Tuesday Mar 11, 2008

Sharp Elbows

I was not an attractive child. It wasn't just those awkward years – I remember my entire childhood as awkward. Let's paint a picture, shall we? In my blue collar suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, filled with beautiful blond silky-haired girls (or so it seemed to me), I was a very curly-haired child with the worst-looking glasses in the world (honestly – cat-shaped in bright white. What was I thinking??), pudgy and with orthopedic shoes. Small wonder I don't have many photos of my less-than-gorgeous self from those days!

I would come home from school in tears, as my classmates kindly pointed out my flaws, just in case I wasn't aware of them myself. My mom, who rocks, by the way, gave me some great advice. “Well, honey, why don't you just explain that you're wearing those shoes because you're trying to correct a foot problem?”

Grumbling to myself about how little good that would do, I nonetheless figured I had nothing to lose. So the next time some wit commented on my granny clodhoppers, I explained why I was wearing them. To my complete shock, my tormentor blushed and mumbled, “Oh, sorry.” And that was the last I heard of that.

Oh but not to worry – there were plenty of other things to pick on, from my weight to my hair to my terminal lack of coolness. But that one little victory gave me an important boost of self-confidence, and I realized that I could defend myself with my mind -and my smart mouth - if not my charm and good looks.

While this allowed me to get through childhood relatively unscathed, it also shaped who I am today. I've been criticized – fairly, I should add – for not always assuming the best in other's intentions, and getting my back up pretty quickly. Sort of one strike and, while you're not out, I'm wary. And to this day I still have a sharper tongue than perhaps is attractive or appropriate.

A lifelong case of sharp elbows, I guess. And while they are not quite as sharp as they were when I was younger and less, uh, mellow, they can still hurt when coming in contact with someone else's ribs.

I've been thinking about this since the terrible murder of Lawrence King, and what feels like a consistent flow of school shootings. Bullying behavior has come into the spotlight as a problem needing addressing, and you know what? It's about time.

Some colleagues and I were having lunch in the cafeteria a couple weeks ago, and I mentioned two powerful books I read on the subject – Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult and We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (serious warning to parents of young children – do NOT read the Shriver book until your children are grown and out of the house...it's a devastating read). As we talked about the books, one of my lunch mates shook her head and told us how her son had been bullied to the point where they had to change schools. And how she almost ended up arrested when she verbally took on one of his tormenters in front of the boy's father - a man to whom she appealed several times in the past to speak to his son - to no avail.

Not every victim ends up traumatized for life. And very, very few end up exploding in violent behavior. But there are still those who do, taking their own lives in despair or the lives of others - or both. Or who end up being killed for being different, as did Lawrence King.

One lost life is too many. One incident is too many. One victim is too many. One trauma is too much. As parents, as teachers, as citizens, as members of the community, we must speak out. It's not OK. Children are born without knowing the rules of getting along with others, and it's our job to civilize them. Even if that child who is not behaving all that nicely is...ours.

One problem with bullying is that it's a contagious disease. It hurts the recipient who in turn may look for ways to get even or become a bully himself or herself. Another problem with it is that the best person to fight it is the victim, who often cannot defend him or herself. When parents intercede, bullying is often exacerbated, not lessened.

But it's not hopeless. Clear rules about bullying and strong enforcement of them by TIC (those in charge) make a difference. There's too much at stake not to do this.

Sharp elbows are a small price to pay for being bullied. Lost and ruined lives are costly beyond imagination.




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