When I was doing the substitute teaching thing in Redstone, the fourth grade this time, there was an incident:
When the kids came back from recess, a kid named Lucus was whining that Deric hit him in the hallway. Lucus had alternated between being helpful and being one of the biggest problems in the class. I basically told him that I didn’t see it and so there isn’t much I can do about it. Then I saw Deric with his head buried in his arms, crying. I’m not proud of my inclination to just ignore Lucus, but there it is. Crying kids are harder to ignore, however. Marko and Lucus basically said that Deric cries a lot (along with Lucus reiterating that he was hit by Deric) and that the regular teacher always ignores it. I was less than entirely comfortable with that (with substitute teachers, I guess, crying works better than mere whining). So what happened, Deric? Todd hit me! Todd, did you hit Deric? Todd replies that he’s not getting involved. I tell him he’s already involved. Todd says he only hit Deric after Deric hit him. Lucus reiterates that he was hit by Deric. A neutral party, Marin, says that Deric did not hit Todd prior to Todd hitting Lucus.
When I was going through school, such things were always black and white. There were the bullies and the bullied. The good guys and the bad. It was aggravating when teachers didn’t see it that way. They needed to take sides. By which I meant, they needed to take my side. Or, in the echelon, the side of me and people and my station.
The Redstone school had a policy that was really quite familiar to me: If there is a fight, everyone who participated gets punished equally. If someone walked up and hit you, it was your responsibility to get the hell away from there. It was, in essence, the opposite of Stand Your Ground. It was Run Like Hell.
I didn’t have a particularly hard time with bullies in grade school. I was not exactly popular, but it was small enough and I was integrated enough that it wasn’t a huge problem, and you were segregated by grade. Middle school was the worst of many worlds. First, it was middle school. Second, it was economically heterogeneous and that shook out in very predictable fashion. Third, the school was small enough that you couldn’t get lost in anonymity, but big enough that there was a lot of stratification and it was important to get to the right caste, which often meant dunking on others. Also, it was middle school.
The sixth grade, my first year there, was by far the worst. I didn’t really know how to handle it and found myself running headlong into a fight with this seventh grader. At the very last minute, I went chicken. I wasn’t afraid of getting beaten up. I was afraid of getting in trouble. That school had the same rules as the Redstone one. You ran or you got in trouble. So I ran. And when I couldn’t run, which was often, I just took it. Because that was pretty much your only choice. Kids pulled down your pants, what could you do? They’d slap you open-palmed and give you a “body glove” (a smack mark the shape of their hand) and… well, you’d take it.
An added wrinkle is that most of this happened in PE, which had another related rule: Group accountability. If someone misbehaved, everyone got in trouble. So if I tattled, the whole class would have to do sit-ups. Who do you think they are most likely to take revenge on? The guy with enough social protections among peers that they need not worry about having backup in the event of a fight, or the guy with so few protections that he can get hit in front of a dozen witnesses and no one will likely say anything? There were cases where the coach literally saw it happening, did nothing more than a vague gesture against “horsing around,” and I was grateful because taking action would have just made the situation worse.
Whether the group accountability rules worked or not depended on what the goal was. Ostensibly, group accountability meant that nobody would slap Trumwill in the middle of the gym or try to push him down on the track because they wouldn’t want to get everyone in trouble. That wasn’t how it worked, so it was a failure. Unless the goal was to keep it out of the teachers’ hands. Nobody said anything, so they didn’t have to deal with the problems. If that was the goal, it was a success.
The first rule, though, Run Like Hell, was unquestionably successful from every pragmatic angle. It kept people like me from fighting back. And while I had to take my lumps and take my hits, I worked very, very hard at deescalation. If the school would have had my back, I would have gotten in more fights. Since I knew they wouldn’t, I didn’t. I avoided the tormentors, took my hits, and eventually learned the art of bribery to get some big kids to defend me from other big kids. That was an education, of a sort.
Fixing the victims may ultimately become the key approach to how we deal with bullying:
The data was revelatory. Though it wasn’t astounding to find out that half of the children reported being the object of taunts, gossip, or intimidation, how they reacted to their harassers was. The key to anticipating victims’ responses, it turns out, is to figure out their motivations for interacting with their peers in the first place. That is, kids who wanted to be popular and feel superior tended to retaliate impulsively. Those who wanted to appear cool by avoiding criticisms were more likely to pretend like nothing happened. And those who were genuinely interested in fostering friendships tended to react in healthful, positive ways. They asked their teacher for advice, sought emotional support, and found means to solve the tension with those who harassed them.
Promoting an egoless approach to building relationships that encourages children to react in such mindful ways is key to protecting kids from the psychological blowback of bullying. Rudolph’s study shows that kids who are able to respond with care have better mental health than those who respond to stress thoughtlessly. As University of Maine psychologist Cynthia Erdley puts it, “Children who adopt pro-social development goals seem to be well-prepared to deal adaptively with the challenges they are likely to experience.”
On the face of it, it’s pretty galling. This may stop short of blaming the victim, but it is putting the burden on the victim.
But, really, is there any other way?
The bullies at my middle school were able to get away with what they did in large part because they were more willing to withstand the consequence. The story in Redstone ended with one of the kids crying over the detention that he got, and the other showing it off to all of his friends. Do I even need to say which is which? What, ultimately, can you do to a kid that shows off detention slips? There is a philosophy in law enforcement that you should go after the person with the most to lose. In the case of prostitution, the john. In the case of immigration, the employer. Whether they are truly the responsible party or not, they are the ones most likely to alter the behavior. It’s not clear that was what going on, but there’s an argument to be made for it. Less fights is good, right? However you get there.
It’s tempting to pop some Whitesnake into the CD player and chalk all of the above up to lessons and cynically talk about how it’s good to learn that you are on your own and people in authority won’t help you and all that. The stories above were not painful to write. They did not bring up difficult emotions or buried resentments. It was a lifetime ago.
But I think about all of this a lot when it comes to my daughter. She’s five and a half, and shy and a little socially awkward. I fear, at times, she has a rough road ahead of her. While I don’t get mad at the injustices done to me and mine in the past, it does make me mad to contemplate them happening to her. That which didn’t kill me didn’t make me stronger, but it did make me harder. I spent years having to unlearn bad lessons that I learned growing up involving social dynamics and how things work (of which, to be clear, that was only a part). One of the arguments against homeschooling is socialization, but what if the socialization is more bad than good? We can’t shelter them from the real world, but cynics might protest that was an artificial system posing as a rite of passage.
We have no plans to go that route. She is in private school this year, her last year of preschool. She had a conflict with another student and there was some peace rose thing where they aired it out and all was made well. We are saving the money to send her back there again next year. After that, who knows? I’m not really worried that much about academics as she is very self-directed as far as that goes. But I am thinking about all of those above things again for the first time in years.