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.