“Fighting means you could lose. Bullying means you can’t. A bully wants to beat somebody; he doesn’t want to fight somebody.”–Andrew Vachss
Greer, SC. 1986. I’m wearing my favorite Rainbow Brite t-shirt, and my head is pressed against the cold metal of a bathroom stall door. With one eye, I’m squinting through the crack of the door at Cheryl Hawthorne, who is propped against the painted cinderblock wall by the dirty porcelain sinks. Cheryl is the meanest kid in all of the third grade. She has close-cropped black hair, a loud laugh and she cracks her knuckles constantly. She is in trouble with the teacher every single day. This moment is the most patient and calm I’ve ever seen her to be, waiting for my stall door to click open. I’ve assessed all my options at this point and I see exactly zero ways that I can get out of this bathroom without Cheryl turning me into her personal punching bag. We are predator and prey, and I am about to be eaten for lunch.
You’re thinking, how did it come to this? Well, my dears, Be Kind and Rewind, and let’s go back to three hours before this restroom standoff. Back to Mrs. Fowler’s third grade classroom at Woodland Elementary. Back to morning reading groups, when someone was talking when someone wasn’t supposed to be. Insert a teacher who was fed up at 8:30 that morning; who was probably fed up 20 years before that morning even dawned. A teacher who said, “If someone doesn’t tell me who was talking, you’ll ALL be inside for recess!” Enter Stage Right a pale blond little girl with a Rainbow Brite t-shirt and a penchant for people-pleasing. Willing to fall on my sword in order to get the entire class outside for recess, I spoke up.
“It was Cheryl.”
Cue the ominous music and gasps from the audience. With a satisfied half-smile, Mrs. Fowler sauntered over to the chalkboard and added a check beside Cheryl’s name, which rarely ever left the board. It was Cheryl’s second check of the day, which meant once again she wouldn’t have recess. But the rest of the class would, so I’d made a worthy sacrifice.
Or had I? The rest of the morning, Cheryl never took her eyes off me. Each time Mrs. Fowler turned her back, there was Cheryl, giving me the evil eye, or making a menacing hand gesture. As I walked to the pencil sharpener, she hissed “I’m gon’ git you, girl.” In the lunch line, she stood as close as she possibly could without actually touching me, her breath hot on my neck. She hardly touched her lunch; instead, she used that time to shoot more venomous stares my way.
I tried hard to let the whole thing roll off my shoulders. I wanted to save face in front of my friends, but I was seriously shaking in my jelly shoes. I kept thinking surely this would all blow over soon. If I could just get through the day, tomorrow we would start over, no one would have any checks on the chalkboard, and we’d all get recess. By this time tomorrow, the whole thing would be forgotten, right?
Cheryl’s eyes narrowed as they caught mine (I’d been doing this thing all day, where I’d look to see if she was looking at me, and if she was, we’d lock eyes, then I’d quickly look away, or act like I was actually looking at something just past her. It wasn’t working. She knew I was looking at her.). Her balled up fist smacked the palm of her other hand as she nodded her head and said, simply, “The Bathroom.”
Sweet mother of Debbie Gibson. I’d forgotten about the bathroom! Every day after lunch, Mrs. Fowler’s class went to the bathroom in “the tunnel,” a brick breezeway between the buildings. Even if you didn’t feel the urge to use the facilities, you still had to go in there, because Mrs. Fowler didn’t let anyone go to the bathroom any other time. Well, unless you had an “emergency.” But everyone knew that “emergency” meant you had to go Number Two and admitting to that was a social infraction that would take weeks to get over. The post-lunch bathroom break was not up for negotiation.
I held off as long as I could, hoping against hope I could somehow skirt the mandatory bathroom visit. Cheryl was near the front of the line (no doubt because she wanted to start the pummeling as soon as possible), so I got in the back, thinking maybe she would have to leave the restroom before I got there. Oh, but no. Cheryl might have been a meanie, but she was no dummy. She just waited as the line of girls wound their way through the stalls and sinks. My friends offered no real assistance, but I saw their lack of teasing as a sign of solidarity. Their sympathetic looks and silence were a way of paying their respects. They were grieving me already. I didn’t fault them for not coming to my defense; no one wanted to tangle with Cheryl. And Mrs. Fowler didn’t tolerate tattling. My predicament served as a cautionary tale for anyone contemplating their own David vs. Goliath scenario.
Oh, you all enjoy your recess, friends. I’ll just be in the health room, having my face reattached and my broken limbs reset. No, really, it’s fine. Happy to take one for the team. You go have fun.
So, there we were. Wolf and sheep, penned together in a four-stall, 2 sink, brick and block prison. It didn’t take long for me to know that I couldn’t hide out in that stall any longer. For one thing, the longer I waited, the more people outside were going to suspect I was in there going Number Two. For another thing, it was well past time to get this thing over with. I ripped the stall door open and made a run for it (What? Did you think I was actually going to fight her?). Cheryl caught me halfway to the door and punched me in the stomach. I got a few more steps towards the door before her right hand clutched my neck and shoved my back against the wall. I eeked out some sort of panicked animal noise that caused Mrs. Fowler to open the door and bellow, “What’s going on in here?” There was no explanation needed. Cheryl was sent to the principal’s office and she never so much as glanced my way again.
Someone asked me, “Have you ever been bullied?” And I now know my answer is, “Yes. For three hours, in 1986, Cheryl Harcourt bullied me and made my life a living hell.” The comedic nature of two little girls in a bathroom standoff like a Clint Eastwood movie is something I can laugh about now. But something has to be said about the fact that this happened 30 years ago, and yet I can still remember the feeling of fear and dread in the pit of my stomach. I’ve long forgotten many of my friends from elementary school, but Cheryl’s face is burned into my brain forever.
What if those three hours had stretched into six? What if instead of just that one day of bullying, I had to face Cheryl and her threats every single school day? What if my friends chose to distance themselves from me so they didn’t have to bullied, too? What if my teacher said, “Oh, kids will be kids,” and chose to focus on her curriculum instead of the social dynamics in her classroom? What if I spent my entire school year waiting and praying for it to be over, so I could be in a new classroom where Cheryl wouldn’t be? Would the story be so funny then?
You don’t have to have school age children to know that “bullying” is a serious issue facing all ages. So, what do we need to know about it?
First, of all, what is bullying? There are many definitions, but the most encompassing one I found is the one used in the legal sense:
That’s right, the legal sense. There are adults dealing with this, who feel so intimidated that they will plead their case in a court of law. There are all types of bullying, but most can be divided into two types: Aggressive and Social Isolation. Aggressive Bullying is usually physical in nature, and can mostly be attributed to similar physical aggression at home. Physical intimidation can be harder to hide and easier to prove, so it seems to happen less in our schools because punishment is swift, once it is recognized. Social Isolation Bullying is stickier for many reasons. Social Isolation can go on for weeks or months before an authority figure recognizes what is happening. These bullies are usually very skillful in denying their behavior, and their victims are reluctant to come forward, out of embarrassment. In a battle of words, context is very hard to prove. “But that’s not what I meant!” is the battle cry of many Social Isolation bullies.
Social Isolation bullying is for all ages. You see kindergartners freezing kids out of a game of Red Rover. Teenage girls post slumber party photos to Instagram with full intent of ostracizing other girls. Social media gives rise to more sinister Social Isolation bullying, too, with some kids sending out sexually explicit photos to large groups of people without their subject’s authorization, thus decimating that person’s social life. And adults aren’t above it, either. The “popular kids” have popular moms, who are quick to post those same slumber party photos, but just with the kids. And what about Direct Level Marketing? It’s one thing to be annoyed by a friends’ constant Facebook posts about her “amazing new job,” but it’s quite another when she bombards you with personal messages, phone calls and “party” invitations until you just break down and buy the stuff already. Bullies may be born on the playground, but they are refined in the workplace. Bosses who require that you stay late, repeatedly. Co-workers who consistently take credit for your hard work. Clients who insist you buy just one more round (the company’s paying for it!). Bullying is repeatedly intimidating or taking advantage of someone you perceive as weaker.
Next, who are the bullies? Anyone can be a bully. Budding gang members (yes, there can be a gang presence in school, even elementary), sweet-looking kindergartners, children of abusers, teenage girls (hello, Snapchat), PTA moms, athletes, honor students, soccer dads…all these people can use their own brand of intimidation to subdue and tear down another person.
Why do people bully? I asked my kids if they knew any bullies. “Oh yes,” they said. They went on to explain, “Bullies are ‘bucket dippers.’ Their buckets don’t have enough happiness, so they want to steal yours.” (Props to our school’s teachers for giving my kids the confidence to recognize this behavior, by the way!) Every bully is different, but their core motivation is the same. What they want is power. They want the upper hand. They want to win. A bully recognizes an area in his life where he is not winning, and he wants to put himself in the place of power. The easiest way to do this is to intimidate the person who he sees as the winner and force that person give up the top spot. In sports, this could show up as repeated, harmful “trash talk” in an effort to make a teammate’s mental game diminish their performance. In teenage girls, it could be leaving snide comments on social media posts or sharing unflattering photos to make another girl retreat, bringing the attention back to the bully. You might see little kids taunting emerging class leaders because it’s the first time in their lives they haven’t been the focus of constant praise and adoration. Some bullies are modeling behavior they see at home. In homes where physical abuse is present, a child may become a bully simply because that is the only way he knows how to interact with others. Or, if the child is the abuse victim, assuming a role as a bully over a weaker person is the only chance he has to wield power. But physical abusers aren’t the only bullies at home. What about the dad that constantly screams at the coaches on the kids’ soccer field, or the mom that daily belittles the teacher and her ridiculous homework assignments? We’re sending our kids a message when they hear our disparaging remarks about other authority figures, or see us strong-arming those same people into doing what we want on behalf of our child. There’s a fine line between standing up for yourself to get what you deserve and using your power and influence to gain preferential treatment. When your child sees you cross that line towards something that looks like intimidation, why wouldn’t she try to do the same thing?
I talked to several teachers and school administrators while writing this piece. I was astounded at how many people saw bullying in schools as a consequence of affluence. Cheryl Harcourt isn’t the bully anymore. The new bully is an articulate, well-liked child from a prominent family. This kid singles out and attempts to weaken another child or group of children at school, and gets in trouble for it. The kid shows very little remorse, and continues the behavior, getting in trouble again. The parents swoop in, in disbelief that their little angel would do such a thing. This goes back and forth between parent and teacher for a while, with the parents usually undermining the authority of the teacher. How much damage has been done by the time the teacher has to hand if off to a higher administrator? What has it done to the self-confidence of the child being bullied? Has that child’s parents completely lost faith in the system? Now, consider what happens if the bullying problem goes to the administration, and mom and dad stand in the principal’s office, reminding him/her of how much they’ve contributed to the school this year and what a shame it would be if Dad’s office pulled his company’s sponsorship of the school fundraiser. The bully has successfully intimidated his/her targeted classmate, the classmate’s parents, the other classmates that feel like helpless bystanders, the teacher, the administration and the set of rules it has put forth AND he walks away with the feeling that this is how life will always go for him. I don’t think this is a common scenario, but I’ve heard the same story with different players enough times to know it’s not rare. At any rate, it’s a good example of the multi-level nature of bullying.
Lastly, what can we do about it? The same thing we do about everything in parenting. Talk to your child. Know what they’re up to. Know their friends and their interests. Ask questions, even if they don’t want to answer them. And don’t just try to get the facts: show your child that you’re genuinely interested in them. Even if it feels like they have zero interest in you and would rather gargle river rocks than listen to what you’re saying, showing true interest is a form of showing love, and they’ll remember that.
Keep the lines of communication open, and make sure your child has a trusted adult in their life. Ideally, that trusted adult should be you, but find a spare because there are some things kids just won’t bring to their parents. While I was writing this piece, a friend of mine shared her experience with her son being bullied at school. She and her son had a very open and honest relationship, and she felt that he would come to her with any problems. However, her son suffered bullying for months without saying a word to anyone. Finally, a friend of his confided in his own mother, who then shared the situation with my friend. It turns out, my friend’s son didn’t want to tell his parents about it because he was afraid they would be upset and sad for him. He was protecting their feelings! This is a prime example of how important communication and trust are in these situations. More than one child had to be trusting of an adult and willing to communicate. Further, the adults involved had to be trusting and communicative as well. I also thought this was a great example for us all to know that helping someone doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. Just because you don’t literally stand between a bully and his target on the playground doesn’t mean you can’t be just as helpful, but in a quiet way.
Be open and understanding. In the bullying situation described above, did I mention that the parents of that child were a school counselor and a psychologist? These are involved parents, well-educated and trained to spot such behavior. It would be easy for them to say, “This can’t happen to my child; I would catch it immediately.” But they didn’t. They were open to knowing that you never say “never” with kids. You do all you can to educate your child and teach them the things you think they need to know, and then you hope it sticks. Parenting is a life-long calling. Your job is never finished, so stay open and understanding to your kids, and to the people that care for them.
Cheryl Harcourt was a bully, but our altercation was not a severe case of bullying. A marker of bullying is that it’s a repeated behavior. The intimidation makes the victim feel hopeless, as if it will never be over. Ours was a one-time incident, and I am grateful that my school’s authorities put a swift end to it. But, as I said before, it made a big impact on me. When you’re nine years old, a brick breezeway is a giant tunnel and the walk to the lunchroom is a miles-long trek. The whole world fills the space between home, school and church. Your entire life’s memorable experiences wouldn’t fill up a marble-backed composition book. When you’re a kid, all the little things are BIG things.
Know. Talk. Keep your mind open. Be a good role model. We face bullies in every stage of life, but we don’t have to give them our power, and we don’t have to sit back while they take someone else’s. Make small, quiet stands for what’s right. Guard your heart and your bucket and help others do the same.
For more information about bullying, go to https://www.stopbullying.gov/index.html