Of Bullies and Basements
“The worst part of my day was when Kylie was bullying me.” It’s hard to hear this day in and day out, and I wonder what the heck is happening in class that this little girl can say and do things that hurt my child so much. I try to listen with the nurturing ear (the one where I feel and try to take away her pain) and the strengthening ear (the one where I help her feel more confident and self-assured), but it’s hard. I think back on my own childhood, and I wonder about the bullies we had when I was younger.
As a school principal, I know how often “bullying” is misinterpreted. I know how cruel kids can be. I know how kids can claim to be victims when they are really the aggressors just to get someone’s attention. I know how emotionally and physically devastating actual bullying can be.
I also know that Kylie is just another 8 or 9-year-old kid. I know that sometimes kids grow out of this behavior, and sometimes they don’t. I know that she isn’t giving my baby knuckle sandwiches or swirlies in the toilet (didn’t all ’80s kids’ movies with bullies have these forms of torture), but I never quite know what the right response is. Then, I read about kids killing themselves and even posting it on social media, and I get really sick to my stomach. How severe is severe enough to really worry? When does talking about someone turn into bullying, and when does bullying turn into grade-school terrorism?
“As long as she isn’t putting her hands on you, you can handle it.” I say this probably trying not to say “sticks and stones…,” but really isn’t it the same thing? I tell her I don’t want her fighting in school, and that I send her to school to get an education. I tell her that in life there will always be bullies or people who try to put other people down. I tell her that even as an adult, I’ve seen my fair share of bullies. I tell her that learning how to handle it now will be better for her in the long run. I tell her that effective communication skills, saying what she means in a confident, matter-of-fact way will usually keep people from picking on you too much. I want to tell her to tell Kylie to leave her the fuck alone…but I don’t.
I know what the issue is. There are just some mean girls out there. They probably have mean moms who picked on people like me and mean grandmas who picked on people like my mom. And my baby is tall, really tall, and young, really young, compared to her classmates. Many of her peers will be turning ten soon, and she won’t be nine for another 6 months or so. She also has a good 6 inches in height and probably 25 pounds in weight over them. And if you’ve ever been to school, you know that that combination is a recipe for being picked on and laughed at.
“Listen,” I say. “In 20 years, you’ll probably have this fabulous life, and Kylie…”
“Will be living in her parents’ basement?” my baby interrupts.
“Well, I don’t know about that. She could have a fantastic job and a great many accomplishments, too.” She looked deflated, hoping, I think, that some ill would befall her grade school nemesis. “But she may not be happy.”
She ponders this for a moment. I continue, “There will always be setbacks. There will always be something or someone that gets under your skin, but your reaction to it is what defines your character. Just because someone else is rude or condescending, doesn’t mean that you have to be. I don’t ever want you to compromise who you are or what you know is right.”
“Mom,” she says, “sometimes Kylie is nice to me for like an hour or a day or something. Then she goes back to being mean again.” I wonder if she secretly wants to be Kylie’s friend. I wonder if her loving spirit, her forgiving spirit, is getting in the way of her putting Kylie firmly in her place.
“You can’t worry about that. You don’t have to be everyone’s friend. You do have to be cordial and respectful, though, but that doesn’t mean that you have to pretend like you don’t remember what she’s said or done before. It’s not about being fake. It’s about treating people the way you expect to be treated.”
She looks at me hard. “Mom,” she starts, “but isn’t it possible that she’ll end up living in her parents’ basement?”
“Yes, Sweetie. Yes, that’s possible.”