A few weeks ago, Owen started coming home complaining about pain in the abdomen, and in the weeks following, he lost several days of school because he was feeling sick. We're not hard on them when they're genuinely sick, and so we picked up extra homework from his teacher, and we kept him home. Several of the days, though, he miraculously felt 'better' as soon as the bus had passed the house. So we started sending him in, explaining that he couldn't pretend he was sick any more. Since then, we've had to convince him to go to school most mornings, even though he loves school.
Soon after, we noticed subtle changes in the way the kids interacted. As all kids do, they get on each others' nerves, in each others' faces, and generally confront each other on all sorts of things. It is the way they handle these things on their own that teach them negotiation and compromise, and how to get what they want out of life. We only intervene when they can't seem to get past their frustration, or need someone as a 'higher authority'.
Last week, there was an incident that had us wondering what was going on, though. Cole and Owen had been grumping at each other, and Jenn and I were watching them, and at the end of the non-violent, quiet exchange, Owen went over to the fence and crouched against it, hiding his face. I called out to him, thinking he was perhaps hurt, and he turned to show that he was crying.
He came inside, and explained the situation to us, that Cole had forbidden him to use a toy that they were both playing with. I called Cole in, and they each explained their positions, and they hugged and were buddies again. But the incident stuck with Jenn and I.
You see, Owen is usually the first to stand up for himself, to the point where he's been in trouble for hitting (just as much as the other two, in truth), and yet this incident had us wondering what had changed so quickly that he would back down and go hide.
Then, yesterday, Owen told us that in the playground the kids play a 'game' called 'punch the freckle', in which the target kid has to hold up his shirt while the others take turns punching the "freckle". Jenn asked him to show us where the "freckle" was, and he showed us his belly button.
The crouching by the fence made perfect sense to us now. Owen, being the odd kid out, had been picked on. The game was directed at him, and perhaps others, and that is how he avoided being made fun of even more. He crouched against the fence and cried alone rather than crying in the open or going to the teacher, because those actions would bring even more ridicule and more pain. He was trying to minimise the damage.
Here's my confession. I remember how these things worked and the feelings involved, because as a child I was bullied. As silly as it sounds, even now it's hard to write for fear that someone from my past will read it and think ill of me, just for speaking out. This is the power of bullies, that they can control our actions, control our risk-assessment and our judgment of how we should act. Even now during confrontation my fight-or-flight kicks in probably a little faster and more urgently than the average non-bullied person. I have few memories from back then, but my body sure seems to remember.
Here's what I know of that time. My first year in kindergarten was great. I had friends. I had a 'girlfriend' who held hands with me (the very kind and happy daughter of the owners of the Stedman's store, where my mother worked) and I was generally a pretty happy, playful kid. My marks at first were all 'A's. About the time that my reading skills blossomed, the teacher in third grade had me teaching other kids to read. I'm not sure if this was the event that changed the way that other kids related to me, but I remember it quickly changed. About grade four I started to be relentlessly teased and pushed around. First, on the bus, and later at the school. It never seemed to end. Most kids were still good with me, but there were just a few who were attacking, and as soon as I gave the wrong reaction, not standing up to it, it got worse. Then, I seemed to have no friends.
I told my father about it, and his advice was to just wait for the right moment, and discreetly pound the kid who was doing it. He had to teach me to make a fist. I'd never made one before. There was one boy, on the bus whom I saw as the ringleader, who was a year younger than me, and over the course of weeks I got up my courage to confront him. I engineered it that I would be just ahead of him getting off the bus one day at the school. On the right day, when all the circumstances came together, and he was behind me, I stopped on the last step so he had nowhere to go. I turned, and pounded him right in the nose without warning. I don't even remember saying anything, but I remember my mother being called into the office, and his parents, and my getting in trouble. I think it was the only detention I ever got in elementary school. I remember things getting better after that for a time.
Then, a new bully picked on me. His name was Terry, and he would wait until nobody was around, and would push me to the ground, dirtying my clothes, pulling my hair, and kicking and punching me, all below the neck so there were no marks going back in to class. He would threaten me, swear at me, and tell me what he was going to do next time. I remember my marks going down, being unable to concentrate, worrying about the next moment when I'd have to run, adrenaline pumping, to make it to the door, the bus, or out of sight to avoid the next beating. Nobody did anything. I was afraid, then, to tell my father about it, for fear of being seen as a failure, for not 'fixing' it.
Bullying took away my trust in others. Being alone then bred its own loneliness, and outcast me farther. I had hoped that his graduating a year earlier than me would open everything up to my being 'normal' again, yet on the last day of school of grade six, when Terry would have to go to Norwood, and I would remain in Havelock, he caught me outside the buses, and pushed me to the ground. I can still see his face, sneering as he told me "When you get there, I'll be waiting for you."
He never did bother me again, but I carried, for almost eighteen months, the dread of going to grade 8. That dread, that constant threat over the horizon, stuck with me. By the time I hit grade eleven, I was a self-proclaimed loner. Even today I'm always looking for the next bully, and now I can spot them in a crowd, I swear. Now I have no tolerance for them. As an adult I have been pushed, insulted, threatened, and yelled at, and in each of these cases I seem to have done the right thing. In every case I did so it diffused the issue. Not because the authority behind me had a bigger stick, but because the authority made the abuse known.
I can tell you from my experience, retribution deepens the cycle. Bringing it out into the light in most cases defuses bullying. If it's minor, just calling it out in the open can stop it dead. Yet my job is to stand up for those who don't stand up for themselves, and I approach it with years of de-escalation training now.
But these are kids. I fear for the day that one of my children contemplates suicide to escape some other child who thinks it's fun. So when we found out about the game, Jennifer and I were furious. We wanted to go and play some 'punch the freckle' of our own, and not with the kids. Jenn found a quiet moment, and called the school, and they acted right away. They confirmed that this was, in fact, happening, and took the kids who were doing it aside to talk to them, and then informed their parents. They are doing everything the right way. Yet it still doesn't ease my mind.
I shudder to think what would have happened if he had not brought it up.
Ironically, just on Wednesday this week, Cole and I started back into our karate class after a long hiatus. We signed him up in the first place not because we want him to have the tools to pound the crap out of anyone, but because it gives far better tools to a child. The ability to assess danger, to build the self-confidence, and to be able to handle aggression and confrontation in a positive way. We took Owen, and he enjoyed it.
So now, if it gets so bad that Owen can't de-escalate the situation, and can't get away, then I hope he has the tools to fight his way out. Yet I am more worried about mental bullying, the type that is so prevalent in business and in life, and in our current government, the bullying of division and accusation ... this worries me so much more. As a parent I feel so powerless. We haven't even come up with a plan yet.
All I know is I feel sick to my stomach to think that my kids are going through what I went through. It all comes back as if it were happening to me, and I fully understand why he gets 'sick' each morning.