Note: This column deals with serious bullying issues and incidents. No holds barred.
I never will forget the day I sprung a tiny little truth bomb on an unsuspecting student studying speech pathology. I will never forget how her eyes widened. I really hope she doesn’t forget either.
I was giving a talk entitled “Growing Up on the Autism Spectrum” for a college classroom full of aspiring speech pathologists. They were a great audience: attentive, interested people who laughed at every blessed one of my jokes. Yes, ALL of my jokes. Even the dreadful ones.
During the Q-and-A session after my talk, one woman had a question for me. It was a more telling question than she knew.
She asked, “Why didn’t you tell a teacher that you were being bullied?”
She really didn’t know. So I told her.
In second grade (I explained), I told my teacher, Miss X, that I’d been bullied by a particularly tough girl in my class. Miss X called me and the bully to her desk at recess time. She asked the girl if she’d done what I said. The girl admitted it, and then Miss X had her apologize to me and docked her a couple of recesses. Problem solved.
Except that later that day, my bully caught up to me. I fully expected that she would be cowed by the weight of the justice that had been brought down on her.
She was going to give me a pass this time, she said, because I clearly didn’t understand the rules of the playground. But there would be no more passes.
She explained she and her friends would figure out where they could find me outside of school. She told me that once I set foot outside of the schoolyard, I was fair game and the teachers couldn’t do a thing. She told me that she and her friends would hurt me — badly — and that they could stuff like twisting my arm behind my back really hard so there wouldn’t be any marks. They would find me and they would hurt me and there was nothing anyone could do to stop them.
She made it clear that that was my only and final warning.
When I finished with this explanation, the look of shock on the face of the young woman who asked the question was genuine. Clearly she’d never taken into consideration the idea that bullies might not give a single rat’s patootie about lying to the teacher and dealing out their own forms of persuasion.
The teacher back then and the young speech path I was talking to in the present day both thought that the system basically worked. Bullying got reported, the teacher dealt with it, and that was that.
That system doesn’t work. It just doesn’t.
Even now that I knew that tattling would lead to pain, my teachers sometimes detected signs of bullying, like me coming in from recess with my eyes red from crying. When they asked me what had happened, I’d tell them: the other girls spent recess making fun of me.
So the teacher would go to one of the other girls to deal with it. And that other girl would say, with wide innocent eyes and utter sincerity, that I’d gotten upset because they were playing a game and I didn’t understand the rules and I had yelled a lot and ran away.
That teacher knew darned well how upset I could get if people broke the rules of a game, and had seen me meltdown over perceived cheating in math contests in class. It was clearly all a misunderstanding, and she took me aside and let me know that I needed to take a few deep breaths and shouldn’t be so upset.
I’d be too upset to make my case coherently.
The teacher did not know that the game they were playing was “Let’s Torture Jennifer,” nor that it involved following me around the playground telling me over and over that I had no friends and never would have any because I was so weird and smelly. She didn’t know they told me the only reason my parents let me live with them was that they legally had to.
She had no idea how cruel grade school mean girls could be, or how the other students never interfered because they didn’t want to be targets themselves.
Look, I survived. I stumbled onto some techniques that kept me going and I had my family and my room to retreat to at the end of the day. I’m not looking for sympathy for me.
I’m am looking for some recognition that whether and how bullying victims report and deal with being bullied is not the problem. Bullies are. But we do things that make the victims feel like it’s somehow their fault.
“Why didn’t you tell a teacher?” “Are you sure you didn’t do something wrong?” “Did you remember to ask nicely if you could play too?” “If you’d just play nicely the other children wouldn’t get so upset with you.” “Can’t you just try to get along with the other children?”
The parent-teacher meetings about “What is wrong with this child?” (Because clearly there is something wrong with the victim.) The additional therapy, social skills classes, or other life consuming “helpful” things that take away the bullying victim’s time for playing and learning and just being a kid.
All of those things are based on a false premise: fix the victim, not the bullies. But the bullying victim is not the problem. It’s the highly socially adept and perceptive bullies, the clever kids who know what to do and say when the teacher is there, who are the problems.
So how do you help the person who is not the problem here? What do you do when the culture we live in assumes the normal looking kids are not a problem and the weird kid is? And why don’t any of the usual responses, like social skills training and zero tolerance policies, work? Those are the subjects of my next two columns. Stay tuned.