Monday, April 21, 2008

See you after school

Any body but me get traumatic flashbacks at the sound of that phrase?

"I’ll see you after school," generally meant that someone had done something to somebody who was bigger, meaner and bold enough to try to right the perceived wrong. And, believe me, it was generally a perceived indignity. When I was in grade school, it didn’t take much more than verbally sticking up for yourself against the class enforcer to be threatened with mortal destruction at the end of the day.

I don’t know whether bullies are born or made, but I do believe that neither MySpace, YouTube nor any other internet alleyway will alter their origins or intentions. There were no digital cameras handy at Frostfield Elementary School and yet, alas, I still managed to be a sought after commodity. Being tall and skinny, talking proper and getting good grades seemed to be a good way to make enemies. Not to mention having your dad run the school PTA. Oh, yeah. Lots of fun.

So when I saw the news story last week about the teens beating up that girl (you know the one), I instantly reverted to a place of incredible empathy. I remember how I used to hate those kinds of girls. While boy bullies tended to be loners, female bullies hung in packs. But neither discriminated in their ability to scare the crap out of everybody. And even though "hate" is a word I don’t allow my kids to use. . .well, I still feel that way about how those kids made me feel.

I can recall them walking behind me on the way home and pulling my hair all the way down the sidewalk. Or running up behind me and giving me a shove to try and make me fall. Stupid stuff. Like writing "Stefanie is ugly" on the top piece of a brand new pack of notebook paper. Of course, I told the teacher, who recognized the handwriting as belonging to the one boy we all feared. Right away I wanted to take back my tattling, but it was too late.

After school, the bully found me. I was with my younger brother and trying to get us home as fast as I could. My legs couldn’t carry me fast enough and I got caught with an armful of books, little brother looking on and the end of the world banging in my head. He hit me in the nose, I felt the blood running down my face, panicked, closed my eyes and swung my fist. My books hit the ground and I grabbed my brother and ran back into the school screaming.

Well, we made it to the principal’s office. He called my father. Some adult caught the perpetrator and brought him into the office alongside me and my brother to wait for our parents. My father talked to that boy like he talked to us – and told him he better not ever touch me again.

On the way home, my father asked me if I was afraid of that boy. "Of course. Everybody is." And he told me, "Don’t you ever be afraid of anybody. For any reason."

Worked for me.

My father’s talking to also seemed to work for the bully, who grew up to be a pretty decent guy, even serving in the military, from what I’m told.

That fight changed both our lives. The bully’s actions and my father’s words have allowed me to battle life’s bigger demons without being afraid of defeat. And the simple balancing lesson of doing right by others and standing up for yourself is not lost on this mother of children who march to a slightly different beat.

What we teach our kids – and the other children in our world village – should not be based on who might see the outcome. Whether it shows up on the internet or festers as bad memories, the lack of a good talking to affects what’s produced on the inside of these future adults. So be the grown up: say it’s wrong. Say it early. Say it often.

No kid should be on either end of, "See you after school."