“I can see the playground from my window, and I know there’s no bullying in my school,” the principal said, just weeks before three other fourth-grade girls attacked our daughter Nina on the playground at recess.
Nina had been an easy target since kindergarten. Not only was she the only one in her class who hadn’t been born in Montana, she was bright and articulate, she dressed in sparkly shoes and kept her snow boots packed away in her backpack, and most of all, she wore her heart on her sleeve.
I had read every book about bullying I could find. For four years I had tried every suggestion and every angle I could think of to help her.
After the playground attack, my husband and I knew with absolute clarity what we needed to do: We took her out of school and began home schooling. Not only did I have to relearn — and unlearn — much of what I had been taught in school, but I had to set about the even more daunting task of trying to repair the damage done to my daughter, not just by the bullies, but by my own failure to protect her for so long.
When I was a teenager, years before I could imagine making a home in rural Montana, my mother and I were driving past Sidwell Friends School, a private school in Washington, the one that President Obama’s daughters attend(ed). We were listening to a story airing on NPR about how former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall had sent his son to Sidwell and the uproar this had sparked among many in the local black community. They felt that Justice Marshall had abandoned his people’s children to slog alone, without his leadership, through the notoriously awful public school system in the District.
My parents decided to pull my sisters and me out of public school in 1973.
When I was in fourth grade, the D.C. public school teachers went on strike. Fine with me: I felt frustrated and bored every day as my teacher chalked the alphabet onto the blackboard and asked the class to identify the vowels and consonants. The strike dragged on without any apparent end, so my parents enrolled us at Georgetown Day School, a private school where the teachers taught with unmatched skill, creativity and — a revelation to me — humor.
“How did you feel about pulling us out?” I asked my mother that day in the car. “If middle class people all abandon the poor kids, like they said on the radio, the public schools will only get worse,” I said.
“We weren’t that well off,” she snapped at me. “You were on scholarship.”
It was true: My parents’ divorce and my mother’s secretarial work left us struggling to make ends meet. But even so, my mother’s tight lips and tighter grip on the steering wheel indicated that my probing had struck a pocket of guilt. Few other public school students had the opportunity to go elsewhere.
“And,” she continued, “Thurgood Marshall said that every family must do what is in the best interest of their own children.”
I wasn’t going to argue with Thurgood Marshall, but I decided right then, with a 15-year-old’s lack of sympathy for nuance, that he and my mother were both hypocrites.
Twenty years later, my husband and I enrolled our daughter in the only public school in our area for kindergarten. At my very first PTA meeting, I was the only parent with a kindergartner. Perhaps I was overeager. The topic: a new standardized testing regimen.
“It will insure that our students will be prepared for college,” the principal announced.
One woman sneered and said, “None of my children will ever set foot in any college. College,” she spat out, “is where people learn to be liberals.”
At another PTA meeting, I thought I had a good suggestion for the reading contest: “Perhaps instead of rewarding the one student who reads the most, the teachers could set individual goals for the students.”
One of the mothers stood up and said through gritted teeth, “Winning is the American way.” She emphasized her point with a finger alternately stabbing the table and pointing at me. “Whether you like it or not, competition is the foundation of our country. Everyone can’t be a winner. That’s communism!”
I tamped down the alarm I felt and answered every call for volunteers: I organized holiday class parties, played games on the playground during recess and listened to my daughter’s classmates read aloud every week. Science fairs, bake sales, class trips, you name it: I was there.
And what I saw disturbed me. Nina was struggling.
After my attempts to discuss the problem with parents and teachers failed, a call to the school counselor clarified the situation. “I find her treatment by the children — and some of the teachers — to be personally distasteful,” he said. “But I have to be honest with you. There’s very little I can do to stop it.”
A rational parent might have considered withdrawing her child at that point. I, however, was not that kind of parent. Without realizing it, I had taken on the mantle of my mother’s guilt. I decided that I would not be the one who abandoned the public school, and in making that choice, I abandoned my daughter.
Considering my mother’s choice — and Thurgood Marshall’s, too — I now understand how precarious it is to balance what’s right for our own children with social responsibility. I still have more questions than answers. In fact, I don’t have any answers at all.
I just have hope.
My daughter is 24 now. She took college by storm, studying in Israel, Cameroon, France, and she currently resides in New York City. As does any young person, she has some decisions behind her and many more ahead. Hard decisions, some of which will require sacrifice. I couldn’t possibly tell her what is right, but I do hope that she understands one thing: She is free to make her own choices.
I’ll carry the burden of mine.
Lea Page lives in Montana with her husband. She is the author of “Parenting in the Here and Now: Realizing the Strengths You Already Have.” Visit her website at www.LeaPageAuthor.com. Find her on Facebook and Twitter: @LeaPage_Author.
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