In Defense of the School Bully
If you have kids you may know Mary. Your preschool age daughter came home crying because she got bitten, or kicked. Maybe she was screamed at or at recess Mary struck her in the face. You get a call that your 5 year old son isn’t seriously injured, but you should know today a girl flew into a rage and throttled your son. The student involved will (of course) be dealt with but you think to yourself “how?!” This isn’t the first time Mary has done this and every parent in the class knows Mary will be there again tomorrow. It beggars belief, but not only is Mary there the next day…she does it again. She tries to choke your son again. Nobody is dealing with this. How do we have the teacher, the para, the principal and half the parents in the class complaining AND NOBODY IS DEALING WITH THIS?
You wonder what in God’s name the parents are doing. Or not doing. It’s practically impossible to run out of theories: dad is abusive, mom is helpless, Mary is severely mentally ill, Mary might be the victim of molestation, they’re too strict, not strict enough, her pediatrician is clearly incompetent and on and on and on. Mary must be in distress and no one is helping her, is she neglected, do older kids beat her up? Can they afford a child psychologist? Finally, what in the hell do you tell your own kids? Stand up for yourself (yes, but how and what does that mean?), we all face bullies in life (but when you’re old enough to deal with it?), turn the other cheek (and get throttled?), all kids go through bad phases (like this?), she’s sick and needs help so run to an adult, run away, hit her back harder WHAT WHAT WHAT WHAT WHAT IS THE ANSWER?
Every Mary is different. Please let me tell you about my Mary. I’ve known her since she was born. I fed Mary her first bottle after tying her exhausted, breastfeeding mother down and insisting she take a nap or I would taser her. Mary has a toy zebra I gave her that she gets out when I come to visit. Her fashion sense is miraculous, she puts on 9 random items of clothing in no particular order and looks like an ad for a children’s boutique in Manhattan. She is small for her age but strong. She had a serious speech delay because she required a procedure to fix something with her ears. When you can’t hear what’s being said, how can you repeat it? She loves singing and will dance to the movie Annie using a broom as a prop. Mary will do anything for the chance to play with makeup brushes or splash in water. Mary understands she had a baby brother but he died when she was 4. She remembers him. I remember the pain of her whole family, everyone understanding what it meant to them but nobody understanding how much a 4 year old truly gets about the baby who came to the house but then went away forever.
Mary is very careful with my tummy because she knows it has bad ouchies. She delights in bringing me my cane. She has also purposefully hurt me. She once slammed my hand with a hair dryer and after I told her it hurt she looked me right in the eye and did it harder. Mary has physically hurt other children I know and it hurt to hear the other child say he doesn’t want to be friends with a bad girl.
She has been moved to her new “big girl” school, because the local public school couldn’t handle her outbursts even after an IEP had been established. I sent her stickers to congratulate her on going to the new Big Girl school. In addition to the specialized school she has two therapists, an army of devoted family friends, a nanny she adores and two parents who know exactly what the other parents think. What they say. What they would say, if the tables were turned and Mary had been the victim, not the bully.
Do you know what it’s like to be Mary’s parents? I have seen Tina freeze and go pale because the school’s caller ID appeared on her ringing cellphone. Heard the panic and defeat in her voice when she learns Mary is no longer allowed in this school, this day camp, that dance class. She wonders how she could have been so (anything) to have made a daughter that behaves like this. Was it the speech delay? Was it her brother’s death? Would every other mother have noticed The Thing that predicted violent outbursts? I’ve watched her dad painstakingly reinforce every gentle touch, every kind word, constantly trying to give her positive attention for following rules. Mary gets stars, stickers, dessert, special bath toys, anything he can devise to find the way to get Mary to realize that good behavior will be celebrated.
I think most of us know Marys aren’t inherently bad kids, if there are such a thing. The thing is, some Marys come from great homes that have endured horrible misfortunes. How can you guess your child isn’t communicating well with others because she can’t hear? She looks like she can hear. She responds to every sound. She simply hears it differently than you do. How can anybody possibly know what death means to a four year old? Think about how much it tears us apart from the inside, the howling scream of pain that some people never fully let out. Be honest: if you could, wouldn’t you like to scream, bite, kick and punch your way out of the worst pain of your life? I sure as hell would. There are a hundred horrible things that adults can barely survive that children absorb in subtle, unpredictable ways.
Your child will meet a Mary. Nobody is suggesting your child must be put up with abuse or threatening behavior. When you have a second, think about the hurricane that must be happening inside the other child’s mind, body and soul. Think about the hours her parents may have spent praying to God, Allah, Dr. Spock, anybody that would soothe the hurricane inside her. In Mary’s quietest, most secure moments she is loving, gentle, funny and kind. Imagine how she might feel that your child doesn’t know that. The Something About Mary is part of her. I hope you get to meet the rest of her. She’s especially poignant singing It’s a Hard Knock Life.