I cried the day my daughter started kindergarten. I saw her line up with her backpack and her new clothes. I watched her take a deep breath and walk into her classroom. And then I cried. I cried because my quiet girl—who went for 1.5 years barely talking to her kind preschool teachers—was being cast to the crocodiles.
Primary education is a bleak social experiment under the best of circumstances. There’s a pecking order: where you stand in the line, who sits or chooses not to sit with you at lunch, who won’t let you play with them on the monkey bars.
My husband and I toured dozens of classrooms to find a small, nurturing school. We were looking for a place with fewer crocodiles and nicer teachers. Still, I had to drop her off each day alone in the swamp.
The second day of kindergarten there was crying—but it wasn’t from either one of us. A new boy had missed the first day. After his teacher led him into the classroom, I stood with the other parents and commiserated as we listened to the sobs. “I wanted to say goodbye to mommy,” he screamed.
It was the first thing my daughter mentioned when I picked her up from school. “Did you hear that boy crying? He was really upset.”
I was sad for that boy, and his mom, who had to stand there listening to the sobs outside the room. It was the first story I ever heard about *Brian. There would be many more over the next few months.
A few weeks into the semester, I picked up Julianna after school. She was distraught. “Brian said he didn’t like my glasses,” she said. She screamed in frustration, took the frames off her face and flung them across the room. “He said he didn’t like the way they looked on my face. He said it in front of the whole class.”
She cried and moped all weekend.
On Monday, I couldn’t wait to pin down the mom with my best mama-bear glare. To my surprise she walked over to me and apologized. It was a brave act, I thought. Trying to fan the embers of forgiveness in my heart, I explained the teasing made my girl feel bad all weekend long. “My daughter really can’t see without her glasses,” I explained.
“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry. I wear glasses, too. My whole family wears glasses. I don’t know what this was about.”
He’s got a good mom, I thought. This won’t happen again.
But the stories continued: Brian told the class he hated them all. He ridiculed Julianna in front of her friends because she got more correct answers during carpet time.
Julianna’s dad went to talk to the teacher about our daughter’s growing fears about the endless teasing—and I could tell that Julianna felt relieved that we wouldn’t tolerate her being picked on.
Almost every day, Julianna and I watched the teacher talk with the boy and his mom after school. Julianna told the story of worms flung into other boys faces and grass chewed up and spat at girls.
I spoke to the teacher about a few incidents while the mean comments continued—a nameless rage with no particular focus. But I was surprised about Brian’s perseverance. When I was in elementary school, two classmates taunted me about my Jewish heritage. My mom talked to the teacher, who talked to the parents of the kids. Those kids never spoke to me again during our 12 shared years of public education but the teasing stopped immediately.
I told Julianna not to exclude Brian from play—that would only hurt his feelings and make the antisocial behavior worse. I wanted her to try and make him feel included, and understand correct school behavior. Perhaps if we were nice to him, he would stop what he was doing, or just go away.
Julianna tried out my approach, and it worked for a day or two. But soon after, I was waiting to pick up Julianna when the principal walked over toward me. At first I thought she was making conversation, but as the kids went to sit on their designated bench and awaited their release, she told me about a “little incident” involving my daughter and a female accomplice.
“Julianna and another girl wrote a note and passed it to a boy. Can you spare 10 minutes to talk?”
The other girl was in her mother’s arms sobbing. Julianna took my hand and kept her head up as she walked into the office. I sat down and saw the note.
“Julianna and Samantha thinc you are meen.”
Underneath the sentence was a drawing of the two girls in pink dresses holding hands. The girls had spent their entire “exploration time” sounding out the prose. They used their best handwriting and measured out a finger space between each word. Now the product of their hard work sat on a clipboard as evidence.
I wanted to reach across the desk and grab the note. I wanted to keep it, tape it into her baby book, take a photo of it and post it on Facebook.
On the one hand I was appalled that I was sitting in the principal’s office. The other part of me—the writer and mom who wants my daughter to stand up for herself—was thrilled.
She had found her voice, and she would no longer be ignored. She wanted help with this boy—needed help with this boy—and I saw the look of relief that she was finally going to get it.
Since Julianna was a toddler she’s known that her parents are writers. She knows I’ve written about environmental health hazards, crooked politicians, immoral landlords. Each story is my way of correcting or addressing a wrong. Now she’d set pencil to paper and gotten the attention of the most powerful woman in the school.
The principal asked Julianna some questions about what happened during the day.
Q: Did Brian tell you he didn’t like your glasses?
Q: Did he call you mean and did you tell him to stop?
Q: Did you tell a teacher?
Q: Did the behavior continue, even after the teacher intervened?
I tried to see it from the boy’s perspective, from the teachers, from the principals. Julianna and the girls had written their opinion and stated their feelings. Was it really so different than saying the words instead of jotting them down and handing them to the boy? Would I even be having the conversation if there had been no written evidence? Had my daughter fought back too hard, and turned into a bully herself?
As soon as we left the office, Julianna spilled the story.
“He was bothering us on the playground, mommy, and he wouldn’t stop.”
“Why didn’t you find an adult?” I asked. “Why write a note later, and get in trouble?”
She told me there was no adult on the kindergarten playground. I paused, trying to decipher the truth. Even if an adult was there, it seemed to her that there wasn’t. So in her eyes, that’s 30 minutes of recess with 18 kids trapped with a known and tireless bully. Of course she had written that note. If it were me, I would have spray-painted it on the side of the principal’s office.
“But why did you give him a note with your name on it?” I asked.
She shrugged. “We thought it would get him to stop.”
I realized then the whole point in writing it down— the note wasn’t just about two little girls trying to get back at a bully. The note was about two little girls without a voice. And they found it—by writing a note to a boy in a language they knew would get the attention of everyone in the room.
Julianna’s 5-year-old brain was already starting to figure out something that researchers who study bullying have discovered in recent years: the way to stand up to the bully is to create a script.
An observational study suggests that children who receive and follow a specific rubric or template for standing up to loutish classmates are much more likely to confront him or her. This study, conducted by Nicola Abbott of Canterbury Christ Church University in England focused mostly on scripts or advice given to children by adults.
But no one had given my daughter a script so she sat down and wrote one for herself. If she’d been a little older , perhaps I could have taught her these phrases:
“I would like you to stop calling me names.”
“I know you are probably only joking, but I think you’re upsetting me.”
But can I expect a 5-year-old, who is quiet and prefers one-word answers and statements, to remember all those big words when she’s scared? It is hard for me to blame her for taking a more aggressive tact.
And regardless of the results, she is getting a crash course in the importance and weight of prose.
In the days that followed, I acted my part as mom. I followed up with the principal and teacher. The bullying issue has now been brought up in front of the principal, and will continue to be brought up until I’m assured of proper adult supervision and recourse.
Soon Julianna’s note will soon be yesterday’s news. But she now understands the weight and the impact of a scribbled message on a piece of paper. She’s learned that nouns and verbs and a well-placed if misspelled adjective can be sharper than darts and hard as a hammer.
Tomorrow I’ll buy her a journal.
(*The name of all the children, except my daughter, have been changed.)
Amy Ettinger is a writer.
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