player in the history of my elementary school….I was also the tallest person in my class and had very prominent 1970’s glasses. Yeah, I know unique. But back to Em. She was very upset because some of the students kept calling her Rover. She was always complaining, crying, and asking various teachers to tell them to stop. Sometimes they even barked at her.
Now, the idea of students calling a girl Rover, barking at her, is appalling. It is cruel. It is understandable that she would be hurt. BUT…..here is the rest of the story. Em had a habit of crawling instead of walking sometimes. At times she would crawl under a table or chair and pant. And while she was there, if a student tried to talk to her….she was apt to bark at them if she didn’t feel like being social.
After one such incident, I asked her to stay behind and speak with me after class. I tried to explain to her that while I did not approve of the other children hurting her feelings…she might, perhaps, want to consider NOT crawling, hiding under furniture, and barking at her classmates. She looked at me blankly, not really comprehending. She seemed unable to see the connection between her acting like a dog and the other students calling her one. I finally gave up, and though I still asked the students not to call her Rover or bark at her in my room, I have to say, I felt empathy for them as well. And i wondered what life would be like for Em when she left the cocoon of elementary school and went to middle school the following year. No one was doing her any favors ignoring and encouraging her to continue to act like a dog.
I also think of a classmate of mine name Jane. I remember when one of the girls in our class had a sleepover, and Jane was not invited. She made a big to do. I was her friend, and she told me if I really liked her I wouldn’t go. She even told the teacher about being excluded, and the teacher called some of us girls in and asked why Jane had not been invited. Here was the story: Jane had a conflict with someone EVERY time she attended a sleepover. She would get mad about something, and it usually ended with parents being awakened to call Jane’s parents to take her home. If she was angry at a particular student or students, she would try to influence the host of the party not to invite them. “If you want me to come and if you are my friend, you won’t invite Sue.” Of course, she would come even if you did invite Sue, and she would spend the entire night looking for reasons to be upset.
When I think about bullying and I think of these kinds of victims, I always feel somewhat torn. Yes, people should not have to be subjected to ridicule and hurtful words. But do we do victims such as Em or Jane any favors when we only shield them rather than try to help them develop the emotional intelligence and understanding of social cues necessary to interact successfully with others? I am afraid the answer is no. The Jane’s and Em’s in our lives to need compassion, but they also need honesty, and they need to be willing to look at their own modes of interacting with others because even though they may leave their childhood bullies behind, if they do not learn to operate according to the mainstream social mores, they will simply encounter more conflict elsewhere. SHOULD the world be that way? Perhaps not…but the reality is that the world IS that way, and we must learn to operate in the world as it is in order to be successful.