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In this piece, I write about early childhood trauma that confused me and made me feel home was not a safe place. I couldn’t have been more than 8 years old, and was already inadvertently set on the path toward putting other people’s feelings/needs before my own.
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When my son was in 5th grade, he went through a rough patch socially. We had moved to a new house – which meant a new school for him, and there was one douche-bag boy in particular who made his daily life difficult.
In an effort to try to deal with what my son was feeling, I created a little picture book with weird little drawings of a funky little creature named Shecky the Meckyl — who just so happened to be getting teased by some other “Meckyls.”
My son let me read it to him.
When I finished, I asked him what he thought about my book. He exhaled with the kind of exhaustion that seemed too dramatic for a 5th grader.
“I get it, Mom. I’m Shecky. And some day some people will appreciate me for who I am. I just have to wait it out.”
In hindsight, my son’s annoyed tone wasn’t inappropriate. I was trying to simplify a complex problem. I was telling him “Be Yourself!” when he knew all too well the person that he was — his core self — was being rejected daily. He felt attacked, defenseless, and friendless.
Over the weekend, we found the old manuscript in a bin.
He didn’t remember it, so we read it again.
I thought I would share it. It may not have worked in the moment, but it reminds me that the woes of youth are, in his case, quickly forgotten. And perhaps my little story might offer something else to someone who is going through a rough patch.
• • •
Shecky the Meckyl & His Technicolor Groove
Shecky the Meckyl had a technicolor groove
He’d leave colors in his wake whenever he’d move.
Sweet Shecky had colors where shadows should be
He made rainbows on sidewalks for Meckyls to see.
Shecky loved colors, as most people do,
But Meckyls turned up their noses and said, “PICKLE-POO!”
Which was not a nice thing for a Meckyl to say.
It made Shecky sad, and his colors turned gray.
Said one nasty Meckyl on one nasty day:
“We don’t like your colors; we don’t like your hues
We step in your shades, and get stains on our shoes!”
“You are too bright!” said this nasty fellow,
“Your pink is too pink, your yellow, too yellow!”
“Why don’t you keep all those shades deep inside?
Lock them up tight,”
And so . . . Shecky tried . . .
He held in the purple
He held in the green
He held in the fuschia
But once in a while some blue would appear
And the Meckyls would laugh as they though he was queer.
Shecky was puzzled as Meckyls could be
He missed the bright hues which had filled him with glee.
Shecky sat himself down on a cold piece of birch.
And his smile flew away alone in that prickle-perch.
He was sitting deserted on his bum in the street
When who do you think Shecky happened to meet . . .
But his friend Schmeckyl Meckyl who was out for a walk
And when he saw Shecky he stopped for a talk.
“Where are your colors, Shecky? Where did they go?
Can’t they come back, Shecky? Please make it so!”
Shecky answered sadly, a tear in his eye,
“Other Meckyls don’t like them, so why even try?”
“Don’t let those Jabber-Flabbers rain on your parade.
I like you, Shecky and all the colors you’ve made.”
“Please make a rainbow, you know what to do.
Those Meckyls are just cranky. Don’t let them change you!”
So Shecky straightened the glockins which grew from his bum,
He squeezed and he pushed and hoped they would come.
And it started to happen, as things frequently do,
Shecky smiled a smile, and his colors shone through!
With colors flip-flapping, once more Shecky was high,
Ready for anything under the sky.
Some Meckyls still look at Shecky with shlock in their eye,
But now Shecky is thankful he is a colorful guy.
My son doesn’t like to discuss 5th grade, and he rolls his eyes at me when I mention it. Meanwhile, I remain on amber alert.
Just because he is able to “straighten his glockins” and refuses to allow the “Mean Meckyls” of the world to be his undoing, I’m not so sure the same can be said of his mother.
What would you do if you found out your kid was a “Mean Meckyl”? When do you let kids fight their own battles? And when, if ever, do you move to intervene? And would you ever have your child call to apologize to another?
After my post went up at I Survived The Mean Girls, I learned that Anderson Cooper had run a television special devoted to bullying awareness and prevention called Bullying: It Stops Here.
The special aired from Rutgers University about one year after freshman Tyler Clementi’s suicide. Clementi killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge after a recording of him having a sexual encounter with another man was posted online.
Cooper has been a strong opponent of bullying. He has spent a lot of time on his show and on other programs speaking out about the suicides among young men and women that were done in response to years of being bullied.
If you can, watch all four parts of Cooper’s video clips below.
Watch with your kids.
Cooper asks students to take a pledge to speak out against bullying.
Because studies show that if even one person speaks up and points out the behavior, bullies are likely to stop doing what they are doing.
All it takes is one person to say, “Whoa, what are you doing?!” or “Hey, that’s really mean!”
As usual, it is silence that is deadly.
And cyber-bullying is a disaster.
Because once words and images go viral, there is no escape for the target.
Only torment and embarrassment and shame.
It’s time to stop using our technology to hurt.
How do we teach our children to stand up against the bullies? How do we get them to risk everything to protect someone else? How do we get them to make better choices? How do we move toward civility and tolerance?
If you have a child who has been bullied, or a child who is complaining about feeling like a bystander (which is how many of us feel during our middle and high school years), please check out I Survived The Mean Girls, which offers a supportive community for people who have been bullied or who have witnessed bullying.
In my last hour on campus during the fall-winter 2010 semester, during my last elevator ride down from the English/Philosophy Department, I experienced the most interesting confrontation/ conversation. Ever.
When the elevator “landed” at the 5th floor, several people got out and four faculty members — including myself — got in.
One woman was already on the elevator; her dark skin stood in sharp contrast to the knee-length, bright yellow coat she wore. She had long, false eyelashes and long, sparkly fingernails. It was pretty obvious that she was a student as most educators simply don’t have enough hours in the day to worry about simple hygiene let alone more advanced techniques like applying fingernails or eyelashes. She also carried a cute little backpack while we all had little, unattractive wheelie bags laden with books and papers. She must have accidentally gone up when she meant to go down. Whatever. The five of us crammed into the teeny-tiny elevator.
The door closed.
Suddenly a loud, distorted male voice came from Ms. Yellow Puffy Coat’s hand, “Girl, you better fucking get back on them pills. I don’t want to be nobody’s baby-daddy.”
All of us “newcomers” noticed at the same moment that Puffy Coat was now holding a telephone in front of her mouth, that it was on speaker mode, and its volume was on full blast.
“Dashan,” Puffy Coat said, “Don’t fucking be telling me fucking nothing about what I need to do with my body. You so worried about getting me pregnant again, go buy some fucking condoms.”
We faculty members were silenced.
It was incredibly uncomfortable.
I looked around the elevator as Puffy Coat’s increasingly intimate conversation filled with obscenities continued. I caught one professor’s eye. He shrugged, then looked down. The filthy elevator floor was apparently very interesting as everyone else was looking down, too. The doors stopped at the 4th floor where another professor got in. I recognized her immediately as Professor Sanity.
Puffy Coat kept going.
“I’m not having another abortion…” said Puffy Coat.
“Bitch,” shouted the faceless Dashan, “don’t play fuckin’ games with me.”
I couldn’t take it. If no one was going to say anything, I would be that girl.
“Excuse me,” I said as politely as I could, “that sounds like a very personal conversation. Do you think you could wait to continue until we are off the elevator?”
Polite wasn’t going to work.
“Hold up, Dashan,” Puffy Coat declared. “Bitch in the elevator trying to tell me what to do.” She continued, “Fucking bitch. I don’t know who she is. Just ignore her. Go on.”
Suddenly, the elevator stopped moving. Professor Sanity had hit the kill switch.
“Excuse me,” said Professor Sanity to Puffy Coat. “That is a completely inappropriate way to speak to another person. Please apologize right now.”
Puffy Coat didn’t know what to do.
It was excellent.
“Dashan,” Puffy Coat said, “I got a situation in the elevator. I’m gonna have to call you back.” And with that she silenced her phone.
(Hello, that’s all I was asking for!)
Professor Sanity did not stop. She pointed over toward my way. “When that professor suggested you turn off your phone, she was speaking for all of us. Because when you are in an elevator, you are in a public space. This is a public space.” Professor Sanity gestured a tiny circle above her head. “It’s a really tight public space, so people need to be especially mindful of each other. The conversation that you were having was beyond personal. No one wants to hear about your sex life. No one wants to hear the language you were using. The swearing was inappropriate, and it made us all uncomfortable. This is a place of higher learning. This is your moment to learn something.”
“Is everything okay in there?” A voice from campus security interjected through the intercom.
“We’re fine,” said Professor Sanity with authority. “Just give us a few minutes.”
Gawd, I love Professor Sanity. I soooo want to be her when I grow up.
Puffy Coat was relentless. She would not back down.
“I have every right to talk on my phone whenever and wherever I want to,” she insisted. “I pay my bills. You can’t tell me what to do. This is racism. You all are just picking on me because I’m black.”
Professor Sanity kept her cool, “You know very well that this has absolutely nothing to do with the color of your skin. This has to do with your behavior. You were not acting respectfully toward the people around you. When someone asks you to do something, your first response should not be to call that person a ‘Bitch’ — but that was your very first response. You need to think about that.”
Feeling bolder now that we weren’t going anywhere, another professor weighed in. Skinny, bald, and sporting double-hearing aids, this man looked to be about 80 years old. “Your argument isn’t logical.” (He must have been a Philosophy Professor.) He continued, “Why do you think that because you pay your bills you have the right to do ‘whatever you want whenever you want’? Paying your bills merely gives you the service. This conversation has nothing to do with race. This conversation has everything to do with your attitude of entitlement.”
Puffy Coat was silent. I couldn’t tell if she understood one word that Elder Prof had just said. Or maybe she realized that she was like a punchline in a bad joke: Five tired professors are on an elevator at the end of the semester. A student walks in.
Maybe she figured if she was quiet, things would end more quickly.
And things did end. Puffy Coat did, in fact, apologize. When five educators are staring at you in a stopped elevator, what choice does a person have? I mean, her apology was totally coerced. Puffy mumbled something to the effect that she was sorry for cursing, adding that she had never considered that being on a speaker phone in public could be perceived as rude. It was Guantanamo Bay in there. And that poor girl was being detained by brutally civilized, intellectual savages.
Professor Sanity told campus security to start us back up again, and we silently rode down to the first floor.
What stuck with me after I made it outside was Puffy’s defensiveness and her utter lack of understanding with regard to how to communicate with people. I considered how Puffy spoke to her boyfriend, to me, to the others: I supposed “combative” was her default setting. I imagined a whole heckuva lot of people must have spoken to Puffy with that same hostile tone over her lifetime, so that is the way she approaches the world. Pissed off is a pretty good defense-mechanism, but it doesn’t serve a person well in college, in the working world, or in life.
I wondered how a person could get to be college-aged and not understand how to behave in a socially appropriate manner.
It’s a sad social comment.
I’d like to believe — given the season — that like the Grinch, maybe …
Puffy puzzled three hours, `till her puzzler was sore
and eventually she realized she could be so much more.
“Maybe,” she thought, “I don’t have to be rotten to the core”
“Maybe it’s good those professors blocked the door.”
Maybe Puffy’s small brain grew three sizes that day!
Do you think that it could?
That maybe Puffy actually “got it” — maybe she understood?
Wouldn’t that be amazing? Wouldn’t that be good?
It would be wonderful.
If that’s what she got.
Do you think that she got it?
Alas, probably not.
What have you witnessed recently that caused you to think: “What has happened to civility?”
Several years back, on the first day of the semester, a student walked into my classroom. A boy, clearly, a male — wearing a long pink skirt, his hair tied in a low pony-tail. When I read the roster and got to his name, he corrected me and told me that his name was Sophia.
I quickly noted the change.
When I met Sophia, she wanted gender reassignment surgery. She wished for it, but knew it would be a long road. As gender reassignment is an irreversible procedure, two letters of therapy clearance would be required. She explained one therapist (psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker, sexologist) would be required to have a doctoral degree, and one of the two therapists would have to know her for an extended period of time. When I met Sophia, she was simply trying to change the name on her birth certificate and running into all kinds of roadblocks. A ward of the State from age 15, if memory serves, Sophia was an emancipated minor living with distant relatives. She had no car, took the bus to campus, and had no expendable money for one therapist, let alone two with the kind of credentials that she would need to put her on the path towards gender reassignment.
That semester, Sophia was distracted. It was hard for her to get to class on-time. Hard for her to make deadlines. Hard for her to deal with the stares and (I imagine) comments in the hallways. A talented writer, Sophia was exhausted at age 19. And I wanted to help her. Eventually, Sophia stopped coming to class. I had lost her.
In June 2009, I read that the person once known as Chastity Bono, the precious little blond-haired daughter of Sonny and Cher who often made appearances at the end of their shows, would henceforth be referred to as Chaz Bono. At age 40, Chaz Bono went public that he was undergoing gender reassignment surgery, and I read the surgery had been completed in May 2010. Of course, I thought of Sophia.
I cannot imagine what it must feel like to be a person stuck in the wrong-gender body.
I am English teacher. I am supposed to teach my students how to improve their writing skills; how to properly use their commas; how to understand and compose for different audiences and recognize the varying modes of discourse. But writing teachers also get to read their students’ words. And I got to read hers.
So while I don’t know where Sophia landed, I still hope she is okay. That she feels good about herself. That she saw the article about Chaz Bono and feels hopeful about her future. And I hope she doesn’t have to wait until her 40th birthday to get the surgery she wants.
Recently I read one of the most amazing (and terrifying) blog entries called “Memories of a Bullied Kid,” on bullying from single dad laughing, a man who reflects back on a time in his life where he says he was systematically terrorized for years – but that he never said anything to anyone – except once. And he went further to report that when he reported the bullying, things got worse for him. Afterwards, he remained silent and endured the torture for over a decade. With so many students killing themselves these days, it amazes me that he is alive to tell the tale.
In the all the bullying literature that is out there, there is one piece of the puzzle that hasn’t been particularly well documented, and so I’m putting out there. Guess what? Sometimes parents of bullies are proud that their children are bullies. I have heard parents admit they would rather have their children be the ones “standing up for themselves” than the ones being bullied: that they have actually encouraged their children to get physical first, so that they are never made targets themselves. For me, this is the ugliest, darkest side to parenting.
Having been a teacher for 20 years now, and a parent for 11, I see that there is precious little time for elementary school to get to know each other at school. I know this because at the end of their 5th grade year, my son (and one friend) could not identify several of the children in their own class.
“I don’t know his name,” my son admitted.
His friend, who happened to be over that day shrugged: “Me either.”
It was unbelievable to me that my child and his friend could spend an entire year with the same people day in and day out and not know everyone’s first and last names, perhaps some tidbit of personal information.
I guess the sense of community has fallen out of the curriculum. Children are no longer taught to be good citizens, the ethics of being good people. The game is all about getting ahead, getting into the best schools — and kids learn early on that they may need to stomp on a few folks to get there. And I am sad to report that many parents encourage this type of aggressive, mean-spirited competition in athletics and academics. And meanwhile everyone is surprised that bullying in on this rise? Shocked when there is another incident reported, this time more gruesome than the last?
I never thought about college until 11th grade. Now, parents discuss college with their 1st graders. That’s a lot of pressure to put on children. When adults are stressed, they can go for a run, swim a few laps, take a yoga class. Well, kids get stressed out, too. But sometimes their stress comes out less constructively. So if you don’t even know all the kids in your class . . . well, why not pick on her? She’s weird. Or him? He’s quiet. Or, if you are really sneaky, get someone else to do it for you?
Once learning their children have been acting as bullies, I’m always amazed at how unapologetic parents are. When I hear of kids who have been bullied and that some type of administrative action has taken place – even suspensions – where the school has agreed a particular child had overstepped too many times with too many kids – I am always shocked that part of the restitution never includes a written apology from the bully. No-one ever makes the offending kid write a note to the person he has been kicking around.
If my child intentionally (or unintentionally) hurt someone, he’d either be over at that kid’s house apologizing in person or he’d be writing letters: to the kid he hurt, to the principal (indicating that he understood the infraction), to the parents of the bullied child explicating in essay form precisely what type of punishment(s) he would be receiving at home that would befit his behavior at school.
Apparently, most parents spend more time worrying about their child getting bullied than about their child being a bully. As a result, when they find out their child is bullying others, it takes them by surprise and they don’t know how to handle it.
What would you do if you found out your child was a bully? How would that conversation go? Would you be proud or horrified?
Yesterday, I posted a blog entry about bullying and received a few responses, but many more people privately emailed me with messages that said, “Please don’t post this, but we are having a huge problem with bullying…” or “Please don’t post this. My daughter is a terrible bully and I don’t know what to do about it…” or “I wish I could tell my kid to just punch her bully in the face… Please don’t post this”.
So there is obviously a lot more to say about bullying, and I kind of wanted to continue the dialogue by proposing a few quick scenarios about physical bullying and how parents handle it. Stay with me:
Your child comes home from school and reports someonekicked her during recess.
What is your response?
Your child comes home from school and reports that she kicked someone during recess.
What is your response?
Is your response gender-based, which is to say, would you say something different to a son than you would to a daughter?
My husband and I have always taught our son that it is important to befriend-ly with everyone. To us, being “friendly” means being kind and tolerant and respectful toward another person, even if you don’t like him so much. We have always been clear with our son that being friendlydoes notmean that he has to be friends with everyone. He seems to get it.
My son knows that friends are important to me. He understands that my closest friends are the people I can trust to help me when I need them, and he sees I am there for them just the same. If we are lucky (and I consider myself lucky), we have people with whom we can share our deepest secrets; folks who come over even when they know we are sick and barfing; they see us without our make-up on and don’t care that the house is a complete mess; they are the people we shop with, take walks with, or sit still with. I am lucky enough to have people in my life who keep little cans of Canada Dry Ginger Ale in their garages refrigerators because they know it is my favorite drink.
There is, of course, an ebb and flow to friendship. Sometimes one person gives more and the other receives – but friendship cannot be one way. Interactions may be brief or extended, but interactions with true friends should – in the ideal – leave us feeling filled up rather than emptied out.
For kids, it’s harder. I imagine sometimes life must seem more like the reality-show Survivor where there are alliances that change daily. There are secret merges. One day you are in, and the next you are on exile island, alone. Or just voted out – excommunicated, without explanation. Blindsided. My son has been negotiating these waters for a few years now. He knows he has friends; it’s just that many of them don’t attend his school or aren’t in his same grade.
Last year, when my child found himself on the ground at recess, getting kicked in the nuts, he noted later, it wasn’t the being kicked that hurt so much (although it did hurt) but that the fact that a person he’d thought was his friend for many years stood by and watched it happen. That betrayal hurt him much more. He felt – and still feels – that if that person had intervened with a “quit it,” or a “leave him alone,” that somehow it wouldn’t have been so bad because he would have known he had that one person. That one friend.
These playground dynamics are also a terrible reminder of the ever-present social hierarchy, that author William Golding was right: It isLord of the Flies out there, and everyday there are still perpetrators, bystanders, victims, and (sadly) precious few rescuers. And despite all the anti-bullying campaigns, no, we simply cannot seem to all just get along.
This year, things have been much better for my guy. Since he is heading for middle school in the fall, last week I asked him to tell me the biggest lesson he’d learned from elementary school. As we walked side by side, I was pretty sure he was going to say something about making sure to include quotes in his essays, or to try not to get hit in the face during dodge ball, or something about not eating Diet Coke and Mentos at the same time.
He thought for a good while and then said, “For better or for worse, one thing I learned while getting picked on last year is that the only person I can really count on is myself. And that the people you think are your friends one day may not be the next.”
His words seemed too adult, like he understood and has come to accept something dark about humanity that has taken me almost my whole life to understand. I’d be lying if I said I am more than a little sad that he understands it so well at 10 years old.
What is your experience with bullying? Would you rather have your child be the bully than the victim?
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