I remember it like it was yesterday. I was scared to leave the lunch room. I never asked my friends but I suppose they were too. We didn’t talk about it.
It had become a routine. A painful one. I hated it.
In elementary school, like so many children, I was pushed around on the playground and called names but it didn’t leave a scar.
But when my family moved and I attended a new school, I received the full new kid treatment. I had oversized ears and a big nose. The combination was fodder for classmates with a knack for cruelty. Classmates debated a proper nickname. Some called me Pinocchio while others, believing my ears were more deserving of teasing, called me Dumbo. Some students wrestled with the nicknames and married the two, settling on Dumbo-Pinocchio. I didn’t like it.
To add insult to injury, I had a speech impediment. I couldn’t pronounce the letter “r.” I wished my name was r-less. I got separated from my mother in a retail store when I was very young. When a customer service employee paged my mother over the loudspeaker (her first name has as many r’s as our last name), I was certain, having recently seen Annie on Broadway, I was headed to an orphanage.
Classmates repeated my words in mocking fashion without mercy. I couldn’t understand what was so funny. My speech sounded fine to me. One of my heroes remains a speech therapist who taught me how to position my tongue. Whew!
I navigated my way through early childhood trading stickers and baseball cards, watching in amazement as fireflies lit up in our front yard, wishing my speech would sound to everyone else as it did to me, and hoping my head would grow bigger to mask my oversized features.
“Do I have a big nose and big ears?” I asked my father.
“Your nose and ears, my son, are a combination of the nose and ears of your parents, grandparents, and every relative before them. Be proud of them. Your face is perfect,” my father explained.
That was all I ever needed to hear. I took the pounding and looked forward.
Back to the hallway after lunch.
There was a group of kids who took pleasure making classmates feel physical pain. To this day, I never even pushed someone, let alone punched someone. My parents taught me to be kind — and it worked. I can still hear them telling me not to pull my dog’s tail because it would hurt her. I learned how to be empathetic when I was three-years-old.
“Would you like that if I did it to you?” my mother would ask me.
As we rounded the corner outside the lunch room, a group of older kids would take a running start and ram their knees into the side of our legs giving us “dead legs.” Time permitting, they added multiple punches to the side of our arms. Those were called “dead arms.” We would moan, usually fall over in pain, and they would run. We compared black and blue marks in the gym locker room the next day. It sucked.
There were no teachers to protect us. There were no anti-bullying assemblies back then. We were too scared to tell anyone. I recall one of the bullies told me, “Say a word and I’ll kick your ass after school.” I imagined an after school ass kicking wouldn’t be enjoyable so I heeded his advice.
I’ve heard people argue that getting abused in school builds character. That’s nonsense. Someone ramming their knee into my leg didn’t build character. I didn’t need to be physically abused to develop character.
Your child may be getting bullied today — emotionally or physically, perhaps even online. Don’t assume your child will inform you. Children often fear that parents won’t handle abusive situations discreetly, may worry incessantly, can’t prevent them, or will cause the problems to worsen so they rarely share that they’re the victim of a bully.
Parents should tell their children they love them, care about them, and will do anything to protect them from harm. Once the climate is right and the child is relaxed, parents should ask, “Is there anything happening at school you would like to tell us about?” If the situation presents itself, parents may ask, “Is anyone being mean to you at school or on the internet?” To gain their trust, you will need to convince them that they can count on you to listen, show support, and handle a situation discreetly if it warrants action.
Teachers have a moral obligation to stand at their doors and to be on duty before and after school and during lunch to protect your child from bullying. It rarely happens as teachers often use these times as breaks and to catch up on work and enforcement is lax so these areas and times become fertile ground for schoolyard bullies.
Here are suggestions to reduce the likelihood of your child becoming the victim of a bully:
1) Ask your child’s principal to detail the school’s student supervision plan. Hammer home the point that you want all hands on deck to prevent bullying. Ask how the principal verifies that teachers are on duty at critical times. Ask to see the school’s bullying statistics or incident reports from the school resource officer.
2) Talk to your child regularly about school. Ask questions. Listen. Look at body language. Look for signs of possible trouble or physical abuse. Monitor internet use closely.
3) Communicate to your child how you would competently resolve any incident of bullying.
Don’t assume you know what’s happening to your child at school. According to StopBullying.gov, more than 77% of students are bullied and more than 160,000 students miss school for fear of being bullied. Furthermore, fewer than 40% of students report bullying to their parents. These are startling statistics that should grab the attention of every parent.