As a teacher-educator, my feelings about the start of the school year are certainly different from what they were when I was a student.
For one thing, I find myself looking forward to the first days and the opportunity to meet a brand new batch of people to work hard and (hopefully) laugh harder with; to write letters of recommendation for; and to give collegial advice and friendly support to when the going gets rough (as it’s sure to do, at times). We might only have one semester together, but as those in the profession know, it is often a mind-bogglingly powerful semester.
Indeed, there is little about my job that I do not absolutely love.
And yet, it only takes something like a Facebook request from a former bully (or five) to remind me of how much I used to dislike school.
It’s amazing, what the passage of time—over two decades, now—allows one to forget. But the first days of school, in conjunction with coverage of recent anti-bullying efforts and the blessing/curse that is social media, will certainly conspire to jog the memory. It’s an odd thing, to suddenly be contacted by the very people who worked as hard to make your life miserable as they did to solve fractions on their 8th-grade math exams.
“I guess it’s a good thing for them that this wasn’t around a few decades ago,” I said to my mother recently, after sharing about something I read in the news about anti-bully legislation.
“Humph.” It is not often that mom is without words. Her response was short because there was nothing more to say on the topic. Anti-bully legislation was not around when I was a kid. When I could have used it. When we, as a family, could have used it.
I was a shy, quiet kid; like most shy kids my goal, above all else, was to remain invisible. Alas, I had a huge, unruly head of curly hair that my parents refused to allow me to tame with LA Looks (or any other product, for that matter). My unfortunate blond mop was complimented by massive buck teeth, qualities which earned me an unwanted place in the spotlight among my school’s most venomous bullies.
My height certainly didn’t help matters: Achieving 5’1” stature (and growing) by the time I entered the 5th grade rendered me the tallest out of all the students, both male and female, an issue that would not resolve itself until well into the 9th grade—and at a different school.
I think about my bullies sometimes. I think about them when they friend-request me; I think about them when I read something in the news about the increasingly prolific anti-bully legislation.
I think about my childhood bullies when I read that another kid has committed suicide because of relentless bullying and the silent adults who turned deaf ears and blind eyes.
Most of the bullying, now that I think of it, occurred in the presence of an adult—including several teachers.
My most painful bullying incidents occurred on the mini-bus, that small yellow vessel which offered no place to hide. My bullies would make up songs about me, my hair, my body, anything they could think of, and sing them loudly. The bus driver, a white-haired man in his 60s, laughed heartily.
Explain that to a child quietly desperate for adult intervention.
The taunting was mostly verbal (such as when Adam announced to a table of peers in our Earth Science class, provoked by nothing other than my existence in the seat next to him, that I was “One. Ugly. Girl.”). But sometimes it became physical, as when Joe grabbed my books from my hands and threw them into a muddy puddle while we waited outside of school for the yellow school bus to arrive. There was also the time when Jason, with an audience, tripped me as I ran to my 8th-grade math class; I hit the floor, knees and elbows first, with a painful thud. My books scattered further. The overly made-up and padded girlfriends stood back and laughed, some nervously, some cruelly.
I think about my childhood bullies sometimes. And because I (like most of you) am naturally curious, I have accepted all of their Facebook friend requests.
I’ll never cease to be amazed at what one can learn from a simple perusal of a Facebook wall. Of my bullies, there are five who were memorably venomous. All five are now parents. And of these five, three (so far as I can tell) went on to become teachers.
Becoming reacquainted with my childhood bullies, even if only virtually, forces me to wonder about what happens when bullies become teachers. As far as these particular people are concerned, I have absolutely no idea. I hope their students love them. I hope they are making a difference, one student’s life at a time. And I hope that these particular people have evolved into the thinking, reflective, and caring adults that we as a society should demand of our teachers. I hope, in short, that they’ve somehow overcome their childhood tendencies and now, as teachers, stand up for students who are bullied. Which prompts me to divulge another painful memory.
As a child, I dealt with being viciously bullied by staying silent when I saw others being bullied in much the same way. I will always believe that my silence rendered me a bully by proxy. Desperate to remove the spotlight from my existence for a change, I hid in the shadows when they turned their attention to her, another shy, quiet classmate who earned excellent grades and wouldn’t, couldn’t hurt a fly even if she wanted to.
At school, I knew what my classmate was going through—damn, did I know—but I dared not befriend her. I dared not support her. Any support I could have shown was sure to turn the bullies on me even worse.
She cried a lot, and I stayed silent and you bet I never dared cry. Tears were our bullies’ lifeblood. On some days, I think she got it worse for exactly that reason.
And it is with these paired memories of being bullied and fearful silence that I recall how my dad would often remind me that “hurt people hurt people.”
Think about that for a second: Hurt people hurt people.
I now take my father’s words to mean that, sometimes, hurt people bully others. Other times, hurt people remain silent and watch as others are bullied. Hurt people indeed hurt people.
And so, in the spirit of the first days of school; in the spirit of National Bullying Prevention Month in October; in honor of the shy kids, the extroverted kids, and all those in between; and finally, in the spirit of attempting to live up to the expectations we should all have of our nation’s teachers, I wish to apologize to her, my fellow target, for my silence. And I hope that those bullies-turned-teachers are anything but silent when they see their child-selves reflected in the relationships they notice playing out in their classrooms, school hallways, and those dreadful yellow school buses.