**I've edited a few words below, realizing that a sentence or two gave the mistaken impression that I was shaming all teachers or that I believe that our schools bear singular responsibility for the bullying that is so rampant in our schools. Please know I write this as a former public school teacher, parent, and currently-emplyed private tutor and student advocate. I think educators are undervalued and overworked. But I also think we need to be real about where our schools can improve.
Maybe you haven't heard the story of the little boy who was bullied for his love of My Little Ponies and his Rainbow Dash backpack. Grayson Bruce's bullies physically attacked him as a part of their bullying, making him feel unsafe at school. The school's response? Was to ban the backpack as it was a distraction and a "trigger for bullying." Basically, the school told Grayson that he was responsible for his own bullying and for the physical and emotional pain other children were intentionally causing him. Their message to Grayson and to any student in their school who may be a little different is: "Maybe you could be just a little less weird. Is that so much to ask?"
I wish I could say that this kind of mentality from school officials is an **isolated case of ignorance and unprofessionalism, but time and time again, I have witnessed students' individuality systematically discouraged under the guise of rules about maintaining a "distraction free learning environment." Just this week, I heard from a friend and fellow parent that her daughter's teacher recommended that her 4th grader seek counseling to learn how to "fit in better." You see, this child's peers have sunk to ignoring her, name-calling, and the occasional "oops, I didn't mean to place that sticker on your shoulder by hitting you."
"Jane" is ostracized in and out of class because she's a little different. She likes things other kids don't like, speaks a little loudly, often has her nose in a book, and doesn't care about keeping up with the latest clothing styles. I know this child well and see her weekly. She is brilliant—mind-blowingly brilliant. Creative, witty, and fun. While the other girls in her class are swooning over teen heartthrobs and gushing over their newest miniskirt, she loves Minecraft and computer games about animals... and it just so happens that her My Little Pony collection could probably rival Grayson's. She loves learning and pours herself into school. Or she did.
You see, her school's response to the relational aggression and outright harassment being directed at her has been one of dismissal and excuses. Her teacher insists she hasn't seen any incidents of bullying and when Jane asks for help with a specific situation, she is told that nothing can be done since it's a case of "he said, she said." When a boy harassed Jane on the bus, the bus driver told her that she was lying, and no action was taken until the mother contacted the administration. Even after the boy's mother had her son admit to the incident, no apology was issued to Jane from the school or the bus driver, and the boy suffered no consequences from the school for his behavior. It's no wonder Jane's enthusiasm for school has waned.
And I have to wonder. If Jane was more "normal," would the teacher dismiss her cries for help? If she were less introverted, would the administration tell her mother there is nothing they can do? If she were your typical "popular" kid (tall and thin with designer clothes and an impatience to grow up), would the bus driver have accused her of lying?
The truth is that struggling to fit in with your peers is a rite of passage. Kids can be downright cruel as they figure out how they fit into society and how to bend the social rules to their will. That's easy to explain and frankly, to be expected from children whose brains are quite literally still developing. The adults should know better. School should be a safe place for all students to learn and play and it is job of each teacher and administrator to ensure that safety. If Jane doesn't have any advocates, even within the school staff, how can she possibly stand a chance with the other students?
I'm angry. I'm angry for Jane and for Grayson. I know firsthand that a teacher's intervention can lift up a child who's different from "weird" to "wonderful," without asking the child to change who they are. **Many of our teachers are sensitive to their students' emotional needs. I've seen classrooms where teachers insisted on mutual respect among all the students, and where the "weird" kids were celebrated for their talents and abilities. I've participated in classes where "unique" was the compliment it should be, and where there were no misfits because everyone was a misfit. These teachers do one simple thing differently from teachers like Jane's: They place the blame for the bullying on the bully instead of the victim. Students are not expected to love or befriend everyone in the class, but teasing is not tolerated and accusations of bullying are addressed immediately and sincerely.
My friend Miranda wrote about this recently as well, with her piece Stop It With the Victim Blaming. In her piece, she reminds us that children are being destroyed by the kind of relational aggression and harassment that Jane faces at her school daily. So don't tell me that "in your day, you knew how to take an insult and just not let it bother you," that you "don't have enough time to deal with bullying," or that these kids who dare (because they are DARING) to be themselves in a world that increasingly values homogeny somehow deserve to be treated as less than human.
Fitting in? Is overrated. It's time to spread the word and stand up for the kids who are struggling.
Enough is enough.
**Obviously, the names in this post have been changed.***
Susan is an elementary teacher-turned stay-at-home-mom who has her hands in a little bit of everything. When she's not parenting or teaching piano lessons, you can find her blogging about mental health or crocheting her anxiety away. She writes at http://learned-happiness.com, pimps her wares for yarn money at http://etsy.com/shop/learnedhappiness, and tweets @learndhappiness.
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