Thursday, October 6, 2011

It Gets Better

For three years now, my son has been bullied. I was in denial three years ago; blindly hoping that it would pass last year; and this year, so afraid for my son that I have finally acted. 

This isn't the overt physical bullying of lore. Instead it's the subtle, pervasive kind. Name calling, exclusion, manipulation, targeting, finger pointing. He's been so sad and lonely he's talked of desperate measures. I am terrified for him. I thought, I hoped, it would pass. And, I am ashamed to admit, I secretly blamed my little boy.

He's odd. Weird. Impulsive. He picks his nose. He's THAT kid. He's also funny and curious and insightful and compassionate. But those qualities aren't what make friends in the school yard. So I have strained to mold him into something more, well, normal. I have criticized and cajoled and punished. It hasn't worked, because that's not who he is. But in doing so I fear that I -- as much as any bullies -- have hurt him beyond repair. There is no way for me to adequately apologize to this sweet, soulful being who has brought me such joy.

We're trying to fix it. We got him into therapy. I've been reading books on how to help him relate better to people. Most importantly, last week I finally talked to his teacher and the school administration. They were fabulous, immediately coming up with positive strategies and implementing them within a couple days. Unbeknownst to him, faculty and staff are watching like guardian angels. The primary bully has been spoken with and seems to have backed down. And some really great children have volunteered to go out of their way to befriend my boy. I'm already hearing good things: kids are sitting with him in the lunch room. He's been invited to a birthday party. He was asked to play soccer during recess -- and he joined, even though he doesn't really like soccer. 

I am grateful and relieved and horribly, terrifically ashamed. I knew something was wrong, but I didn't act. I didn't protect my child. In fact, I personally made it worse. 

I also am afraid that he's broken for life.

There's an amazing project out there called "It Gets Better", in which people who have been bullied (usually for being gay) reach out through short videos to kids and reassure them that it gets better. That eventually the bullying ends, or the victim grows up enough to escape it, and that people can make their own, good, lives that rise above the abuse and humiliation of childhood.

I realized tonight that I don't actually believe that. When my son said "Well, that's just how it is, I have to live with it", I agreed in my heart, even when I assured him that this would pass. As I protested to my husband that intervening was a good thing, there were shadows in my mind that cackled "it won't work!" And when I imagined my boy's future, I envisioned him living with the same darkness I do.

Tonight, as I lay grinding over my worries, my thoughts were interrupted by memories, and I finally realized that maybe I was bullied, too. I was an odd kid. Precocious, smart, obnoxious, oblivious. Bad combo. I remembered 5th grade, when all the boys in my small class would hit me on the upper arm as they walked past. I couldn't wear short sleeves because of the bruises. They also ganged up and gave me snow baths every day. I switched schools the next year, and thought sixth and seventh grades were better. But looking back I see myself hiding from the taunting of my classmates, reading in corners of the library instead of playing outside. I vividly remember being brought in front of a four girl "jury" in the gym and made to answer embarrassing personal questions with the specious promise that they'd be my friends afterward. In history class, I was punished by the teacher for crying out when the boy in the desk behind me stabbed my back with sharp pencils and crushed my rib cage by shoving his desk into mine. That boy recently asked to be my facebook friend. I declined.

Eighth grade, another new school, and again it was better, but only because there was someone even stranger. I still feel shame for having teased him. It didn't help much anyway. Within a few weeks the next new kid was warned not to eat with me or else she couldn't be friends with anyone else. PE was the worst. We had to learn square dancing, which required four people. My classmates wouldn't let me be the fourth in any of four squares, even though it meant they had only three to dance. It was my birthday. 

Another time, the teacher allowed my classmates to mock me for not being able to clear the hurdles in track. I still haven't forgiven her. 

Through it all were the nicknames, the isolation, the taunting with offers of friendship laughingly retracted in the face of my desperation. I was told "you're weird", "you're ugly", "you're fat", "no one likes you". Hear something often enough, you'll come to believe. Hear it after that, you'll never hear anything else. 

I thought of suicide daily, but instead wrote bad poetry and dreadful stories. High school, and then college, were better. I built armor out of my oddities, and used my brains as a shield. I made a friend, and then another one. I read a lot. I wrote. I went away to school, and my horizons expanded. I learned that being useful could substitute for being a friend, and built a social life.

Ultimately it did get better. I have friends. I do things. I have what should be a good life. But in the past couple of weeks I've been dealing with some high-school-like politics in an organization in which I volunteer. At the same time I see what my little boy is going through. And suddenly I am swimming in an ugly steaming stew of sadness and resentment. I have to admit that I am just as lonely now as I was thirty years ago, and I don't think that will ever change. I am still the precocious, smart, obnoxious, oblivious girl I was so long ago, and although the cuts have long ago scarred over, they are still there. And I wonder -- is this my legacy for my son? Will he carry this darkness? If yes, I have failed him.