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Six weeks ago, we made a drastic decision to pull Alex from 2nd grade (see link below), and his school, half way through the school year. He came home for Christmas holidays and never returned.
The journey we’ve been on since then has been akin to a ride at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk—intermittently hair-raising, frequently sick-making, and somewhat unpredictable.
And, after more than 40 years, I never imagined I’d be going back to elementary school for some hard-earned and memorable life lessons.
In the 1960s and 70s, the curriculum in the educational system didn’t include a course on the ‘anatomy of a bully’, nor were parents invited into the school room to ‘participate’ they way they are today.
Back then, we walked to school, with our brown paper lunch sacks in our hands and our books tucked under our arms. Alone. No one was dragging a parental escort—such an occurrence would have resulted in a whispering, finger-pointing campaign and the kid’s back slapped with the label “Sissy”.
Mom and Dad were officially invited to attend only one parent-teacher conference per year. That was it—cut and dried.
As kids, we did things ‘the old fashioned way’—meaning, on our own. There was a great divide between us and the veritable island with the ivory tower that housed our teachers and parents.
If another kid was ‘picking on you’ at school, you were forced to rely on your own resources to survive and, in some extreme cases, discover your inner creative genius and use it with the steady dedication of a barber sharpening his ‘straight-edge’ on a leather strap.
In 1968, when I was 7 years-old—‘Joey Fortune’, we’ll call him—a 6th grade boy whose house marked a checkpoint between my home and the school, made me the object of his special, unwelcome attention.
He would lie in wait, then when I passed by, leap from a ditch or behind a tree to slam wet snowballs down the back of my neck in winter, or throw me on the ground in Spring and stain my face green with grass and mud until I was gasping for breath.
The school was eager in their haste to wash their hands of responsibility for any nefarious goings on outside of the perimeter of the school yard—and they would remind us of this with officious frequency, along with a thinly veiled tone of relief.
So the attacks continued until, one day, I had tasted one too many blades of dog-urine-fermented grass.
It happened that there was a newly-immigrated Italian family at the end of our street, with a girl, Maria, in 5th grade and a boy, Carlo, in 2nd grade with me.
Sadly for them, they had a social effect similar to the old kids’ experiment (http://pbskids NULL.org/zoom/activities/phenom/saltandpepper NULL.html) of dropping dishwashing soap in a glass of pepper flakes floating on water—they immediately repelled the other pupils.
The cause was gastronomical: Maria and Carlo were obese, their pores exuding the unpleasant odor of biologically processed garlic, their faces virtual factories of perspiration, ensuring the smell was in steady supply.
Maria was renowned for being short-tempered and tricky.
If you had a propensity for feats of derring-do, calling Maria ‘fat’, or a ‘pig’, or a ‘wop’ would fire up her tree-trunk sized arms like helicopter blades initiating a take-off in enemy territory during the Viet Nam war—they would take-out anything standing within 10 feet.
What’s more, she had a long, unforgiving memory.
And one fine April morning, I befriended Maria and her brother on the way to school—instantly, we were regular walking companions.
Soon after, Joey spied us walking together, his eyes glinting with malice from behind his tree, thinking me might get in a three-for-one deal—a veritable BullyFest ’68.
Instead, he got all one hundred and seventy pounds of Maria, bearing down on him with fetid-breathed fury, a generator of ringing ears and nosebleeds.
In that moment, I loved her.
And I discovered natural justice, the certain pendulum-swing of karma, and a trust in the ultimate benevolence of the universe.
Fast-forward to forty-two years later, when my own son is 7-years-old, and in 2nd Grade. Only, now, it’s a brave new educational world.
Parents ‘volunteer’ in classrooms, and form political alliances with other parents and their teachers, to aid and abet their young royalty in acquiring positions of power in the tower of edification.
When I failed against a parent with the political finesse of a Grima Wormtongue (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Gr%C3%ADma_Wormtongue)—with a novice teacher whose insecurity outstripped her moral equity and passion to teach—my son ceased to be protected.
Instead, he was given the opportunity for a Monty Pythonesque—“now for something completely different” (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/And_Now_for_Something_Completely_Different)—educational experience.
A couple of Alex’s classmates were acknowledged “difficult kids.” In a stable teaching environment with a strong, in-control teacher, “difficult kids” learn about boundaries and growing their own understanding and relationships. Outside of this, they can, and in the case of Alex’s class experience, did become real, pernicious bullies.
Alex was pushed, kicked, and subjected to a hail of paperclips inside the classroom. And by his teacher, I was to learn, his attempts to be heard were summarily ignored. She became a bully-enabler in her own classroom.
Perhaps there’s a fine line between being a “helicopter parent” (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Helicopter_parent) and a decisive parent. But had I trusted my gut instincts two years ago, Alex would have been a small private Catholic school in a country ‘retreat’—a virtual Shangri-la (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Shangri-La) of a convent school –that I had once imagined impractical.
So, we bit the so-called bullet, drummed up the tuition enrollment fees out of our tiny, battered, safety-net fund, and took the plunge.
There I was two weeks ago, dropping him off or his ‘first’ day of school while drowning in a rich tapioca pudding of parental guilt, topped with a fine crème fraiche of angst and a sprinkling of new school jitters.
What had I done to my boy?
Finally, last Thursday I got my message in a bottle, my manna from heaven.
Driving to our morning drive to our little Shangri la school, Alex admitted to me the depth of his unhappiness at his previous school, saying: “Mom, the problems were too big and there were too many of them.”
He seemed happy, confident and ‘centered’ once more—the boy I knew him to be.
When I told my 80-year-old father that I’d switched schools in midyear, I was surprised to hear the tone of grim approval in his voice.
With that bitter, darkened, and distilled knowledge—rich with certainty—that you hear only from the old, he said “You only get one shot at it, you know!”
That’s right, Dad. And we’ll take our shot at Shangri-la— or at least a school where a course in the ‘anatomy of a bully’ is not a prerequisite for survival or success.
Notes for this blog:
Background blog to why we removed Alex from school: http://www.achildafter40.com/to-sir-with-disillusionment/ (http://www NULL.achildafter40 NULL.com/to-sir-with-disillusionment/)
- (http://www NULL.ctvnews NULL.ca/health/health-headlines/women-increasingly-going-online-to-seek-free-sperm-donors-1 NULL.1590245)
Angel on CNN(http://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=WySnP2nnwXU)
CNN Mother's Day: "Mature Moms" (http://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=WySnP2nnwXU)(http://youtu NULL.be/atScMih4_d0) (http://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=sGRro4rHGeA)
AARP's "Inside E-Sreet" on PBS TV (http://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=sGRro4rHGeA)
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