I unfortunately don’t have a lot of time these days to spend at my son’s school. But every once in a while I try to hang around and listen to the kids and exchange a few words with them. One of those days while I was talking to some younger boys, one of my son’s classmates of many years came up and sat with us. I was not talking about Jack but this friend suddenly turned to me with this comment: “Jack gets picked on – it’s really sad. It was Terry who started it.” The kids are finally talking about it.
I am not going to analyze Terry. I will just give some sketches of what he and his family were like.
We met Terry in first grade. He had been at the school the year before (Jack missed kindergarten at this school) and was already in a sort of domination struggle with another boy, Jason. My first real encounter with Terry and his family was when at Jack’s birthday party Terry’s father referred to Jason as “that wild beast.” Over the years I got to know the “wild beast,” who is indeed rambunctious and more than a little given to bullying (physically and verbally) but Terry’s father’s comment alarmed me. There is hope for improvement in children but adults are a different story. I learned over time not to even try to talk to Terry’s family about their son’s bullying. I had a feeling the school administration did not have much success in their attempts either.
In second grade, while I was still trying to improve relations between the kids, I invited Terry to go ice skating with us. He did not skate so I spent a lot of time with him on the ice, trying to make him feel comfortable and enjoy himself. While I was trying to teach him some basics, twice he wrapped his ankle around mine and made me fall. Each time he said with a smirk, “Not much of an ice skater, are you?” I’m a perfectly adequate ice skater and not usually at a loss for words, but I just didn’t know how to respond to a seven year-old deliberately tripping me and then making snide remarks. I let it pass but learned my lesson to stay clear of him.
Jack had a troubled relationship with both Terry and Jason. There were a lot of power struggles and inclusion/exclusion games that were played between them. Jack was routinely snubbed as the “new kid” even long after many newer kids joined the group. All three boys had strong personalities and Jack was both attracted and repelled by the other two. Jason’s mother and I tried all we could think of to improve the situation between the two of them. But I think the only thing that we succeeded in doing was give them the message that even if they chose to engage in “alpha male” power struggles, their families were out of it.
Terry’s family – his father really – was beyond communication. Jack often reported to me how nasty his father was to Terry and that Terry was terrified of his dad. The dad was also nasty to Jack at any opportunity. School staff also discretely expressed their frustration over this man’s attitude. “Disrespect” was a word that often came up regarding both Terry and his father.
So what is to be done in a situation like this?
In public schools, not much. If you’re lucky you’ll have a teacher or two who care, a principal who is supportive and not easily intimidated, understanding parents with whom you can communicate and who are a good influence on their kids, and a group of kids who are not abnormally vicious. Kids have to be guilty of almost criminal behavior before they are expelled from public schools.
And frankly, I don’t believe expelling kids left and right is the answer either. What does that teach children – to “eliminate” undesirable elements? My own instinct all along has been to help my son find real solutions – and indeed, decent solutions – to bullies and other ignorant and hostile individuals (like teachers!) one encounters in life. That requires looking at ourselves with honesty as well. Children can be taught to do that. At any rate, I do know and believe solutions for dealing with bullies can be found. We need to have resolve.
As for us, we did have some luck with our school community. But, sad to say, you know what our greatest stroke of luck was? At the beginning of this year Terry left our school to join his brother at a private school. Things have now finally improved.
So much for solutions!