A few weeks ago, when the website LearnVest Moms invited me to participate in an online panel sponsored by Dove, of course, I said yes. But quickly found the first topic, bullying, was no cakewalk. Here’s my response: http://www.learnvest.com/2012/06/how-to-stop-your-child-from-being-bullied/
At the time I thought of bullying in terms of my two-year-old daughter, that is to say, not so much. As the mom of a toddler, the sharing of toys and playground swings and slides presented the biggest problems. Then the video of the sexagenarian being bullied by mid-schoolers went viral. Viewable at: http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2012/06/21/grandma-bullied-on-school-bus/
As I viewed the offensive film of a 68-year-old bus escort being taunted by kids, no wait, brats. No. Let me call them what their behavior mandates: rude, insensitive, little assholes, (just watch the video, and most of you will agree) in the background of my morning, on the Today Show, I heard Matt Lauer describe the matter as an example of “the culture of a cruelty in America.” View the interview here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=668AQoumzWo
Parents, at times, protect our kids too much. We find the ready excuse, the easy out for their screw-ups. Just check out the letters of apology written by the “boys” and their parents at: http://www.democratandchronicle.com/article/20120622/NEWS01/120622010. The parents’ letters of apology were longer, and had a greater use of the first person, “I.” I’m sorry, I feel horrible, they wrote again and again, personifying an act they were not the cause of; it was their progeny who should be genuflecting at her the wronged woman’s feet.
But when I think of it, bulling isn’t a new thing at all. We just have a wider target range, with better tools: Facebook, cell phone video cameras, the some evil Twitter. Back when I attended grade school, bulling was a face-to-face affair. As the focus of a bully named Rochelle, I know personally. The teachers of Thirkill Elementary school knew she was a bully. And Rochelle’s parents knew. They were summoned to the school often enough. And all the kids knew, especially those Rochelle bullied, like me.
Throughout the fifth grade, almost daily, threats of lunchtime punch ups leapt from her lips at me. Midway through the school year, with the spring, Rochelle moved on to threats of after school bloodings. (Even bullies made their way directly home in the harsh Motown winters.) My offense, as far as I could discern: I made the Honor Roll regularly. Teachers liked me. Most kids liked me. And, the most regrettable offense, my mom was an assistant teacher at the same school.
Once threating words no longer satiated Rochelle, she upped the ante. “Don’t come outside after school,” she spat out at me over my lunch on a sunny spring day with such a force, I knew beat down day had arrived.
When the three o’clock bell rang throughout the school, rather than making my way through the sun soaked hallways to the exit, I made a hard right into the first floor Girls Lavatory. Twenty or so minutes later, after the hallways went quiet, after most of the staff and students, and the waiting crowd outside had dispersed, I left the lavatory. Tip-toeing back down the hallway, I stationed myself at the side door of the school, my tiny face framed by the rectangular window, watching to see when my mother would psychically pick up my S.O.S. call and come to collect me.
By the time my mother exited her navy-blue Ford Thunderbird, her eyes wild with fright-filled-relief—a fright that as a mother I just truly begin to comprehend—I, an eleven-year-old girl who had just earned the privilege of walking home from school with friends rather than riding with her mom and brother had gone missing from the west side of Detroit, for nearly two hours.
After dinner, my mom sat me down on the living room sofa. She began to speak. But I didn’t understand any of it. “First, move that big plastic ring from your left hand to your right. And tomorrow, when Rochelle approaches you, while she’s still talking about what she’s going to do to you, hit her as hard as you can.”
I stared at my Mom in stunned silence. My mom had told my brother and me never to hit other kids for as long as I could remember.
“Aim for her mouth,” she said. “Or her eyes, and keep hitting her until the other kids pull you off of her.”
The next morning, at breakfast, as my mom styled my hair for the day, my mom told my dad nothing. Rather than two pony tails, as I frequently requested, she platted my hair down to my scalp. Two braids ran north and south, from my hairline to the nap of my neck, like flat cables, parted by the Mason-Dixon line made by a comb. “This way Rochelle can’t grab hold of your hair,” she whispered into my ear.
That morning as my mom headed to her classroom, and I headed toward mine, I traveled the length of the hallway like a gunslinger, like Shane, dress in battle clothes: a pullover shirt, rather than a blouse. In a fight, a blouse with buttons made for grabbing opportunities. Pants rather than a dress, because a wearing a dress to a fight could reveal more than your spunk. My mom had been well schooled in the art of female warfare.
Nearing the classroom door, I felt a thump against my back. I turned.
“I’m kicking your ass after school,” Rochelle barked.
I looked her in the eye, and did not blink.
By the afternoon, the note-paper-network-system of the school was in full mode, amped up like Vegas on the night of a title bout; a fight was going down after school, the news line hummed. The air held a wild current that rocketed off the rectory scale around 2:30PM, just before the last bell clanged.
Mrs. Sapp, our fifth grade homeroom teacher sat solemnly behind the throne of her desk. Quite unusual. Although a mountain of a woman, Mrs. Sapp danced around the room, engaging her students in national and world affairs, at every opportunity. However, this afternoon she had a local concern.
“I’ve been hearing about a fight all day,” she said sternly, looking over her students. “And I don’t like it.” Then her eyes stopped moving and locked on my nemesis. “Rochelle Perry, don’t you fight Jenine Holmes. She’s a nice girl.”
Midway back, about fifteen or so feet, in my molded wooden desk, my brain went into a heated-fury. Good God, don’t say I’m a nice girl. That’s what got me into this mess, I moaned in my eleven-year-old-head. Mrs. Sapp can’t stop the fight, she can’t. I need this to end.
But her words did stop Rochelle Perry.
The resident bully cut me a wide birth that day, in fact for a rest of the school year, and into the next. It would take another decade of living for me to understand a basic fact of life: when someone wants to do you harm, no one or nothing, barring an act of God, will stop the act: not the F.B.I., Interpol, the Mossad; and least of all, a fifth grade social studies teacher.
As I moved from my eleventh year to the twelfth, an odd thing happened. I became a chronic tomboy. I moved from climbing trees, to conjuring baseball, to the science of catching pop flies with the sun blasting my eyes, and the mechanics and power of sliding into bases. During the summer, mentally and physically, I grew stronger. My body moved through in the world with a different vibe. I played harder and longer and frequently coming home with ripped clothes and bloody badges on my knees. So, by the following spring, towards the end of the sixth grade, when a punch landed in the middle of my back, my reflex sensory response called for the punch to be returned. I led with my fist. And that fist led to, Rochelle.
“Meet me on the playground, lunch time,” Rochelle yelled, rubbing the shock from her shoulder.
“I’ll be there,” I said. And for a moment, just for a moment I saw a small lightening strike of fear in her brown eyes.
I never made it to the gray gravel playground of Thirkill Elementary. Rochelle tracked me down to the first floor hallway. “Still trying to run,” she yelled at my back, or something like. It isn’t that time faded her words. I don’t think I heard them back then. As a sixth grade Primary Hostess, (Re: mom-in-training for girls, cigarette breaks for teachers), I had duties and took them seriously. I, and my first graders had just left the lunchroom and were headed to their classroom, back to their teacher.
I pushed open the classroom door. No teacher. “Okay you guys, just stay here until your Mrs. Williams comes, okay?” I said, closed the door and started back down the hallway. About, roughly twenty kids, scattered back through door behind me, like little chicks. Even they knew the epic battle Thirkill Elementary had been promised for more than a year was about to go down.
Just as I made it past the school office, Rochelle came up from the rear and shoved me. My torso lurched ahead of my legs. I caught my balance and coiled my fists. I pivoted. And swung. As my knuckles smashed in her nose, I thought of one thing: the mod plastic ring back home on my dresser. I could do more damage with it, I thought.
To allay the absence of my ring, I clutched the collar of Rochelle’s blouse in my fists, pinned my chest against hers, and slammed our combined weight into the row of forest green lockers. With the bounce of our bodies, I introduced the back of her head to the metal surface, repeatedly, three, four, five times, until as my mom had advised a year early, some kids pull me off of her.
Never before or since have I felt such a rampaging rage against another human being. The yearlong Rochelle effect had built up to a storm and a reckoning; a reckoning that I couldn’t understand even decades later. Why did it have to come to pass?
Rochelle Perry was raised in a two-parent home, she worn nice clothes to school, and even had a cool Mod Squad lunch box, like me. She even played the clarinet in the school band, just like me. What did she have to be so angry about? And more importantly, why did she feel the need to take it on other kids? I still can’t say. And judging by the more than a million views of the midschool “boys” teasing a grandmother they should have respected as much as their own family members, neither does the rest of America.
One day I’ll have to help Julia navigate the same bully road. I won’t tell her how some kids come from homes where their parents fight, homes where the remote control or shoes or drinking glasses or stainless-steel pots, became projectile weapons. That living day-to-day in that kind of environment makes some kids think fighting and bulling is a part of their social currency.
I won’t tell Julia that childhood can be a cruelest season. One day you are in. And the next day you’re in the shitter, and you have no idea why. That some kids you can talk to. Reason with. And that there are kids that only stop when you’re rolling around in the dirt with fists clenched onto one other. That even when adults step in and arbitrate, I will tell Julia that a day will come in a school lavatory, a locker room, an empty classroom where there no adult will be present. And then she will have to fight. I will tell Julia that some kids, like Rochelle Perry are just mean. And that she has a right to self-protect.
In a funny sort of way, my nemesis provided me with a great lesson. A year and a half later, in middle school, when another bully targeted me in a Lord of the Flies scenario, I was ready. Rather than standing alone, I told my equally non-threatening friends, Dinah and Carolyn about the situation. At the final bell, just beyond the front doors of McMichael Junior High, my friends stood with me.
“You thought I was serious,” the bully said, a tall brown skinned girl with harsh- marked cheeks, souvenir scratches from previous bouts.
“So you don’t want to fight?” I asked as the entier population of the school encircled us creating a fleshy amphitheater. But I still demanded clarity. I’d seen plenty of kids, who thought all was forgiven, that everything was cool, only to have the bully beat down start midway down the long driveway which led to the Boulevard. Crowds of kids gathered to watch the battles, blocking possible help from adults who had arrived on foot and or in cars to pick up their offspring. That cement drive was like the DMZ between East and West Germany. Rather than bullets and bobbled wire, I saw many a kid taken out by the feet and fists on the cold, grey cement. At the age of thirteen, battle-tested, I knew enough to stand my ground and duke it out in front the school.
True to her word, the bully kept walking down the cement drive. Clusters of kids followed, looking around in disbelief, in disappointment. My girlfriends and I hung back, standing in the warmth of the sun, I, for one, waited for my adrenalin levels to normalize. Standing in the light, I studied the bully and her two henchmen-gal pals chit-chatting amongst themselves, growing smaller and smaller with each step, their bookbags bouncing against their arched backs, undoubtedly—I believed that day, as I do today— working to determine who would be their next target.