My son’s fourth grade teacher, Sara, is a young and energetic woman who takes her work seriously. One of the first assignments she gave her students was an “I Am” composition. This was a sheet with partial sentences for the children to complete with their own thoughts and feelings. Here is my son’s, his comments in italics:
I am Jack
I wonder if I have any friends
I hear people
I see truth
I want friends
I am Jack
I pretend nothing
I feel gloomy
I touch my throat
I worry about nothing
I cry about my shame
I am Jack
I understand nothing
I say nothing
I dream about murder
I try to make friends
I hope for a friend
I am Jack
I will leave it to your imagination how this made me feel. I will only say that I started searching for another school. Maybe I’m a bit too skeptical by nature but I just didn’t have much hope for improvement at school any more so I was not even going to start talking to the teacher, principal, etc. We had been at this school for three years and there had not been a happy year (for background see here and here and here). My son was miserable and afraid, though his already well-formed male ego would not easily admit to being afraid.
Then we had a meeting with the fourth grade teacher. Quite unlike most other school staff we had talked to over the years, Sara openly expressed her alarm and displeasure with what was going on. She was open, forthcoming, and did not speak in ambiguous generalities. She did not just “talk to the children” – she took matters into her own hands. She of course talked to the kids repeatedly, but she also talked to the parents. Most effectively, she was right on the kids as she saw ganging up behavior. She did not turn a deaf ear to the insults and ridicule Jack was subjected to. She caught the kids red-handed in the exclusion games they played and confronted them. And she did this over and over again – until the kids started to get the idea.
She also talked to Jack repeatedly. She pointed out to him how some of his behavior reinforced the other kids’ dislike of him and how he had gotten into the habit of even provoking them. She was both kind and strict with him. She is by nature a warm-hearted person and Jack being an affectionate kid responded very well to that. He also started to get some of the ideas he needed to get – the main one being that at least some teachers cared.
I know that the principal also played a role. I will never know exactly how or what – confidentiality issues sometimes prevent us from knowing the best efforts of school staff. But at some point my son received an apology letter from a girl who according to her own confession “started it in third grade.” This girl was not in Sara’s class so I assume that it was the principal who had talked to her and her parents. Incidentally, this girl was wrong to think she had started the whole thing so the next afternoon on the playground I let her know that it was not all her fault. I also had my son write a letter to her thanking her for her letter and expressing his hope that she would now stay his friend.
My instinctive first impulse for gauging how things are going with my son is to watch him closely and ask about his version of things. While I was continuing my search for a new school I started to get the feeling that he was being less miserable. Observing Sara I was also reassured that she was not loosening her grip on the situation. She really took those kids on!
I ended up abandoning the idea of leaving the school. There were many different reasons for this. First of all, as you well know, one is not able to just go and sign up for one’s favorite school, public or private. Second, my natural skepticism kept me from believing that this sort of thing happened only in our school. Third, here was my kid being excluded from the group of kids he had been with a number of years already, why would I put him in a situation with a group where he was automatically an outsider? Fourth, I was seeing that a teacher who takes bullying seriously can make a difference.
But there was also another point that I felt very strongly about. I did not want my son to learn the lesson that one runs away from difficulties. My maternal instinct was telling me that while Jack was certainly suffering, he was also in a weird way engaged in taking on a whole group of kids. There was a part of him that was contributing to creating a challenge for himself. I did not want him to walk away from this challenge in a defeated retreat. I wanted him to stay and learn the lessons he needed to learn. Once I was reassured of Sara’s compassion and commitment I felt he was in a safe enough situation to learn the lessons he had partially set himself up to learn.
One afternoon toward the end of the year I miraculously succeeded in getting Jack and a school friend of his to sit around the kitchen table and write an essay about themselves. This is what Jack wrote:
I was born in 1999. I have had a very hard life. I was bullied a lot at school. I was treated like I was a soccer ball as in meaning that I was kicked around a lot but now I can relax!
I think I was treated unfairly at school so I was even scared to go to school. I was scared because I thought I would be killed at school, so I put up a fuss in the morning!
I wish I had a million $$! I love my life! Ya!
I immediately made copies of this essay, one for Sara and one for the principal. I figure they always hear from us when things are not going well, they should also hear it when things improve – especially when they have worked hard at it.