This was supposed to be a post about internet comments, but that one got out of hand. A lot of my writing is like that. Check back later to find out about Levinas, the use of knowledge of as club to stop conversation.
I have a child. I have three children, but for the purpose of this story, I have a male child whose defining characteristics are: brilliant, small, emotionally reactive, and not entire socially ept. From early in elementary school he has been flagged as, “most likely to be bullied” by one teacher, principal, and school system after another.
When I say brilliant, I don’t mean, “tests well”. He doesn’t, not particularly.
I mean that he is intrinsically and breathtakingly intelligent. When he was two years old, another parent who watched him for a few minutes while I dashed to the bathroom said to me, “Does he always talk like that?” “Like?” I asked. “Like… ” Another parent in the group chimed in, “Like an adult?” When he was four and we were going through the Finding Nemo phase, he engaged a professor of biology in an extended discussion about how to identify various fish based on their dorsal fins. He was the one who started the conversation. He engages with the world deeply, and profoundly, and then tries to tell everybody around him about it. At length. Glazed-over eyes no object. To put it in no uncertain terms… he’s weird.
When I say that my child is weird, please don’t hear this as a negative judgment. It is not, “I love him but…” I love him. He is a spectacularly interesting human being who pushes me to learn things that I’ve never considered. I feel blessed every day that I got to meet him and that he is in my life. So when I say that he is weird, I mean only this: he is so far off the end of the normal curve that it is absurd to act like we don’t notice.
All this is by way of introducing the strategy that we have been encouraged to pursue in taking him off the “most likely to be bullied” list. (I’ll get back to why that is an unacceptable goal in a while.) His teachers (for the most part) think he’s sweet. He’s also frustrating (and frustrated) because he doesn’t do his homework, doesn’t bother with the parts of the curriculum that don’t interest him, and still doesn’t remember to bring pencils, books etc. to class consistently. He just started junior high. That’s grade 7 around these parts, and he turned 12 after school started, which basically means that he is the youngest and smallest kid in the largest school in our area.
The second week of school, we had another one of these meetings: “Did he tell you about the incident on the playground?” (My heart was in my mouth.) “No. What happened?” “Well, he was telling stories, in that way he has.” “Yes?” “And first a few kids gathered, and then a few more, and then there were about 100 kids all in a circle, and we don’t want to draw too much attention, because you know those gatherings are how things get out of hand… so I dispersed the crowd and I asked him to try to keep it down…” “Was anything… happening?” I wanted some clarity, because I can see how a crowd of 14 and 15 year olds might be a bit of a problem. “No, but some of those kids were starting to hang around, and we don’t want him to attract their attention, because…” she tapered off. I didn’t say anything. “Well,” she said, “sometimes you just don’t want kids like him to be noticed.” I looked at The Dad. He looked at me. Still nothing. Finally The Dad said, “We’ll talk to him about it.” I guess we didn’t look sufficiently alarmed, or something, because she said, “It happened again today. First 5 kids, then 20, then 50… I got them to disperse [I'm pretty sure that's the word she used] and asked him to try not to get more than a few kids listening at once. It’s just… he doesn’t understand how those kids are. I told him I was just trying to help him, and he said to me, ‘I don’t need your help.’ ” The Dad and I looked at one another, each with one eyebrow raised. “We’ll talk to him.”
When we got back to the car, he said, “What do you think?” I said, “About the stories?” He nodded. “I think the school doesn’t know what to do with it.” Silence for a few seconds, and then I started to laugh, uncomfortably. “Um… your son. He’s… attracting a crowd. He’s telling stories and too many people want to listen, and we’ve never had that happen before, and we don’t know what to do with it, but it makes us nervous.”
I mean, I understand why it makes them nervous. As she said, crowds of 100? Fights tend to break out. Things get out of hand. But I couldn’t stop being amused by the idea of a storytelling “incident”. And then, underneath, I was unsettled. It’s basically the advice that we’ve been given all along. Camouflage him. Help him to blend in better. Teach him to hide his weirdness. (They don’t put it that way, of course. It is cloaked in the language of social skills and coping mechanisms.) It is done with the best of intentions. It is the mark of the caring and wonderful teachers that he has had all along that he has had so much help with all those strategies. Now that I think about it, it has been effective; I even find myself questioning my claim in the earlier paragraph about him not being particularly socially ept. He’s become pretty astute about what is going on in social situations, articulate about his emotions, and capable both of feeling deeply and recovering to a more even keel quickly. He’s more emotionally capable than most adults I know.
But when I look at the advice we’ve been offered, which we have passed along to him, I have to ask: Is this really the solution to bullying? Pretend that the really weird can become invisible, and thereby escape punishment? Or (if they are successful) simply shift it onto somebody else?
Don’t get me wrong; I’d rather that he weren’t targeted. At no point have I ever said that I was willing to sacrifice him to a greater good, or refused the assistance that he’s needed to become the child who can gather a crowd of 100, or say to a teacher, “I don’t need your help.” I’m just not comfortable with the way it’s being talked about, as though we have to acknowledge that there’s nothing we can do about bullying, so we have to teach potential targets to keep their heads down.
After this many years of being The Mom, when I sent him off to junior high school, I sat down with him the day before school and said:
“K. Just to be clear. When I went to junior high. It. Sucked. And I just want you to know [this was part of a much longer conversation] that you don’t have to put up with that shit.” (His eyebrows went up astonishingly high at this point.) “I wish that I could promise that I could always keep you safe, but there are people in the world that I can’t control, and they will try to make you be the way the way they want you want to be. But I want you to know that no matter what, I got yer back. And [this is the part that I've been reluctant to share, because it is fairly far from the party line in most circles I run in] I want you to know: I’d rather get a call to come and pick you up because you punched somebody in the nose than because you were crying in the bathroom after being pushed around.”
He looked at me, wide-eyed. “That’s not what I expected you to say,” he said.
I looked at him. “It’s not what I expected me to say either, ” I said. Then we had a talk about the wisdom of using violence, and the fact that a lot of the kids in the school are bigger than me, and taekwondo, and what I meant when I said that, and all the things that a person who is committed to peace in the world might bring up after coming up with such a statement. And what it comes down to is this: I’m tired of telling him to play small and make himself invisible in the world in the hopes that it won’t beat him up. Because in my experience, a) it doesn’t work and b) it teaches him to play small and invisible, and that there is something wrong with him and c) it doesn’t work. At least, it didn’t work for me. What shrinking to avoid attention taught me was to be ashamed of my intelligence, my abilities, my voice, my body… everything that made me ME. It also left me open to being pushed around on the bus, humiliated, shunned, made fun of, and to remaining silent about the whole thing. It also left me open to being pushed around on the bus, humiliated, shunned, made fun of, and to remaining silent about the whole thing. I got quieter, and smaller, took up less space, apologized for my ideas (even in grad school and business meetings) and had major plastic surgery to make myself less visible to the world around me. I learned to wear grey, and beige, and baggy clothes, and to hold my tongue around strangers. (I never got good at that.) I learned to be a bystander instead of a target. Most of the time.
This is not the message I want to communicate to the next generation.
So he stood up tall his first day of junior high, and I worried, and he got home, and I said, “How was that?” and he said, “Pretty good, actually.” And so it went. And then, the storytelling incident, and then the conference, and then we came home, and we made good on our agreement with the teacher, and we talked about it with him. And it went like this: (For the purposes of this, PU = parental unit)
PU: So, tell me about these stories you’ve been telling at lunch time.
Him: Oh, I’ve been reciting The Hobbit.
PU: Reciting? From memory?
Him: Well, I have the book as a cue. But, yeah. Mostly.
PU: And what’s up with the crowds?
Him: Well, I was reading from The Hobbit, and then the kids wanted to listen to it, and you know, I’ve got these fans.
Him: Yeah. And they’re really good. They take care of the hecklers.
Him: Yeah, you know. If anybody comes and heckles me, I just close the book, and then they give them this look (demonstrated The Glare.)
PU: Does that work?
Him: Yeah, mostly.
So I wandered away, still not quite sure what to do. The next day, he said, “I got, like, 15 high fives at lunch time. Then this other kid came onto the bus and said, ‘You’re cool! You’re my favourite grade 7!’ and then sat down with me on the bus.” And I blinked. Walk in and own the school? Never thought of THAT strategy.
At this point in the story, I feel compelled to draw some general observations better left to another day. I am still trying to make sense of this, and still checking in with the child in question. It seems to be working. And no, I didn’t suggest that he stop telling stories on the playground.