By Jane Wilkins
I just returned from my son's school where I was suppposed to drive a carload of kids camping. This is a fifth grade expedition to a local farm where the kids spend the night and experience farm life. It should be a great trip -- but I'm afraid not a good beginning of the year for us.
I arrived at the school with my allotted share of supplies for the trip a few minutes late. I had waited for the school bus traffic to subside so I could pull up to the door and load up the kids and their backpacks and sleeping bags. By the time I got there, however, it turned out I was not needed. The teacher apologized profusely, saying that she miscalculated how many drivers were needed. What really happened, though, I have a feeling, was that the kids who were assigned to me opted to ride with another driver. Or more specifically, they chose to ride with another kid than mine.
We had a very bad year last year. My son Stephen became the target of almost school-wide bullying. This actually started in third grade when kids started to gang up against him. By fourth grade it got pretty out of control. I won’t repeat the daily torments and ridiculing that went on, suffice it to say that no one would even plan tag with my son because they didn’t want to touch him. The aggression and insults even spread to me. One day as I climbed the stairs to go to Stephens’ classroom one of the boys who spotted me ran to his group of friends and announced: “The bitch is here.” Luckily – very luckily – the fourth grade teacher we had exerted a great deal of effort and energy to convey to the kids that ganging up on another kids is simply unacceptable. Our principal was also supportive. He told me that this fourth grade bullying is a pattern that they have to deal with every year. We muddled through the year and things did get a little better. Maybe I’ll write about that experience more later.
What happened this morning, though, made me realize it’s not over. My son still is somewhat the untouchable of the class. I’m mad on many different accounts but let me concentrate on one right now.
There is a core group of kids who have systematically excluded Stephen from the first day he arrived at this school in first grade. Those kids had been there since kindergarten. As late as last year one of the girls was still saying: “Stephen suddenly shows up in first grade and wants to be part of our group…” This is fourth grade, mind you, and Stephen is still excluded ostensibly because he was not there in kindergarten. Never mind that every year there are new students…
There is one boy in this group, David, with whom Stephen is particularly good friends. They really enjoy each other’s company and spend a lot of time together outside school. The problem is that the dominant member of the group I mentioned uses David to exclude Stephen. In fact, before Stephen and David became close, David was the odd-man-out of the group. Suddenly in fourth grade David became the darling of the dominant boy, Aaron, I suspect just to spite Stephen. In Aaron’s presence David completely loses a sense of himself. He becomes powerless and almost mesmerized by Aaron.
David’s parents are not happy about this situation either. We have had a few talks together with the kids to try to make David see that it is Stephen who is his real friend not someone who is just using him. But as David put it most plainly and eloquently: “Aaron is just too much.” I take Stephen and David out of the afterschool program once every week to strengthen their friendship and give them a chance to enjoy being with each other outside of the realm of influence of Aaron. Over the years I have also tried, with Aaron’s mother’s help, to strengthen the friendship between Stephen and Aaron, but that just hasn’t worked. I gave up on that a while ago.
So here we are, the beginning of fifth grade, and this nasty behavior toward Stephen is starting all over. I’m mad of course. I’m not mad at specific individuals really – that’s useless. I’m mad at the ignorant and vicious culture in which our kids are growing up. I’m mad that educators are unwilling and/or unable to create an environment in which intelligence and dignity are really valued. I am not mad at other parents because I don’t expect much of parents. We have no control over bad parents and good parents have no more control over their kids than I have over mine. That’s exactly why we need schools and educators; we need them to provide sound and decent environments for children, whatever their situation at home.
But I’m also disappointed. Again, it’s useless to be disappointed in others, kids or adults. They are who they are and it’s out of my control. I am disappointed in my son. I am disappointed that instead to shunning the group that excludes and hurts him he seeks them out. I am disappointed that he wants to belong to a group that doesn’t want him. I know that the only solution to his problems is for him to say, “To hell with you all.” He will probably become quite an object of desire then, but I say to hell with that too. There are many other kids who are quite wonderful at the school. Why doesn’t he choose to play with them?
This morning when it looked like I was not needed to drive, Stephen immediately ran to see if he could get a ride in Aaron’s mother’s car and the kids who were riding with him. Thank goodness that car was full. He ended up riding with two other boys who are splendid kids. In fact, they loosely belong to a group – I say loosely because they don’t exactly have a “group” – who usually hang out together after school. These kids are wonderful – bright, kind, interesting, you name it – and Stephen likes them very much and finds them “cool.” These boy never excluded Stephen or joined others ganging up on him or anyone else. They are simply outside the realm of that certain sick and vicious culture. Now why in the world won’t Stephen just drop Aaron’s group when he has this alternative?
When I tell Stephen that he should have nothing to do with Aaron’s gang he says: “I want to prove to them that they are wrong.” I just don’t know what to make of this answer. I don’t know if it’s good or bad that Stephen wants to “prove” that he is worthy of friendship. I don’t know whether it’s better to fight certain battles or just retreat. And try as I might, I have no say in it either. Stephen has been going along with the ugly games that this group plays with him. He has established bad habits reacting to these kids and I feel an utter failure in my attempts to change these habits. He is angry and frustrated and so am I. It makes me angry to see my kid basically abused (and myself into the bargain) – and it makes me disappointed in Stephen that he makes the choice of bringing it upon himself (and upon me, always frantically trying to fix things).
This morning I left Stephen in the care of the parents of one of the wonderful boys and he was happy to ride with them. But I can’t help worrying about what happens when they reach their destination. I don’t have a good feeling about it.