A bank of windows on the far side of the room streams with light, giving life to the plants hanging sporadically across the bay. The classroom is quiet, the majority of children outside playing in the untrapped sun, laughing and shrieking. Three girls have been held back in the classroom for a session thought to be about mediation, the kind of thing that ends with apologies and promises on both sides but not much else. The teacher holding court is a formidable woman, brilliant in her field with a classroom manner to rival Agatha Trunchbull. She is quick on the draw with establishing her favourites and pulling them into a circle of giggles and wise ass smirks. A breeding ground for the cliques that become abundant in high school.
Three girls are seated in hard plastic chairs, summoned to the mediation. Two are bored, indignant their presence was needed but smart enough to keep that tucked away. Their behaviour, though abhorrent is sneaky and kept in check around the powers that be, they have already become well-versed in getting their own way and slipping out of trouble. The third girl is smaller. Flyaway hair and thick glasses, an oversized sweatshirt to round out the slender frame. She is nervous, usually the target she is wary of the mediation, unsure of revealing what it means to be her. How it feels to go home after a long day at school, alone in a classroom of thirty. This girl hates school now. She reads on the bus, the bumps and dives of back country roads give her a headache but she won’t look up. That draws attention, even though the bus is one of the few safe places free of the girls who whisper viciously and laugh loudly. The shy child is always anxious now, where she first disliked any unwanted attention she is now on high alert, waiting for the ball to drop and someone to see her, to pay attention. To point and laugh.
The quiet girl is different. She likes to read books about history and dystopias, books beyond her years but she has already devoured the standard 12 year old books by the time she was 8. She plays sports in this very athletic school but it is half-hearted and only because she fears reprisal from the phys. ed teacher for not trying. She fears a lot, this child. She didn’t before but now she moves silently in the school and thinks about disappearing, fading into a very small and insignificant speck. She thinks about hurting herself but knows she is small and not very strong which leads her back to why it’s her they have chosen.
The teacher breaks the silence.”Since H and L are both saying it’s you, that you make them uncomfortable and they are just trying to tell you that, what do you think you can do to change?”
She is serious, this teacher. That a girl who comes to school to find notes emblazoned with “I hate you!” and a laundry list of why she is so vile she must eat lunch alone, but not out of ear shot of the name-calling and jeers must be the one to change. The kind of mental abuse girls inflict upon one another, using all friends – boys and girls alike, takes on an especially mean form of bullying. The hurl of “You’re gay”, whether true or not is part of bullying much younger than you would think. This was before cyber bullying, when classes went down to the computer lab to play an assortment of games and take typing tests.
The meeting of three impressionable students and a teacher past her right to be in a classroom lasted only minutes and could be summed up as a lesson in, “How not to be such a loser and attract the bullies”. There was still enough time left in recess for news to spread through the class that there was an official, yet silent nod of approval.
Almost 20 years later, it is my daughter who is the popular kid in class. The other girls clamour around her, this kind girl with the different name who dresses how every kid wants to: Fashionable in an odd mix of dress up clothes, sparkly lip gloss and stomping black leather boots. Each morning we talk about the kids who drift to the edge of the playground, unsure when the other children ignore them. It just happens that a child slides away to play by themselves, but sometimes it’s not a case of shyness or unintentional exclusion. Those children, we talk about those children and what Miss N can do, because if she sees a child purposefully ignored or called a name, she knows she can do something. She can go to that child and play, her trail of girlfriends following in her wake.
Each morning I tell her four things before letting her free to school: That I love her, to learn all the cool things she can, to have fun and most importantly, to be kind. If we believe in love, then we know how to be kind.
The Journal of Pediatrics published a study in 2004 that found that approximately one in seven Canadian children 11 to 16 years old are victims of bullying; once every seven minutes a child is bullied on the playground and once every 25 minutes in the classroom. That is too much. It is understood now that a teacher is there to protect children from bullying. They are not there to victimize again by asking how is it their fault, and what they can do to change another person’s behaviour in front of the bully.
Last week was Bullying Awareness Week, something that wasn’t around when I was a meek 12 year old. The “kids will be kids” mantra was a lot stronger then but there is no need for it now. A child who intervenes can stop the bullying within 10 seconds; that type of kindness is the kind of “kids will be kids” mantra we should stand behind. This is true for the majority of cases, like the time when another girl in the class finally came and sat with me and extended a bit of conversation.
Bullying is learned behaviour and it feeds on mob mentality, sucking the life and vitality out of the group and leaving only a nasty residue behind. The way we treat ourselves, our loved ones and even strangers on the bus is watched by a set of very impressionable eyes. This even extends to the bullies. They are also children, acting in deeply flawed ways but nonetheless, they are children. It is up to us as adults to show them how to move in the world, to do so with conscientious kindness.