Kids aren’t stupid. They know we’re being deceptive about bullying. They see how pervasive it is. They feel offended by the pretense and abandoned by the denial, especially those who endure the ridicule of a relative using words as weapons. I know I did.
Fortunately, my mom taught me to prevail by helping me deflect criticism with an equanimity that best prepared me for the external world.
Still, like all kids, I felt an instinctive need to protect my mom – so she never knew my kindergarten teacher was a bully.
I’d been enrolled at Helmer school, a brown brick building in the public education system that flew a coveted green Safety flag above the Stars and Stripes, raised together each morning to wave as symbols of pride over the tar-top playground.
The Safety flag sported a white silhouette of a stick-figure child. It was presented to the school holding the student record for the longest accident-free period in the district. Helmer flew the flag for thirteen consecutive years before I began kindergarten in 1951. But since I’d been hit by a car while chasing an irresistible red ball five weeks earlier, the flag went to its cross-town rival, Cascades Elementary.
As retribution for my misfortune I was shamed daily by my teacher, Miss Beech, who announced my folly on the first day of class, separating me from the circles of instruction, insisting I move my rest period rug to a solitary area, making me take my milk and cookies break alone, and relegating me to a chair in the corner during art activities, thereby branding me as a bad apple.
“I wish you died,” one classmate whispered to me daily during recess. Eventually she stopped and probably forgot. But I never have.
Except for my time at Helmer, I remember all my grade school teachers fondly – primarily because by third grade our family moved across town to the school district where I automatically became the kid responsible for Cascades being awarded the Safety flag.
That still makes me smile.
But by then I’d already learned that self-confidence and resiliency was the best defense against bullies.
So when my Girl Scout troop leader fostered intimidation by flagrantly favoring girls whose parents were members of the Country Club, I resigned and sent a letter of complaint to the Council. It wasn’t acknowledged or acted upon, but the mere writing of it served to strengthen my backbone and cement my resolve.
It wasn’t until junior high that cliques began forming based on beauty between girls and sports between boys. While holding daily court in the cafeteria at lunchtime, some of them entertained by taunting outcasts within earshot.
One gym teacher enjoying camaraderie with parents of the miscreants showed her allegiance by embarrassing students targeted by the cliques. In addition to assigning them extra laps, she openly scorned their abilities and detained them for fabricated infractions. The first day she aimed her mockery at me I left class and never returned.
Years later, on the afternoon I was to graduate as the student with the most scholastic medals pinned to her robe, my class counselor called me in for a conference.
“Your records indicate you failed gym for six years running,” he said.
“I didn’t fail. I didn’t go.”
“Then you can’t graduate until you do.”
“So, I’ll be going to summer school for swimming and softball?”
I graduated. He changed my records from ‘E’s’ to a ‘D’s’ in order to make that possible (inadvertently raising my overall grade point average).
Bullying wasn’t as effective in senior high school due to the size of the campus and increased student population. Instead, a parents place in the hierarchy of city society coerced choices for cheerleading, club leadership, school government, and homecoming participation. And while the number of menacing teachers was fewer, they remained a presence.
When a homeroom chum became pregnant and was expelled (because that’s how unwed motherhood was handled in the 60’s), my English teacher forbade us all from speaking to her. Nevertheless, upon spotting her clearing out her locker I walked over to say good-bye.
Someone tattled. It resulted in my receiving a ‘D’ in English. At the same time, I earned an ‘A’ in journalism and was nominated for editor of the school newspaper by the principal and selected, unanimously, by the school board.
I’m convinced that school bullies go on to become business bullies.
I recall an art department head that bullied employees by declaring his completion of a single college psychology course qualified him to assail their incompetence, and a merchandising manager who blamed his mistakes on clerks to the point of him falsifying production documents, and the head of a security firm who phoned and goaded employees on vacation, demanding they respond to nonexistent problems.
The list is long because the fact is – anytime you feel compelled to think, speak, or act in a manner not of your choosing – you’re being bullied.
Since 1976, I’ve earned my living as an entrepreneur, writer and designer. I’d like to say it makes me bullied-free. Alas, that’s impossible for anyone to truthfully claim.
Between friends, relatives, colleagues, employers, government agencies, consumer services, business organizations, clubs, neighborhood associations, naysayers, politicians, reporters, social media, talking heads, telemarketers, contractors, zealots, line jumpers, road rage and the rest, we all witness our share of bullying, daily.
So, maybe we should stop telling kids that bullies are a schoolroom problem graduation solves, or law enforcement can control, or Congress can legislate against.
Perhaps it’s time we begin addressing the very fabric of our society that suffers bullying as a way of life we indulge in and enable as an expedient means to tentative survival.
Only then can we stand up as a nation and demand that bullies (of all ages, in all areas, at all levels) stand down.
Because tormentors can’t be conquered by timidity.
It takes courage.
It demands virtue.
It requires an ethical resolve by us all.
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Copyright Marguerite Quantaine © 2013