When was in third grade, two 5th grade girls started to harass me on the school bus. Their weapon of choice of was saliva and, since I got off at the second-to-last stop and they got off at the very end of the bus route, they had plenty of time to do their damage.
I was paralyzed by fear. As much as I despised those girls and the disgusting thing they were doing to me, I was even more afraid of how much worse things might get if I retaliated or asked an adult for help. So I sat on the bus and took it. I arrived home every day for weeks with my hair dripping and slimy with spit. As far as I know, the bus driver never noticed what was happening. No student stood up for me (except my sister, who, as a kindergartener at the time, was hardly a match for two much bigger girls).
In the spring of that same year, I was half-kneeling on the bus seat, looking at something out the window, when a boy in the seat across the aisle tried to put something down the back of my pants. There was deep well of rage in me, nurtured by a succession of bullies and assorted mean kids, and suddenly, without any understanding or conscious decision, I lashed out. I turned and attacked the boy with all my strength, kicking and flailing until he was trapped against the window in his own seat. I didn’t stop until he managed to smash his metal Snoopy lunchbox over my head, opening my scalp and sending blood spraying into my hair and over the seats and floor of the bus. When I got home, my mom took me to our family doctor, who glued my scalp shut and told me that I should never join a cult that required head shaving, since I would always have a large, jagged scar on my scalp. Sitting here now, I can feel the ridges of that scar, a souvenir of my carefree childhood.
In fifth grade, I was approached by an exhibitionist while I waited, alone, at the bus stop; on hearing what had happened, a group of girls who had been snickering at me behind their hands all year cornered me in the bathroom during recess and told me, “Gross. Who would want to rape you?” In 6th grade, the bullying I endured in the locker room during PE was so bad, I was hospitalized for severe stress-induced back pain. In 7th grade, I started walking 1 3/4 miles to and from school every day (loaded down with books in one arm (nobody at my school carried a backpack or book bag) and a clarinet in the other) because I couldn’t bear the taunting on the bus anymore.
In the 25-35 years since I survived one bully after another (I swear I must have had some kind of invisible target on my forehead), nothing in our schools has changed, and in many ways things have gotten worse. Everyone whose head isn’t under a rock has heard the stories (one after another after another) of teenagers who took their own lives because bullying at school became too much to bear and they couldn’t see a way out. Here in Albuquerque, a 12-year-old child ended his life with a shotgun last week because bullying had made his life an agony. Our children are terrorizing and torturing other children to such an extent that they would rather die than try to make it through one more day.
And bullying sometimes goes so far beyond the taunting and harassment that we usually think of, I almost can’t wrap my mind around it. Two Atlanta teens are in police custody, charged with aggravated child molestation and aggravated sodomy after they repeatedly raped a 10-year-old boy on the school bus from September 2011 until early 2012.
Let’s go over some of that again.
Ten years old.
On the school bus.
Are you shaking as hard as I am right now? The victim was too scared to tell his parents. Can you imagine how they felt when they finally found out? Sprocket Ink is a snark and humor website, but I have nothing snarky to say about any of this. Nothing is funny about children harassed, tormented, assaulted, and raped.
When my own children started school, I made them two promises. First, that if they were ever bullied at school, I would help them find a way to make it stop, no matter what, including changing schools or homeschooling. Thankfully, we only had one incident, and a wonderfully responsive and sensitive teacher took care of the problem. Second, if I ever found out that they were bullying other children, I would assume they had not internalized the lessons I had tried to teach them at home and I would come along with them to school to supervise their behavior every minute of the day until those lessons were so firmly imbedded in their minds they couldn’t act against those values under any circumstances.
And make no mistake: my kids could have been bullies. Any child can become a bully, no matter how nice they seem and no matter how carefully their parents instilled the values of kindness in them. “Kathy,” one of the girls who made my sixth grade year such a misery, sought me out (my very own Facebook miracle) several years ago and apologized to me. We have spent a great deal of time discussing what happened, how, and why, and while neither of us can really answer those questions, I do know this: she wasn’t a bad kid. She was a nice girl from a nice family. Her parents cared about her. The common misconception that kids who bully are kids who lack love, guidance, or some other fundamental childhood need is flat wrong. Any child can be bullied; any child can be a bully. When I write about my experiences of being bullied, I am always amazed by the number of messages I get from people who were both victims and perpetrators of bullying, in different situations and at different times.
The root of the problem? I don’t know; I’m sure it’s different for every child who makes life difficult for other children, but I do know the solution, and it isn’t better parenting (though we can always use more of that), or empowering bystanders to intervene, or anti-bullying assemblies, or any of the other potential solutions I’ve seen proposed in the past year or so. The solution is so simple, so basic, so small, and it is this: supervision.
Our kids aren’t old enough to spend unsupervised time in large groups when they are 11, 13, or 15 years old. They need to slowly and gradually learn social skills, just like every other skill, and we don’t provide that for them right now. We watch them carefully until 5th grade, at which point we dump them into middle school and assume that they will, somehow, navigate the social waters on their own. Our urban middle schools are large, our urban high schools are huge, and our teachers’ workloads are massive.
But here is the stone cold truth: bullying happens where adults are not present, or are not alert. Bullying happens in locker rooms and hallways. It happens on playgrounds and school busses. It happens behind adults’ backs and out of earshot. My nightmarish 6th grade year would have been completely different if the coach had been in the locker room while we all changed our clothes instead of sitting in her office. School busses would not be traveling houses of torture if there was an adult on the bus who wasn’t responsible for driving. Hallways would not be a gauntlet for some students if teachers had more manageable workloads and were available to stand in their doorways during passing periods instead of sitting at their desks trying to cram in a few minutes worth of work. If we had more campus aides in our middle and high schools, we might need fewer campus police. We can’t watch our kids every minute, but we can watch them a hell of a lot more than we do now.
All of our children deserve to be protected. The children who are the targets of bullies deserve to feel safe while they get an education; children who bully deserve not to spend the rest of their lives knowing that they were the perpetrators of abuse.
Do my ideas sound expensive? You bet they are, and I dare you to go to Atlanta and complain about it to the mother of the ten year old victim of sodomy, or the parents of any of the hundreds of children who have taken their lives because of relentless, unbearable bullying. I can’t think of anything better to spend our money on than keeping our kids safe.
Second photo is mine