Tales of the Schoolyard: Confession -- I Was a Bully

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My daughter Isobel started seventh grade only two days ago. The moment she stepped into her schoolyard, my heart started racing with anxiety, even though she was happy to go back to school and appears to be socially well-adjusted. She's a good student, and -- as far as I know -- a good kid and a good friend.

I write "as far as I know" because she is a fully-fledged middle schooler, one who has passed completely through the veils that separate her social world from mine. Not that we don't talk. Nor does she sass me for being a parent, diminished in both intelligence and social relevance in direct proportion to her peers' disdain. No, she simply no longer unloads the full serial drama of her day's social interactions on me when she steps into our car, something she used to do as she tossed her backpack into the trunk. Even direct questions about her day now often lead to that parents' least loved response: "Oh, nothing."

It's the "nothing" that makes me extra-anxious, because I know there's no such thing as "nothing" in an American middle school. It is a universal understanding that those years exist in a social suckhole! Stuff is going on! I respect her space and fight my overprotective meddling impulses and tiny-shoulder-devil-justifications that I only have her best interests at heart, but I am desperate to know. What if she's being bullied? Even worse -- what if she is a bully?

Shan in BandShe may not seem like the type, but I worry about her possible bully status because I was radar-defying bully myself: an awkward, petty, geeky bully who tortured others out of frustration with my new school's incomprehensible social pecking order. It's an easy role to slip into, especially if more socially forceful kids lead the way. And I was a good kid, too, though a much less pleasant one than my kind-hearted daughter. No adults ever noticed my awful behavior at school. Not my parents, not my teachers. How would I know if Iz became a social predator?

I'm hoping that our continued open dialogue helps (e.g., she is welcome to read this essay). I also did a bit of self-flaggellation and sharing of my bully experience with her and for the Can I Sit With You? project, in an essay called Not Nice:

I might have been at a social disadvantage, but I was also not a nice kid. And I quickly compensated for my social disorientation by picking on the weaker and geekier. Morgan and his bolo ties? Fair game. A friendly, gangly new kid with the then-rare name Cameron? In my sights. I quickly had them both squirming. Both asking me why I couldn’t be nicer to them. Asking what they had ever done to me.

I remained unrepentant. Besides, I lacked the self-awareness to explain that I preyed on them so I wouldn’t feel like fair game to the kids outside our fast-track classrooms.

This is what the Can I Sit With You? project is about -- sharing our schoolyard crises, motivations, and catastrophes with each other as well as with today's students. Our hope is that the adults will process, the students will learn, and that we will all feel less alone in our struggles. Something like the Can I Sit With You? books might have helped prevent my bullying from escalating, as it did when I found Lara, a bullying partner and two seemingly easy targets, Deanna and Adele. However:

Lara and I eventually gave up on Deanna and Adele because, to their credit, they ignored us. They didn’t have their parents or teachers intervene, they didn’t confront us, and they never retaliated in any way. They didn’t even acknowledge that we’d said or done anything to them. We stopped bothering them, because without reactions to fuel our actions, we lost our motivation.

We never succeeded in taking away even an ounce of their power.

Not that I didn’t find other victims to needle. After all, I wasn’t very nice

Were you a bully? Were you bullied? Do you think I'm worrying too much about Iz? Too little? Do you worry about your own kids? How do you talk to them about bullying?

I'd love to get your feedback, with a comment about your bullying or other schoolyard memories. If you have an essay-length story, feel free to publish it here on BlogHer, or, of course, on your own site -- but link to it in this post's comments so we know where to find you. My co-editor Jennifer and I will take your best stories  -- happy or sad or beyond complicated -- and publish them both on the Can I Sit With You? blog, and in the third, forthcoming Can I Sit With You? book.

I'm sure Isobel will love reading all your stories. Especially because she's a good, empathetic kid who will never follow in her rotten mother's footsteps, right? Right?

Other good bullying stories and resources:

Shannon Des Roches Rosa co-edits the Can I Sit With You? project with Jennifer Byde Myers. Though Shannon shares more than 20 Facebook friends with Deanna and Adele, she is not a Friend of theirs, and doesn't blame them one bit.

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