Thursday, February 23, 2017

Bullies and their victims

When you were a kid, did someone bully you? Or did you see someone bullying another child?

Or were you the bully?

Bullying is more than a childhood problem. Adults bully adults, too. Have you been victimized by an adult bully? Have you witnessed someone bullying another adult?

Or are you the adult bully?

Bullying is a form of abuse!

I applaud those who, in recent years, have set up school campaigns against bullying. It was long overdue. God bless every person who has stepped forward to prevent bullying!—and those who try to bring healing to innocent victims of bullying!

What stories can you write
to teach your kids, grandkids, great-grands,
and other readers about bullying?

Writing about bullying can be difficult.

It took me more than half a century
to write a story, below,
about bullying I witnessed in sixth grade.

Don’t let the pain involved
keep you from writing your stories!

Shine light on the darkness of bullying.
Just think of the dear innocent ones
who could benefit from your story.

At the bottom of this post,
you’ll find links
to help you write about bullying.
If you were the victim of bullying,
don’t miss

So, here’s my story. Let me know if you spot typos or have suggestions to make it better. Thanks!

I thought highly of Mrs. C, my sixth grade teacher. I admired everything about Mrs. C, even her fingernails—so much so that I filed my nails into sharp points just like hers. She ran a tight classroom but I always followed her rules and the two of us got along fine.

     I still remember the day Mrs. C patched together my dignity at a time my parents were struggling financially. My shoe’s sole had torn apart from the leather upper and it flapped every time I took a step. Sensing my humiliation, Mrs. C whispered, “Let me slip this rubber band around your shoe to hold it together.”
     Until age eleven, I viewed teachers, especially Mrs. C, as saintly, set-apart beings, more honorable than average people. I knew the rest of us would do well to revere and model our lives after them.
     But in the latter half of sixth grade, when Tom Durr joined our class, he showed me what a saintly, set-apart being looks like, for he was more honorable than the average person, and the rest of us would do well to revere and model our lives after Tom rather than our teacher.
     Tall and slender, Tom had moved from Texas, or so I remember, and unlike the rest of us suburban Seattleites, he wore dark blue jeans and a jean jacket every day, pressed and perfectly clean.
     When Tom joined our class, I witnessed a different side of Mrs. C.
     At first I misunderstood what was happening. I thought Mrs. C was treating Tom the same way she treated all students who misbehaved. For example, if, Mrs. C was teaching a lesson about the Gettysburg Address and noticed Mike pulling Diane’s braid, Mrs. C would stiffen and shout a question Mike probably couldn’t answer, like, “Mike! What year did Abraham Lincoln give The Gettysburg Address?” More likely than not, Mike didn’t know the answer because he had been preoccupied with his naughtiness and had missed what Mrs. C had just told the class. The threat of public humiliation resulted in Mrs. C’s hoped-for outcome: Rarely did anyone misbehave.
     The first few times our teacher narrowed her eyes and spit out such a question at Tom, I assumed she had spied him misbehaving. As the days passed, however, I noticed that unlike the other students, Tom knew the answers to her questions.
     “Tom! What is 12 times 12?”

     “The answer is 144, Ma’am.”

     When that happened, Mrs. C acted surprised, and then angry, and then she sneered, swiveled in a huff, and changed the subject.

     I started paying closer attention to Mrs. C’s outbursts and I discovered, consistently, that Tom had not been misbehaving. Nevertheless, with regularity our teacher spewed out tough questions trying to stump Tom.

     She never did.

     But why did she treat Tom that way? Why did she target him in a way she did not target other students?

     My young heart puzzled over the hatred she displayed in public.

     Did she hate him because he didn’t wear the same kinds of clothes we did?

     Did she despise him because he came from Texas? And if so, what was so bad about Texas?

     Day after day I fretted, but then I figured it out. Tom had a birth defect: a cleft lip. Back then people called it a harelip because it resembled the cleft, or split, in a hare’s lip—a rabbit’s lip.

     I started to see, through my young girl’s eyes, that Mrs. C loathed Tom because his face looked different from her other students’ faces.

     She humiliated him in public because his face looked different from her other students’ faces.

     She inflicted emotional pain upon him because his face looked different from her other students’ faces.

     And here is what gets to me—really gets to me—still, half a century later: Tom responded to Mrs. C’s taunts with politeness and evenness, and he always addressed her as “Ma’am.”

     I tried to put myself in Tom’s place, treated so cruelly because of his birth defect. Surely he was a tortured soul.

     And he was only a sixth grader.

     I wondered how I would act toward Mrs. C if she treated me that way. Would I strike back? Would I cry in humiliation and frustration? Yes, I know I would have.

     Then it occurred to me that Tom must have hated going to school every morning. I began to recognize that Tom, all day, five days a week, faced public abuse that would defeat the average person, yet he just kept doing what was right.

     How did Tom do it? How did he keep coming to school day after day? How did he always reply politely to Mrs. C?

     With that, I began to marvel at Tom’s composure, his strength of character. Without an ounce of arrogance, he held his head high.

     And then one morning, a few weeks after Tom joined our class, he didn’t come to school.

     Someone asked Mrs. C where he was. Through tight lips she hissed, “He moved away,” and changed the subject.

     I never saw Tom Durr again or heard anything about him, but I have always remembered him and the lessons he taught me during those few weeks. The questions I had back then have only multiplied over the decades.

     Had our teacher’s cruelty given my classmates the idea that they, too, should treat Tom with scorn? Had Mrs. C’s humiliation carried over to the playground? In those days, we girls played only with girls so now, years later, I wonder: Did the boys exclude him? Humiliate him?

     And what did Mrs. C hope her public scorn of Tom would make him do? I understand how humiliation in a classroom setting could motivate students to change behavior, but Tom could not change his face. He could not remove his harelip. So what did she expect Tom to do? What did she hope to accomplish by heaping contempt upon him? All these years later, I remain appalled at her hateful, barbaric behavior.

     Did Tom beg his parents to let him stay home? If I had been in Tom’s place, I would have fallen apart in sobbing and tears, and I would have begged my mother not to make me go to school. I’m certain he didn’t want to go to school each morning, knowing he’d face another day of disdain.

     But where did he get the courage to do go anyway?

     Where did Tom’s will power come from?

     Did anything or anyone give Tom hope?

     Did Tom have parents that encouraged him? Did his family value him for who he was and not what he looked like? Were his parents good listeners? Did he feel safe talking with him at night about the harsh treatment he received? Did his parents help him gain perspective and courage for the next day? Did they tell him to hang on, moment by moment, because his persistence would pay off?

     Did his parents pray with him before he left for school and pray for him throughout the day?

     Were Tom’s parents the reason he could say “Yes, Ma’am” and never reply with anger or impatience? Did they encourage him to stand tall?

     Oh, I hope the answers are Yes! I hope so much that he had loving, supportive parents! I can’t bear to think that Tom faced the cruelty of Mrs. C, and perhaps that of his fellow students, without strong, loving, involved parents!

     But maybe Tom’s parents didn’t sense Tom’s pain, or maybe they didn’t care. Or maybe he lived with grandparents, or with foster parents.

     Perhaps Tom didn’t have involved, protective, proactive adults in his life.

     If that was the case, then, all on his own, Tom possessed a rare, humble nobility of spirit that enabled him to value himself for who he was and reject the vile contempt heaped upon him. That must have been the hardest thing he’d ever done—many a time he must have wanted to give up—but somehow he mustered the conviction to cast aside Mrs. C’s voice and every other voice that tried to demonize him.

     From somewhere deep inside, that eleven-year-old boy chose to reply with dignity, remain composed, and speak with patience. Tom must have defied his own fragility and, instead, hoped for a better future. But how did he protect his heart?

     Did he know Eleanor Roosevelt’s words? “Nobody can make you feel inferior” she said, “without your permission.” Did Tom understand and embrace that message? Or, all on his own, did he just sense it within himself?

     Did he know he was made in God’s image and thoroughly loveable? And of great value?

     For more than half a century, I’ve wondered if Tom recognized his goodness. And his strengths. Did he know he was a significant role model for our classmates—if only we’d watch and ponder?

     For 54 years, I’ve wondered how life treated him: Did someone ever befriend Tom? Did anyone accept him into their circles?

     Did Tom’s suffering make him into a better man? Did his hardship inspire him to reach out to other lonely, excluded people?

     Or did Tom finally give up? Did hateful people wear him down and break him? Did he give up trying to fit in? Did he give in to self-loathing? I don’t suppose any of us could blame Tom if he grew weary of the battle and became bitter and angry. But, oh! I hope he didn’t! I hope he didn’t!

     I wish I could tell Tom that his actions and attitudes were not futile, they were not wasted. I wish I could tell him I’d been watching. I learned from him. He showed me how to overcome, minute by minute.

     The book of James in the New Testament points to people like Tom: Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.… The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness. (James 3:13, 17-18)

     Tom was born with a physical birth defect, but he was in no way inferior. Indeed, he was more honorable than the average person, and the rest of us would do well to revere and model our lives after him.

     He was a humble young man of distinction, and I am a better person for having known him.

     I wish I could find Tom Durr and tell him he has always been one of my heroes.

Copyright © 2017 by Linda K. Thomas

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  1. A powerful piece Linda. You remind me of Alan Grant, an odd duck in elementary school. Actually he was an odd duck all along, through high school. He was tall and average in build, and he had a wonderful smile. But his ears stuck out and somehow he didn't look quite ordinary. Something about him was different. He was shunned and mocked on the playground. He took to throwing rocks at those who taunted him, which only made things worse and got him in trouble with the teachers. I felt sorry for him, but I had my own battles to fight and standing up for him would have done nothing but make my own life as miserable as his. I knew that then, and still believe it today.

    After grade school I had no classes with him, and he faded from my awareness. I learned a few years go that Alan committed suicide. I'm deeply saddened when I think of that. Especially when the one girl in class who could have made a difference stood by and watched. I'm sure she was saddened, but opinion leader that she seemed to be, she lacked the courage to do a thing. I've always wondered what she thought as she stood by and watched others being bullied. What does she think today if she remembers?

    Sad, sad.

    1. Oh, Sharon, my heart is breaking to learn about Alan. That's all the more reason for me, and perhaps others who read this post, to do something--even if it means only writing stories to prevent bullying. Thanks for your words, Sharon. I'm always happy to hear from you.