Thursday, May 5, 2011

Sticks and Stones

When I was a little girl, I lived on a farm in east central Illinois. The grade school I attended was in a tiny little town called Seymour. The red brick two story building contained an office, four classrooms with two grades in each room, a cafeteria, and a gym. One teacher taught two grades, alternating with one group while the other group studied. The school's kindly principal, Mr. Shelton, taught seventh and eighth grade and coached the basketball team.

Only boys were allowed to play on the basketball team.

I was the first kid on the school bus in the morning and the last off at night, an hour ride each way. The ride was roughest in the wintertime, and sometimes the walk through the snowdrifts from the corner to my house, about 1/8 of a mile, was pretty rough for a little kid.

The school had a cafeteria that served hot meals, provided we didn't forget our lunch money. The best meal they served was deep-fried fish and French fries on Fridays. The worst was a ham salad and corn fritter combination I just couldn't stomach.

When I graduated from the eighth grade in 1956, our class, as far as I can remember, included only three girls and four boys.

Sounds sweet and old-fashioned and safe, doesn't it? Read on.

Most of the students were farm kids, but there were also a few from the town. The town kids I remember were girls, and most of them were meaner than junk-yard dogs.

My friends and I were knocked around a few times and threatened often. We complained to teachers a couple of times, and we were all called in to "clear the air." But it never stopped for long. When the bully girls were on the rampage, we shadowed the teachers to stay safe. And when we went to the restroom or the girls' locker room, we stayed together, hoping to find safety in numbers. We weren't total wimps. We stood up to the girls from time to time...and promptly got slapped or slammed against the lockers.

To add one more cliche to those I've already used, what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. At least, it used to. The bully girls didn't kill us, and they didn't destroy our lives. Did it help that we farm kids were already physically and mentally strong? That our parents and teachers didn't coddle us? That we were expected to be tough and solve our own problems?

I don't know the answer to that. I wish I did.


Grammy said...

Good gracious, my friend! What a tough time you must have had. We moved from the city to the country when I was a freshman in high school and my younger brother was in the sixth grade. We had to deal with a bully neighbor, and my brother, John, got into a few fights with him, but they became friends later that year. My mom had to make a trip to the school to deal with the problem, and it was soon settled. The country school that I began primer was a two-room (one large room divided with a section divider) and we had eight grades in those two sections. I guess the difference in your school and mine were that everyone lived in the country. Thanks for sharing that story. Ruby

Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - Bullying is such a horrible problem. It's good to be reminded that it isn't a new thing at all. I don't know the complete answer to bullying, either, but I am certain that it takes a concerted effort to stop it. It's just heartbreaking...

welcome to my world of poetry said...

Bullying is a form a insecurity I suppose but surely a child should be taught by it's parents before schoolage that bullying is wrong.
It's awful to see or hear about a child being bullied, in some cases it has led to the bullied child committing suicide which is most disturbing,

Have a good day Patricia

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Even back then?! Wow, you went to a tough school. Filled with mean girls. I think I've would've been scared...

Dean K Miller said...

A most difficult situation that persists today. And it's apparent that the bullied kids don't just "get over it." It can, and does, last a lifetime.

Until we are able to love, and forgive ourselves, we often act out upon others in our unacknowledged discontent.

Love of self is not selfish love. It is love that extends ourself to others.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Ruby, I remember grade school, all eight years of it, as a pretty good experience (if you don't count the bully girls and the sting of that rubber ball during dodgeball games, etc.) We grew up during a good time, I think. We were dollar poor but experience rich. Not enough kids get to grow up on farms these days.

Margot, not only is bullying as old as dirt, but it also occurs in the academic world, in business, and in our adult neighborhood and organization lives. Bullies can do a lot of damage.

Yvonne, I agree. But I don't remember kids killing themselves as a result of bullying when I was a kid. Maybe it has something to do with the way kids can be attacked today through social media which reaches so many more people. I think that might be a lot more destructive than getting punched in the mouth.

Alex -- yeah, you would have been. Those girls were older and bigger, and they intimidated everyone. They were like a gang.

Dean -- I wonder about those bully girls and what had gone wrong in their lives. For all I know, they were abused kids. I wonder how they turned out. I wonder if they even remember being mean. Or if they have regrets. Might make an interesting book or article...

Anonymous said...

I was also bullied terribly at school and it had a lasting effect on my life. I blogged about it recently
I find it interesting that so many creative people seems to have been bullied in childhood. Is this a factor in what made us creative?
Sorry you had to go through it too.

Cara Lopez Lee said...

During 2nd and 3rd grade, I never, ever went into the girls bathroom at all during the day, because that's where the school bullies lay in wait to beat up the younger kids. By the time I got home each day, my bladder was nearly bursting, and I often danced around the driveway a few times before I could make it through the door without peeing my pants. As a multi-racial, working class brainiac from a broken family, I think I had an invisible kick-me birthmark on my forehead through middle school, high school, and even college. As a journalist, TV producer, and freelance writer, I've been bullied many times - with everything from lies and slander, to threats to my employment, to threats of violence. Before I married, I had several verbally abusive and one physically abusive relationship.

Those kids who are still bullying by middle school often don't change much when they grow up. There are plenty of dysfunctional adults who try to build themselves up by tearing others down. I've mostly learned to avoid them, but when I see others being victimized it makes me incredibly angry. Sometimes I still have a hard time figuring out whether to confront, ignore, or throw the bully a cookie to distract her, or him.

John Paul McKinney said...

Pat, This is a very important post. When our kids were growing up (and when I was) I didn't see much bullying of this physical sort among the girls. Usually it was "relational" - i.e., teasing, making fun of someone, excluding them. But that sort was equally destructive, and, frankly, I've even seen it among adults. It's toxic, so I stay away. Calling it for what is is sometimes helps, but as one of the commenters noted, it's about insecurity, so confrontation isn't terribly effective. I'd say "Yes" to your question about your parents and teachers. But I'll bet they also let you know of their love and support in a variety of ways.
One of my picture books is about an overweight girl (Patty PepPeroni) who is either ignored or laughed at, until her classmates discover an important fact about Patty. I've GOT to get that book published. I read 3 stories to 1st graders this AM. That was their favorite, as it usually is. Thanks for the great post.

Diane Cheatwood said...

Parents, teachers, neighbors, supervisors, and co-workers need to stand up to bullies and insist on behavioral change . . . not just words. Because they deliberately and persistently use intimidation to get their way, we need to stand up to them until they learn a new behavior. And we can't give up until they re-learn their behavior.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Nettie, I'll check out your post. Thanks for coming by and weighing in. I too often wonder if these extra challenges don't push some of us toward the creative life, and if that's what makes many of us natural introverts.

Cara, you must have spent your childhood mighty uncomfortable. I feel for the tiny you who didn't dare go to the bathroom all day. And you're right about the adults -- I met many of them in my working years, but by then I'd learned to stand up and defend myself. Even road rage is a form of bullying, one of the scariest because those bullies are really dangerous.

Hi John. Patty PepPeroni sounds like a winner. I hope you find a publisher for it real soon. And bless you for reading stories like that to the little ones. That's an age when they might really take the lesson to heart.

Diane, what a nice surprise to see you here. Thanks for joining in the discussion. I always have the impression that teachers have their hands tied in so many ways that it's hard for them to stand up to bullies or give them any kind of negative feedback. If the parents won't support the teacher, and always have their kids' backs even when the kids are rotten to the core, it's pretty tough to deal with. And that makes it hard for the bully's victim to defend himself too.

Edna said...

I have nothing new to add to a timely, if depressing topic except to say that I believe broken bones heal more quickly and completely that words and actions that are deliberately hurtful. My son was the victim of vicious bullying when he changed schools, but he did not tell until many years later. As a teacher, my classroom was a bully free environment, at least I think it was. As part of the beginning of the year routines, I included lessons about bullies, the bullied, and the bystanders. We identified it when we saw it in history, in current events, and in our own lives. I do believe it helped kids to have the language.
As a principal, I adopted a zero tolerance for bullies and taught the same lessons to the whole school. One time I even called the police on a repeat, repeat, repeat offender. It was the only time, despite repeated requests for a parent conference that I met the boy's mom and dad. Not only was their home not a bully free zone, but the officer and I both believed after our meeting that everything this boy learned had been modeled and practiced at home with him as the bullied, dad as the bully, and mom as the bystander.
We must refuse to tolerate it, fight it with words and education. We should also remember how Martin Luther King led a whole movement against a society that accepted, tolerated, encouraged, and even propagated bullying. He said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We must never stand by and only point it out. We must be willing to stand up and be counted. Edmund Burke said. "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Make no mistake. Bullying is evil.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Well said, Edna. And what a sad case you describe of a bully who learned his behavior as a victim in his own home. That adds one more layer to the tragedy.

Duncan D. Horne said...

In the long run I'm sure experiences like those make us stronger, even though we hate it at the time!

Duncan In Kuantan

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your well-writen story, Pat. Reminded me of my year in kindergarten. I didn't live in a farm town (my cousins I visited often did). I lived in Salt Lake City. But when I was in kindergarten, in 1945, I was very tiny for my age (still am) and when I walked home from school mid-day, just a few blocks, I remember several boys bullying/teasing me. I told Mama. She told the teacher. The teacher let me leave school, then, a bit earlier so the boys wouldn't be there.

Ah yes. We do learn survival skills, I think, from such experiences. You should dramatize these "ancient" experiences (my Jen calls me ancient); we're historical now!
Ann Best, Memoir Author