Clara's Clearing

Clara's Clearing

A very unexpected thing

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

My son quit school last week.

And today I formed a “private school” for home schooling him. That’s California law. I named my “school” after the wonderful elementary school I went to as a kid and I don’t call it home school; I call it free school. This is what happened.

The last blog I posted was my son’s letter to his afterschool teacher. I attached that to a letter I wrote to the afterschool director and teacher. What I said in that letter was that I had lost hope in the school doing much about the bullying but was hoping the afterschool staff would be more responsive. I thought the worst bullying was happening at afterschool. I was completely disappointed in the afterschool director’s response. She was cold both to Jack and me and blamed us more than showing concern. After years of being very supportive of her I felt completely betrayed.

Meanwhile, as I was dealing with the afterschool situation, the father of a classmate of my son’s called me. “What’s with the email?” he asked me. “What’s going on with Jack?” I didn’t know what he was talking about. It turned out that Jack’s teacher had sent an email to a bunch of kids’ parents who had been involved in a nasty situation with my son. The teacher had not said anything to me or copied me on the email. I was grateful that this friend’s father forwarded me the email.

According to the email the kids had been nasty to Jack for some time. The latest was that one of the kids had asked for a vote to have Jack kicked out of the class and many kids had raised their hands. I guess this was even too much for the teacher. I suppose everything else up to that point was OK with her. This is what she said:

“I fully understand individual frustrations, but this behavior falls in the category of bullying. Would you please talk to your child about not participating in the group behavior.” She then enumerated “strategies I have implemented to move away from people who annoy you,” such as moving away from the annoying person, speaking directly to him, etc.

This is a letter I wrote addressed to her and the principal before Jack had decided to quit school:

This is the second day this week that Jack has chosen to stay home. He has missed many days this year because of waking up in the morning with “stomach ache,” “head ache,” or wanting to “throw up.” I have not been outspoken about this in the past and I believe that has been a mistake.

That Jack is bullied and ridiculed by any number of children, we all know by now. What I would like to point out in this letter is the context in which this behavior appears.

Last Friday an email went to the parents of certain kids in Room 10 who had participated in a particularly nasty episode: “voting” Jack out of class. One of the parents was so concerned about the event as well as the email that he called me immediately. When he realized I had not been included in the email he forwarded it to me.

There are a number of things wrong with this approach. San Francisco Unified School District informs me that it is my right to be informed when my child’s name is mentioned in any correspondence. Transparency is absolutely necessary. But I’m less concerned about the legality of the matter than the humanity of it.

Ms. Teacher, when you exclude me from such correspondence these are some of the messages that are conveyed to both those who do and those who don’t receive the correspondence:

  1. The hurtful gravity of the situation need not be acknowledged to Jack or his family by the school.
  2. The participation of Jack and his family in finding a solution to a situation that is hurting Jack is not needed.
  3.  The open acknowledgement of other parents and their children that Jack has been hurt are also not needed.

This lack of open acknowledgement and lack of transparency in finding solutions gives the impression that things are just being swept under the rug. It fosters the kind of closed-door and secretive environment in which all abuse, including school bullying, takes place.

Let me point out another aspect of the context in which this bullying is taking place. Let me draw your attention to two sentences in Ms. Teacher’s email:

  1. “I fully understand individual frustrations, but this behavior [i.e. the taking of a vote against Jack] falls in the category of bullying.”
  2. “Strategies I have implemented to move away from people who annoy you are…”

What these two sentences imply is that you “fully understand” that Jack “annoys” other children, but, still, people should not bully him. Not only do you not make any mention of “fully understanding” how Jack might be feeling, but you are implicitly acknowledging that children are right in not really liking him. In other words, you understand and acknowledge that Jack is an annoying child but you don’t understand and acknowledge that something might be precipitating “annoying” behavior in him – or that perhaps, just perhaps, Jack might be a hurt child more than an annoying one?

Do you not think that children pick up on this implicit siding with their feeling of annoyance? Do you not think this implicit “understanding” of the impulse to behave badly toward someone who is annoying them is subtle permissiveness of that behavior? And do you not think that this quiet, under-the-rug communication with parents gives permission to the parents to deal with this situation in an off-hand, don’t-ask-don’t-tell kind of way?

I fully grant that this bullying did not start in your classroom. Last year the fourth grade teacher went through an awful lot of trouble trying to eliminate this behavior in her classroom and under her watch. But it was not in her power to completely stamp out the behavior, hence its recurrence this year. Part of the reason her efforts did not fully succeed is because of this lack of acknowledgment on the community level, including the families of bullying children. Consequently, with the exception of the parent who called me last week, after close to three years of widespread bullying against Jack, we have to this date received only one open acknowledgement from a family. What I have received from other parents since your letter went out are guilty but averted eye-contact and never a mention of the ugly behavior of their children, of which they are quite ashamed, I’m sure.

These are some general ideas about the context in which bullying occurs, is tolerated, and gets perpetrated. If you were a child, would you wake up happily in the morning and go to a school like that?

To be continued.

 (for the record)
In June the principal graciously allowed Jack to join the graduation ceremony with his classmates. At one point I was in the yard chatting with one of the PTA moms who had taken over from me in running the afterschool programs at the school. Suddenly one of Jack's classmates came up to us and said: "I know why Jack quit school. It was because Ms. Teacher picked on him. All the kids would be doing bad things but he would get picked on." The mother of another classmate also told me that her son had said the same thing, that Jack would be the one to be punished even when everybody else was doing the same thing. I am so grateful to have these witnesses!


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