Tuesday, February 12, 2013

On Words That Broke Our Bones

One of the sunniest, most charming children in my classroom -- let's call her Julia -- is telling her good friend how much she likes string cheese. Another child at the table (we'll call her Becky) pipes up: "I like string cheese, too!" Julia turns towards Becky and says, quite matter-of-factly, "I wasn't talking to you, Becky."  I am stunned.

So I pounce: "Julia, that is neither polite nor kind," I admonish. Julia looks surprised. I ask her to imagine how she would feel if someone said the very same to her. With thought (because she is nothing if not a thoughtful kid), she gets it. Her mouth turns down in shame. I am glad that she understands. I expect that in the future she will be more sensitive to words that exclude others.

But what has shocked me is my realization that Julia had absolutely no idea that she was being cruel until someone pointed it out to her. Kindness must be modeled; kindness must be taught. Yet also: kindness CAN be taught!

The exchange puts an entirely different spin on the bullying I endured for a year and a half of elementary school. I had always believed there to be intentionality behind that teasing. Recast as thoughtlessness never corrected by a grown-up's proper modeling, the meanness suddenly seems a lot less so.

If only I could go back to my fifth-grade year with these grown-up eyes, these grown-up thoughts.


At lunch a boy in my class (call him Duncan) rushes, breathless, towards me, and cries, "Mrs. P., Mac was making fun of your last name!" He looks expectant. This, apparently, is Very Important Information. I also detect a note of outrage in his tone. He is upset on my behalf. I laugh. My reaction is not the reaction Duncan had anticipated, and he seems confused, even disappointed. "Well, Duncan, my last name IS a little silly when you think about it, isn't it?," I ask. Duncan shrugs, and clears his throat nervously. "I guess so," he returns, finally, and because he understands that I have no intention of chastising Mac, he lopes back to his seat.

Watching Duncan's retreat, I ponder the encounter. For the second time in a day, I find myself back in fifth grade. What if at ten years old I had responded to being bullied with a laugh and a wave of my hand? What then?

I'll never know, and in a small way that's a pity. I won't be able to spare my girlhood self the hurt and pain I suffered in 1977 and 1978. But I can perhaps do my bit to keep Julia, Becky, Duncan, and Mac from becoming bullies, victims, or both. The thought of it makes me smile and helps me banish my seventies ghosts -- Sabrina, Beth, and Abby (real names this time, because naming shifts the balance of power away from the named and towards the namer, no?). And maybe my writing this down and sharing it with you will bring you that much closer to exorcising your own childhood demons. I hope so.


V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios said...

Yes, thoughtfulness needs to be modeled and taught. Teaching children to put themselves in another's place is a chance to create a pathway to empathy and compassion. I've known some good people who were careless with their words, not mean-spirited but not "hearing" the message their words were sending. They blurt. They speak without thinking. Telling them about it helps them learn to think before they speak, and also is a reminder to me not to immediately latch onto a subtext that doesn't exist.

Reading your post, I also thought of how many times "Julia" must have heard "I'm not talking to you." As adults, we sometimes say that to children who are interrupting us when we're trying to convey information to another adult. Hearing out of a child's mouth makes you realize how mean it can sound.

Christine said...

Yes, there is hope. I'm glad Julia has you to teach her. xo

ozma said...

I remember kids being mean to me and picking on me and stressing me out--but strangely it wasn't very traumatic because I'd known these kids since I was 5. The familiarity made it very different. When I got into high school and didn't know the kids, this scared me.

I am very worried for my kids' transition to 7th grade (So silly--it's 3 years from now!!!) just because she will be around new kids. If Joey or whatever is driving her nuts, whatever--he's just Joey, that kid she's known for a few years. But that vulnerability in early adolescence and then being in a new school. OY! Plus, to go to a better school we probably have to go to a wealthier suburb. Our schools are terrible here (academically at least--the kids are more funky, it's diverse, so far so good but they fall apart later).

So anyway, it's all projecting forward for me. How to spare her the cruelty. I may homeschool her in 7th grade.

Just tonight the horrible kid (call him Joey) was getting a mean Valentine's Day card from my daughter. They have a mutual hate thing going on--it's not my kid picking on him. BUT I had to shut that down. It will hurt his feelings, whether he is a little creep or not I don't know--but no hurting feelings.