A few months ago, I received a message from a former student. I was his sophomore English teacher, and he is now in his early twenties. It was so wonderful to hear from him and to learn about where life has taken him. Even more touching though was to learn that he still thinks about that English class and me.
It isn’t his love of literature that he holds dear: he is an electrical engineer now. It isn’t any assignment or activity that we did that stands out, or my amazing sense of comedic timing that has stuck with him. Instead, he was writing to say thank you for showing him how to stand up to the bullies that shared our classroom.
Let’s call him Brandon.
Brandon’s struggle with bullying is far too common and is probably happening in a classroom somewhere right now. But what makes his story a positive one is that as his teacher, I was going to use any and every means available to me to help stop the bullying he was enduring on a daily basis.
I remember the day I pulled one of the bullies into the hall outside our classroom and explained to him very clearly and very calmly that my job was no longer to teach him English but instead to protect the rest of the class, mainly Brandon, from his awful behavior. I wanted this kid to know that I saw him and saw what he was doing, and I wasn’t going to allow it to go unnoticed any longer.
That day after school, I called both the bully’s mom and Brandon’s mom. I wanted both families to be aware of what was happening, and I wanted both families to know that I was on top of it. I wanted to be sure that we were all communicating and working together to help both boys and move forward in a positive manner.
And I wanted Brandon’s mom to know that I was an ally for him inside that classroom, and that she wasn’t sending a lamb to the slaughter every day when he went to school.
Both mothers were extremely receptive and grateful for the call. Both spoke with their sons and followed up with me during the next days and weeks over email.
It was amazing to me how fast the behavior changed. The bully felt exposed and weaponless, while at the same time Brandon felt strengthened and supported. Together that made for a much better dynamic for everyone in the room.
Brandon’s letter was to thank me for standing up for him and showing him how to stand up for himself. He had never had the courage or confidence before, but knowing that someone was behind him and fighting with him gave him the boost he needed to shut down the bullies in his life. And even all these years later, he felt strongly enough to seek me out and write me a letter.
It was one of the best letters I have ever received.
In my own life recently, I have heard stories of grade school bullying and incidents with specific kids from several different moms. When I asked all of them during those conversations if they had called the parents of the other kid, the answer was resoundingly No. In fact, most were taken aback that I would even suggest picking up the phone and calling another parent to “tattle” on her child. Most of the women felt that the other mom wouldn’t be receptive or willing to do anything to help the situation. Or they felt that the kids needed to work it out themselves.
Well, I guess this is my way of telling all the parents at my kids’ schools that I will always make that call.
I will make that call because kids are kids, and kids do stupid shit. And as a parent, I want to know when my kid has done something stupid that affected someone else. I want to be given the opportunity to talk to my child and make sure that she understands how her actions and words have the ability to hurt others in ways she may never see or understand.
I will make that call because just like Brandon, I want to teach my kids how to stand up for themselves by showing them how to do it. As an English teacher, I taught my students to “Show Don’t Tell:” describe something in such vivid detail that I can see the beauty of it in my mind rather than just telling me it was beautiful. The same holds true for life. It is more impactful to show my kids how to do something rather than to tell them. And if they see me calmly and productively talking through an issue with someone, hopefully the next time they need to, they will do the same.
I will make that call because I want my kids to know that I am in their corner fighting with them. That also means that sometimes I will need to step out in front and take a few punches until they are ready. It is hard to stand up to someone who is saying or doing mean things to you. There is fear of making the situation worse or that no one will believe you or understand how much you are hurting, and that fear can push a person to do nothing which allows the cycle of bullying to continue.
I have been bullied and I have been the bully. And I will make that call time and time again in the hopes of preventing my child from being either. And regardless of everything else, the only justification I need is Brandon.
Cheers! – Emily