My boys have a fish tank. One of their fish was named Blaze — we had him for about five years. Blaze was little when we got him, and he grew more than anyone thought he would, until he was huge. He was also obnoxious, always chasing the other fish around. A few times, baby fish appeared in our tank, and one by one they disappeared. The boys decided that since Blaze kept getting bigger and bigger, he must have eaten the babies. And some of our Neon Tetra fish disappeared here and there (Blaze was blamed for that, too).
Recently T.J., our 16-year-old, was in the basement watching TV after finishing his homework. He started yelling, “Mom, come quick! Blaze is stuck in the barrel!” My son Peter, 15, and I ran down the stairs to find that Blaze was indeed stuck in a barrel-shaped fish shelter in the tank. Really stuck. He must have swum in and gotten wedged in a hole that was too small for him. Using some cloth towels, I pulled him out as carefully as I could. Sadly, I broke Blaze. He swam around a bit after he was freed, but he was struggling. It was sad to watch. He died two days later.
After he died, T.J. said, “Mom, don’t feel bad. Blaze was really mean to the other fish, all the time. I bet they said to him, ‘C’mon, Blaze, we dare you to try to fit through this hole in the barrel! We double-dare you!’ Serves him right for being so mean.”
The timing of this event with Blaze, and T.J.’s response to it, was interesting. Just before this fish incident, T.J., who has autism, was treated unkindly by some kids at school.
This is how my son Peter says it went down: Pete was on his way into the locker room to change for a makeup gym class after an absence. On his way in, he heard T.J. yelling “Help! Someone help me!” He didn’t know T.J. would be in the locker room, so when he heard his brother’s voice, he got really scared for T.J.
Pete ran in, and found his brother at his locker frantically trying to open it — the lock wasn’t working, and T.J. was swearing and very upset, worried he was going to be late for his next class (T.J. also has anxiety — quite often, autism and anxiety go hand in hand). As Pete tried to open the locker for his brother, a cleat came flying at them and landed just short of hitting T.J. Pete turned to find two boys looking at them, laughing.
Pete is very protective of his brother and has a strong sense of right and wrong. He was angry as he asked the boys, “Were you throwing that at my brother?” The boys said yes, and Pete picked up the cleat, whipped it back in their direction (not at them directly), and said “Your aim sucks.” He later told me that he didn’t know what to say, he was so angry and flustered. Pete got the locker open and T.J. left to get to class on time.
Pete texted the entire story to me. He felt awful and was angry at those boys. I immediately emailed T.J.’s special educator and guidance counselor to let them know what had happened.
At the end of the school day, I picked up both boys and was driving home when my phone rang. It was an assistant principal, who told me the school has zero tolerance for anything like this and the boys who did it would be disciplined. He asked if he could arrange a sit-down with my two boys and the boys who threw the cleat, because they felt awful and wanted to apologize. I was on speaker phone in my car, so I asked him if I could call him back when I got home so we could talk more privately. I hadn’t had time to talk to T.J. and gauge how he was feeling about what had happened.
When we got home, T.J. started yelling, but I don’t remember what started it. I think it was about not wanting to walk to the mailbox to get the mail, but he started swearing at me, then he threw open the door and ran out of the car, yelling that he was leaving and never coming back.
What happened next was one of the worst meltdowns he has ever had. T.J.’s meltdowns are like climbing a mountain: It gets really bad, and then once he hits the peak, he starts calming down and slowly comes out of it. The last part of the meltdown is always him feeling guilty for the things he said in the midst of it. But I tell him it’s okay for him to do and say anything he needs to, to get through it and feel better, as long as I can keep him and others in my house safe. Which we always do.
So after the worst was over and T.J. was calm and quiet, I asked him if he wanted to sit down with the boys from the locker room and hear their apology.
“No,” he yelled. “I never want to see those boys again! They laughed at me!”
And there you have it — the meltdown was caused by the thought of having to sit down with the same boys who had hurt him so much. So I told him that what happened next would be up to him — he calls the shots. If he wants an apology in two months, he gets an apology in two months. If he never wants to talk with them, he never has to.
The weight seemed to lift, as he exhaled and said “good.”
So back to the fish …
T.J. is an animal lover. He went to the principal’s office during his first week of high school to find out who to talk to about poachers hurting the rhino population. He reads his Wildlife Encyclopedia before bed. When he was so nonchalant about our fish Blaze getting stuck in the barrel of our tank, and dying as a result, it surprised me, based on his love of all animals.
But when I looked at it from the perspective of someone who had just experienced bullying for the first time, it wasn’t so surprising. After all, that bully fish got what was coming to him. Maybe somehow it made T.J. feel better seeing that justice had been served. And maybe that was his way of coping with the pain of being bullied.
The last thing he said to me about his bullying incident was, “Can you write a story about this, Mom? Maybe writing about it can help some other kids like me.”
I hope so, T.J. Thank you, buddy, for wanting to help other kids like you. And maybe even other parents, like me.
Lauren Swick Jordan is a frequent On Parenting writer and blogs at Laughing … like it’s my job.
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