Little Girl Bullied
By Christine Baker
Clinton, CT, USA
An 11-year-old girl gets ready for school on a bright and unseasonably warm October day in 1984. She decides to wear her favorite tee shirt with Mickey Mouse smiling broadly as he gives the thumbs-up sign. Her mom helps her put her long blonde hair up in pigtails. Just about the time she sits down to breakfast, she can feel the familiar knots in her stomach which she knows won't be enough to keep her from going to school.
On the bus, she sits quietly in a window seat about halfway back hoping the day passes quickly so she can enjoy recess with the boys. The bus ride is short, thank goodness, because she gets bus sick nearly every day as the big yellow bus bounces down the back roads of rural Connecticut.
Once school starts, the teacher asks she and a young, sweet boy named Rob to spend first period in the library for another special reading class. She and Rob seem to be reading at a much higher level than the other students and so they are taking part in a new program to see how it works. This is exactly what she was dreading, and by the looks of it, so was Rob. Nothing is worse than being singled out in fifth grade. The other students snicker and laugh as she and Rob walk past their seats. She can feel her cheeks burning and hopes her face isn't bright red.
Recess is a welcome respite. She plays kickball with the boys. She's strong, athletic and completely in her element outside. Her blond pigtails fly out behind her as she runs, and she revels in the freedom of movement even though she knows the girls in her class hate that she is the only girl who plays with the boys.
"Why are you such a tomboy?" sneers one girl.
"Yeah, why do you always want to play sports? You never want to spend time with us," says another.
The girl does her best to ignore them. Even one of the boys in her class notices and sticks up for her. "Hey, don't listen to them. We all know you're still a girl, you're just better than most of the boys at kickball," he says as they walk back into school.
After the final bell rings, the girl is told to stay back for a minute before leaving for the bus by the teacher. The teachers explains, "I received some complaints from some of your classmates and I think it's time that we all sit down and discuss these issues. I work very hard and I hate giving up my own lunch period, but I think that's what we are going to have to do in this situation. Tomorrow, please plan to spend lunch with me and some of your classmates."
The little girl doesn't tell her parents about this meeting when she's asked about school at dinner. Instead, she holds her Siamese cat named Charlie close, hoping the meeting will be nothing at all. She falls asleep later that night with wrenching stomach pain and wakes up the next morning with no relief.
The next day passes excruciatingly slowly. It seems that every time she looks up at the clock, only a minute or two passed. Finally, after what seems like an eternity, the teacher calls her to the front of the class as everyone else files out for lunch and recess. The teacher takes a single chair and moves it to the front of the classroom, facing the rest of the seats. She asks the little girl to sit down in the chair. The girl does as she is told, nervously picking at her fingernails under the desktop. As she waits, five other girls from her class file in, smiling smugly at her. They are told to sit directly across from her.
Once everyone seems to be in position, the teacher says, "Good. Now that we are all here I want to deal with this once and for all so I no longer hear any more complaints. Is that understood?" The five girls nod in agreement.
"Okay then. I want you to go one by one and explain what you don't like about her so she can change."
For the next 15 minutes (which feels like 72 hours), the little blond girl sits facing her peers as they run through every single thing they don't like about her. Why does she insist on wearing those beat up Nike sneakers? Why on earth would she still wear a Mickey Mouse tee shirt at our age? Why does she bite her fingernails? Why is her hair so blonde? Why is she so quiet all the time? Why does she have to be in some special reading class – like she is so much better than the rest of us. And finally, why, above all, does she have to play sports with the boys? It makes the other girls look bad. No other girls play sports like that, why should she? She's stupid and doesn't fit in with the rest of us.
After it's over, the other girls file neatly out of the room. All she can hear is a humming sound from inside her head. Two of her fingers bleed because she's picked at them so much. The teacher says, "Now then, it's important to fit in or things will just get worse for you here. Go and finish your lunch, you are excused."
She doesn't remember walking out of the classroom. Her legs shake as she walks, pretending everything is fine. How could they hate everything about me? She thinks. Am I really that awful? She does remember going to the principal's office asking to call her mom. "It's an emergency," she says. Once on with her mom, she briefly explains in disjointed 11-year-old shorthand what transpired at lunch. "Don't move from that office. I'll be there in 15 minutes," says her mother with her "stern, don't mess with me" voice.
Fifteen minutes later, her mother blows through the doors of the school office like a tidal wave. She hugs her daughter fiercely and tells her to stay put. Her mom walks right into the principal's office, to the dismay of the secretary yelling behind her. The door slams shut in the secretary's face. People in the hallway can hear her mom yelling. A few minutes later, her mom emerges from the office, smoothing her skirt. "Let's go get some ice cream," she says, hugging her daughter close as they leave the school.
I never set foot in that school again. A week later, I was settling into a new Catholic school where I healed, blossomed and regained my self-confidence. No one ever bulled me again. I will never forget the teachers in my new school. They hugged me. They listened to me. They looked out for me, and they cared. They cultivated my love of sports and of words. They restored my faith in teachers. Those are the teachers I am forever grateful to. Those are the teachers who taught me one of the greatest lessons of all: I was different and that was to be celebrated, not changed. I learned how to make friends easily and over time, my chronic stomachaches disappeared.
Thirty-one years later, I walk around the playground of that old elementary school. As are most memories from youth, everything seems so much smaller than I remember it, but I still carry the memories of that day, and of the many days where I was bullied for being just a little different, for not fitting in with the rest of the kids. My experiences being bullied certainly pale in comparison to so many other horrible stories, but wounded me deeply nonetheless. Now it is time to let it go. Now is the time to do something to make schools a more positive place. The entire purpose of giving something back is to make a positive difference for someone else instead of ignoring a problem as it grows.
Nearly one in three students (27.8 percent) report being bullied during the school year (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2013). Sixty-four percent of children who were bullied did not report it; only thirty-six percent reported the bullying (Petrosina, Guckenburg, DeVoe, and Hanson, 2010). According to statistics reported by ABC News, nearly thirty percent of students are either bullies or victims of bullying, and 160,000 kids stay home from school every day because of fear of bullying.
I launched Walk4Good in 2011 to inspire and educate kindness. I am so proud to announce a new Beta Educational Kindness Program that will run from September through December 2015 and will work to reduce incidents of bullying and cyber-bullying and increase community service, kind acts and volunteerism. Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens and one other high school yet to be named will work together with Walk4Good to encourage and support kindness in school. Both schools will be in competition for the "Kindest School Award" and will be judged on a variety of factors including: number of pledges for kindness, volunteer/community service hours worked, reduction of bullying and cyber-bullying incidents. The winning school will be announced in January 2016 and will receive bragging rights as the "Kindest School," a school-wide ice cream party and a trophy for their efforts.
Students will be surveyed at the beginning of the program to determine their experiences and knowledge on a variety of subjects including bullying, cyber-bullying, community service and kindness. Students and clubs from both schools will connect by video feed and will work together with Walk4Good on a number of volunteer efforts to support kindness.
Being different is a gift. Not everyone will fit in, and that's what makes humanity such a beautiful patchwork quilt. It is our responsibility to stand up and do something rather than ignoring someone suffering. Ask yourself what is worse – being the person who does the bullying or being the person who stands by and does nothing as someone is bullied?