I don’t THINK so…..

Dear fifth grade boy,

You know who you are.  You are the one who came to me in November to complain that you were being bullied.  You described how you were mercilessly teased and how you got “beat up” at recess.  When I pressed you for the details (Name the kids who hit you.  Where on your body were you hit? Where were you standing when the bullies approached you?), the story became just a tiny bit less clear.  Remember?  You eventually told me that you and your three friends walked across the playground to where your nemesis and his friends were standing and talking.  You may have called one of them a name, or made a reference to his weight… you actually “don’t remember”.  But, you assured me, there is a long history of “bad blood” between you and the leader of the other group. (Really? How long could it be? You’re both ten.) You weren’t exactly beaten up, you corrected, but you were pushed down. Sort of.  After you pushed the other boy.

You and I talked about “making good choices” and about the definition of “bullying”.  I offered to facilitate a conversation between you and the “bully”, but you declined.  You didn’t say so, but I am pretty sure that you just wanted me to go and yell at him, and call it done.

A couple of months went by, and one day you came to me to tell me about another incident of “bullying” of you and two of your friends, by the same bad boy and his gang of thugs.  This time there was an email from your very worried Mom, to whom you had told the same tale.  She did her job as your Mom and wanted to know immediately what school  staff were planning to do to put an end to the constant harassment and bullying of her child. Remember? The Principal got involved, and so did I.  We acted right away, and the first thing that we did was to ask you for a good description of exactly what had happened.

Honey, we live in some tough times.  Recess is no longer just about fun and games.  Two boys on the verge of adolescence who engage in a pissing contest are no longer just trying out their newly acquired hormones.  We live now in a time when children are killing themselves over the cruelty of their peers.  It is a time when schools are taking on the awesome responsibility of ensuring that every child feels safe in every school setting.  We live in a time of heightened sensitivity to children’s anxieties and to the vulnerability of youth. We hear the word “bully” in this day and age, and we spring into action.

And so you and I sat down, in private, and I asked you to recount exactly what had happened on the day in question. Remember?  And once again, the truth turned out to be less about bullying and more about a weaker male challenging a stronger one.  With some patient listening on my part, and a few key questions, you described a situation in which you felt that the other boys didn’t see you as being “cool” because you aren’t a jock. You said that in the past they called you “shorty” and it made you and your friend mad.  You told me that you and one friend had decided that you had just “had it”, and you decided to challenge the other kids to a fight.  Now, just to be clear, those were your words, not mine. I would never have put them in your mouth, because I would never have thought that those could have been the circumstances.  You described how you and three recruits once again crossed the whole huge playground area and walked up to the “bully” and his two friends (who outnumbered whom here?) and issued your challenge.  They laughed at you, you pushed one of them, and you got pushed to the ground.  A group of boys gathered around, yelling “fight!” and there was more pushing and rolling on the grass until a recess aide came running up to put a stop to it all.

I was notified by two adults as well as you. I’m the classroom teacher. Your parents and you demanded that I act.  And so I have been out to lunch recess a whole bunch of times, at all different times, just to keep my eye on things. I have asked you each day, “So do you have a good plan for recess today?” The other boy’s teacher has done the same with him.  So far all has been peaceful and as calm as an elementary school playground can be in the springtime.  You are beginning to chafe at my presence.  You have begun to snap at me when I ask my daily recess question about your plans. And last night you sent me an email in which you said, in no uncertain terms, that you are mature enough to handle this situation on your own, and that you don’t “want any adult interference.”

Oh, really?

What I emailed you  back was something like this, “I’m glad that you feel comfortable enough to tell me all of this, and impressed that you want to be so independent.  But you have been involved in some conflicts. It is my job as your teacher to keep everyone safe.  I won’t badger you or hover, but I will keep my eyes and ears open every single day.  As long as I see the same safe choices and behaviors that I have seen in the past few weeks, I will back off just a bit.  But if they change in any way, so will I.”

Inside my own head, this is more like what I thought:  “You started this ruckus, pal. You said ‘bully’ when you meant ‘kid I don’t like’. You cried to Mom, and she came crying to me. You want to get the grownups all riled up and then just tell us to leave you alone?  I don’t THINK so!”


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