Clara's Clearing

Clara's Clearing

Who's the bad boy now?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The bullying troubles in third grade got really bad toward the end of the year. I had written a letter to the principal about it and talked to the teacher and was hoping that things would improve. A couple of mothers told me that they had had to intervene on Jack’s behalf when they heard the bullies persuading other kids to join them in ganging up against him. His classroom teacher meant well but was overwhelmed.

I really didn’t know what to do. It was close to the end of the year, I was terribly busy finishing a book, and I was just putting band-aids on things and hoping summer vacation would save us. I hoped for the best in fourth grade.

Needless to say, when fourth grade started my hopes for improvement were quickly dashed. The bullying started all over again: fresh, aggressive, and spreading like wild fire. My son was going berserk trying to defend himself. He would say things like “I’m afraid I’m going to be murdered at school.” I am not exaggerating. In his 9-year old experience he feared for his life.


So what exactly was the bullying that was going on?

In our neck of the woods where physical aggression is a no-no, bullying is mostly psychological. It starts with ridicule and insult. It includes threats of violence – to the victim as well as to the children who are reluctant to join the bullying gang. In involves giving and withdrawing allegiance: “you are my friend,” “you are not my friend.” And of course the question of who is “cool” and who is not.

Being bullied at school is being immersed in a very nasty, poisoned, and scary environment at least six hours a day. The adults – mainly teachers and parents – are inept, absent, or part of the problem. The bullied child is bewildered and afraid. Some withdraw into themselves and become depressed and some fight back. My son is the fighting back kind. Being physically big he had no trouble taking on the boys if he had a chance (not the girls of course, even though a couple of them were instrumental in creating the gang behavior). Of course physical aggression is not tolerated, but when we’re not looking kicks in the shin are indeed answered with kicks in the shin. “Taking him down” is still practiced with full primitive meaning. It’s definitely much easier to defend oneself physically – if you’re big enough, that is.

But psychological aggression is much harder to fight off. The main reason for this is because this kind of aggression is a social one. It involves relationships. You build relationships by hurting others and you hurt others by building relationships. And if you’re picked on and turned into a victim, nobody wants to build a relationship with you – or nobody dares. You’re completely alone, while the aggressors are not. If a whole group of kids attacked you physically someone would notice. But if a group of kids attacked you psychologically, it very well could completely go unnoticed by people in authority. And I suspect even if it does not go unnoticed, as most adults don’t have the skills – or the backbone – to stand up to gang behavior, they would just as soon just look away.

In fourth grade I quickly realized how bad the situation was. I pulled Jack out of afterschool where things had gotten particularly out of control. I looked into changing schools. I was not only worried about the abuse he was subjected to but the habits he was picking up. Since he couldn’t take out his anger physically he had gotten into fighting back by annoying children. He would deliberately aggrevate kids, almost as if he was provoking them to mistreat him. This is something that had started in third grade.


Back in third grade the more the kids isolated and rejected Jack, the more he insisted on behavior that would make him very unattractive to them. He became unruly and disruptive in class, especially whenever he was to work in a group with the kids whom he knew despised him. He distracted them when they tried to work. He did not cooperate on projects. He did not follow rules in games. The class lost a couple of recesses because of his unruliness in the classroom. The collective punishment of course made the kids dislike Jack even more. I understand why he would act up in class especially: it was safer to do so. After all, the teacher would not allow the other kids to “murder” him. And now I understand why Jack liked it when the teacher put him at a desk by himself -- although ostensibly it was because he was being disruptive not because the other children were tormenting him.

Early in fourth grade, while I was frantically searching for another school – having no hope for things to change – Jack’s fourth grade teacher stepped in. She made it very clear that she was NOT going to look away.



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