Peace for the Bullied
Susan Gingras Fitzell, M. Ed.
“Hey you, fag with the white sox, come over here!” She commanded in her mocking, derisive tone. I crossed the street to meet her face to face, knowing in my core that I couldn’t defend myself from this group, but determined not to look afraid. Surrounded by a group of girls, I stood alone, facing one larger and tougher than me. “Who do you think you are walking down MY street looking like that?” Next, I felt a sharp, staggering blow to my face and the lingering sting that followed. I knew I was outnumbered, but my anger flared and I did the only thing I knew to defend myself. I was in danger and I knew it, but I feared appearing scared and weak So, I shouted an insulting explicative at her, “F---- Y--.
“What you saying to me?” She started to come closer when a shout from behind her caused her to freeze. “Leave her alone or you’ll have to deal with ME!” warned my friend’s brother. The girl gang leader backed off. “Come on, I’ll walk you home.” He said. “Thank you,” I offered, my voice betraying my fear.
Later that week, in my 8th grade classroom, I found a bone neatly wrapped in tin foil on my desk. My heart sank instantly knowing what it meant. I looked up questioningly. Who? Steven was smirking at me from the center of the room surrounded by his friends. “Dog! I thought you’d like a bone for breakfast.” He and his friends broke out in laughter. Their continual taunting and teasing left me feeling ugly, fearful, and worthless. “Steven, stop it now!” yelled the teacher. She looked at me and chastised, “If you ignored him, he wouldn’t act that way. I think you two like each other. Huh, you’ll probably get married someday!” I despised her. I swore to myself that some day I would be a teacher. I would persist in my efforts to be whole, to achieve whatever was necessary to make the world better so other kids didn’t go through what I was going through. I would be different kind of teacher than this woman who did nothing to help me.
That year, I never knew when I would find a dog bone on my desk or a tack on my seat waiting for me to sit, jump up, and yelp for all the class’ amusement. The five block walk home was often a race to avoid being spit on. I hurt deeply, blaming myself for not knowing how to handle the taunting and teasing, for being faulty and inadequate. Why would I think any differently when even the teacher blamed me? I hid in doorways. I tried to be invisible. To survive, I depended on my own group of friends for safe refuge. Yet, through all this, something deep inside me refused to give up.
Thirty years later, I can still get in touch with the anger, fear and humiliation that I felt during that time in my life. Shame still flushes through me when I recount these stories in my efforts to help teachers and their students understand what it’s like to be a victim of verbal violence. It has become my mission in life to help others to avoid the pain of victimization. I never intended to do this work. It seemed to find me. Only after I started working to help kids stick up for themselves and resolve conflict peacefully, did I start to come to terms with my own painful history.
It was in the early nineties, that I found myself an observer
in classrooms in a way that many teachers cannot be. I was co-teaching and
often, because I was not the one up front lecturing, I was in the background,
observing. I realized that so many kids swear, taunt, yell, and lash out
because of a basic need to defend themselves. Fear of being victimized prompted
them to lash out or run out.
Jen stomped out of the room cursing, “Teachers suck! This class is stupid!” She squinted her eyes and directed her anger towards another student, “You, watch out!”
I followed her out of the room and sat with her in a quiet space until she calmed down. “Jen, what do you want?” “I want them to stop picking on me. It’s like, I’m the only one the teacher ever yells at and she never says anything to her!” referring to the girl Jen threatened as she walked out of the room. “People aren’t going to get away with talking trash about me.” “So, you’re trying to stick up for yourself?” “Yeah!” She answered emphatically. “What if there was a way to stick up for yourself without getting yourself in trouble? Are you interested?” “Yeah, maybe. My life stinks the way it’s going now.” I persisted in my efforts to find ways to help Jen and others like her. I found many.
“A boy in my class teases me at recess. He calls me “stache” because he said I had a mustache. Now all the boys are calling me that. I don’t know what to do.” Karen’s big brown eyes stared up at me looking for an answer. Her distress was evident. All I wanted to do was take her in my arms and make it better. “What do you do when he calls you stache?” “I tell him to stop, but he keeps doing it.” “Have you told your parents that this is happening? Have you told anyone?” She lowered her eyes, and quietly answered, “No.” “Would you like to take the problem to the group?” She was in a safe place, a place where kids come together every week to learn martial arts and conflict resolution. “Yes” she answered. She shared the problem with the group and her peers offered suggestions. She decided to tell her mom about the problem and talk to a counselor at school. She also decided to write a letter to the harasser if her parents and counselor would support her through the process. I explained to Karen and her parents that a the letter should include facts about the bullying, how it made her feel, what damage the bullying did to her and what she wanted to have happen next.i She left my class and I prayed that she’d find a solution that kept her safe yet stopped the harassment.
The next week Karen showed up for my class beaming. “I did it! I wrote the letter and it stopped! He’s not calling me stache anymore.” I felt her relief and we moved on. The hardest part for me is letting go of the pain that re-emerges every time I see a child who has been victimized. I feel that emotion, knowing that violence is not the solution.
Peace begins deep within our soul. It means observing our self-talk, reflecting on our prejudices, having the courage to change and persisting in our efforts to make that change. I look at the world and wonder if we will see a time where youth are not beaten because of their clothes, excluded because they don’t fit the current rules of the popular culture, singled out and tormented because they are simply different. Then, I’m reminded that there is hope for our children. We see hope through the kindness shown in classrooms where teachers build caring peaceful communities. We see hope in the faces of teachers who see the academic and social value of peaceful classrooms. I see it in the faces of principals who go the extra mile to support their teachers in the process. And, most joyfully, we see it in the faces of children who feel safe in their classrooms.
Susan Fitzell is a nationally recognized speaker and
author of several educational resource books. She has over two decades of
experience teaching youth with special needs, students with behavioral and
anger management issues and students who experience bullying. Susan's company,
AIMHI Educational Programs, focuses on building caring school communities.
Its website is www.aimhieducational.com.