A remembered kindness

Trigger warning:  Middle school bullying

It is 3am and I just woke up from a nightmare about middle school.  Well, it was sort of about middle school and sort of about graduate school in the way that dreams are.  I was fumbling for money for the light rail and shades from middle school showed up to make fun of how I was in PE…

Middle school was extremely traumatic.  It has taken me decades to (I thought) mostly get over it.  But apparently I can still have anxiety dreams about it.

One of the worst bits (that #2 is tired of hearing about because the girl in question went to our boarding school too) was when a girl at my lunch table who I went to church and choir and Sunday school with and had all my classes with invited all the other girls at the lunch table (and in the G/T track) to her house for an overnight party and deliberately excluded me, complete with whispered not talking about it around me the next day.  The “don’t let her know” part was the worst, I think.  Really drove home that the exclusion was deliberate.  Later her mother was a teacher at boarding school– I should have asked how she let that happen (that’s an insight from 3am).

Once I was invited to an overnight party in middle school.  A very nice girl who wasn’t in my classes but was good friends from elementary school of someone at my lunch table (who both went to my church and occasionally invited me to her house in a “don’t let other people know I invited you” sort of way) and current friends with another girl in my neighborhood who was generally kind to me, invited me to a come as you are party.  A mini-van driven by her mother with a few girls in it showed up to my house, bundled me in, and we went around driving to pick more people up until we landed at her house.  People treated me normally, not like a social pariah.  It was fun.  They feathered my bangs.  We watched a Steve Martin movie on VHS.  We played games like twister.  I listened about boy crushes.  Everyone was nice.  In the morning we had fruit pizza with custard (which became my favorite dessert as of that morning).  She didn’t need to include me, but I was included, and I cherish that memory.

And I suppose I shouldn’t completely blame the girl who excluded me… In 6th grade the math/science teacher was a huge bully and the excluding girl and her best friend were his favorites while I was one of his victims (not an easy mark of a victim though– we had an exam where the instructions explicitly said to always round up in this situation, and he was berating the class as stupid for not rounding down despite what the instructions said.  That led to him saying if I was so smart why didn’t I teach the class and I said I’d be happy to, and then he asked how many people wanted me to teach the class.  I cherish the sole kid in the class brave enough to raise his hand.  I am still grateful to John K.  Sadly, 6th grade was the last year he was tracked into GT math/science so the only time I really came across him again was as a young adult when he was a cashier at Walmart.  Also my parents had complained earlier that year when that teacher gave me a B one quarter even though I’d never earned lower than an A- on an assignment and he switched the grade to an A after he could show no basis for the grade other than some blustering about how my lines weren’t completely straight in my graphs and I needed to better use a straight-edge.  He retired the next year.)  Prior to that year, the first girl had been nice to most people, even including the developmentally disabled girl who was the only person in school equally reviled to me (incidentally, said developmentally disabled girl saw me as lower on the pecking order and would call me names, but I never blamed her for that).  That’s a 3:30am mental connection.  Adults set the tone of school in ways that can have lasting effects.

So… thank you Emily, even though I can’t remember your last name.  I have remembered your kindness throughout my life and have tried to emulate it.  In high school and college and beyond, I have always tried to be inclusive and to never leave anybody out.  The more the merrier.  And I’ve encouraged my children to do the same.  Bullying sucks.  Exclusion sucks.  Small acts of kindness and inclusion can make a big difference in someone’s life.

21 Responses to “A remembered kindness”

  1. Omdg Says:

    Aw! I’m so sorry that happened to you. Thank you for pointing out the influence that adults in the school have over how the kids treat each other. This to me seems often overlooked. When adults visibly favor children in class, or conversely, single them out in unjust negative ways, it gives explicit permission for children to act this way towards the target.

    Lately my own anxiety dreams have fixated upon residency, replacing the dreams from previous parts of my life. 😝

    Good thing we both rose above the bullying and have nice lives now in spite of it! Eff all of them.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Bullying sucks!

      I had my first “I’m the professor and never attended the class I didn’t know I was supposed to be teaching all semester and now I have to give the final exam I haven’t made yet” dream recently– always before I’ve been the student!

  2. Katherine Says:

    I was the victim of similar bullying in seventh grade, although I never had anyone include me in a kind way like you describe. It was so bad that I changed schools for eighth grade, where I fell in with a wonderful group of girls I’m still in contact with now, even though we’re scattered across the country.

    I never made the connection between the bullying by other students and bullying by teachers, but I think it is very relevant to my situation. In sixth grade, with almost exactly the same peer group as I had in seventh grade, I wasn’t bullied at all. I didn’t have a ton of friends, but I did have a few close friends and everyone else was generally nice to me. In seventh grade, the math teacher (who was very popular among the students) took a serious dislike to me after my parents reached out to see if she/the school could do anything to challenge me in math. After that, the bullying by students really escalated.

    I’m sorry you had a middle school nightmare. I usually feel like I’ve gotten over seventh grade, but it still hits me in the gut sometimes.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That sucks. :(

      Bullying started in 3rd or 4th grade but didn’t really escalate until middle school (5-8 grade). In 9th grade I was only bullied in my tracked classes that only had other 9th graders (I even got a boyfriend who was a junior in my art history class and started hanging out with his friends outside of school).

      Life got a lot better when I went to boarding school part way through high school!

    • Rosa Says:

      it’s VERY relevant. Almost always, when people share these stories, there are adults either egging it on or refusing to stop it.

  3. Lisa Says:

    Wow – I’ve always been in the “middle school sucks” camp, but was never the subject of repeated and consistent bullying like you describe. This makes me nervous for my daughter, who has one more year of elementary school before middle school. Her G/T class has been very good about mutual respect and general all-around support, even though they are an unruly class with a lot of special personalities. I’m worried about what will happen. How did you survive those years? I’ve been trying to cultivate a relationship where we can talk about things like that, but it’s a cruel fact of life that kids naturally pull away from their parents at a time when they could probably use them the most.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I think schools in the US are a lot better now– anti-bullying has been a big theme at the public schools my oldest has been at. Also there’s been a movement to not have teachers punish kids for “tattling” which means they’re more likely to let adults know when something bad is going on. Growing up there was always an underlying current of if you narc you will get punished, often by the teachers. So it never would have occurred to me to let an adult know when it got really bad.

      I survived those years by developing a feeling of superiority (they dislike me because I’m different and different is good), then by going to a G/T boarding school, top college and graduate school, working as a professor, and never dealing with people who aren’t motivated learners ever again.

      Really one of the big problems was that socially I should have skipped a year or two. I was very out of synch even with my peers in the tracked classroom (got along fine with kids a year or two older than me). Also, I suspect for most people I am best (delightful even) in small doses, so it helps not being in the same classes with the same people all day.

      I recall once in 6th grade asking a random boy in my class why I was so disliked and he said it was because I always knew the answer in class and I should stop raising my hand to answer questions. I told that to a school counselor once (incidentally, her son was also really low on the social pecking order at school, though not as low as me) and she suggested I try that. Of course, as a vehement feminist at that age, I knew that suggestion was patriarchy trying to keep me down even though I didn’t know the world for patriarchy yet. It was always more important for me to be smart than to be liked, to quote one of those Silicon Valley gurus whose name I can’t remember right now. I needed to be smart to escape my hometown, where life would be better. And it was.

      • chacha1 Says:

        Grisly. :-(

        I also had the “I’d rather be smart than be liked” thing going on, which for me was pretty effective armor since the adults in our school tended toward lazy/incompetent rather than mean, and outside school I interacted almost entirely with adults.

        I don’t believe there was any adult-facilitated meanness except maybe in the Sports vs Everyone Else thing. Sports got most of the money and all of the attention, so the adults in charge of the sports programs tended to believe that they were more important than everyone else.

        That whole thing of punishing kids for “tattling” though … there may have been some of that. There is definitely, in the South, a really strong current of “if something bad happens to you, it must have been your fault.” The most pervasive and the most pernicious holdover from Puritan/fundamentalist religion. Almost every other part of the ideology has been jettisoned, but victim-blaming lives on.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Ugh.

        The best daycare we had would teach conflict resolution skills to kids when they “told on” someone. So basically they’d have kid #1 tell kid #2 what the problem is, possibly with a “did you mean to hurt #1?” and then kid #2 would apologize and offer to hug kid #1… for kids who had been there long enough, they’d just go through the steps without having to tell a teacher. I wish a lot of adults had that training– say what the problem is, apologize for inadvertently hurting someone and offer to make it better.

      • Rosa Says:

        I think a lot more daycares & schools teach that kind of stuff. The amount of emotional content in the teaching my kid gets is so much higher (and better!) than the “kids are vicious, hope you survive” mentality of the schools I went to, and I hear similar from lots of other parents.

  4. still remember Says:

    For the record: at 74 yrs (62 yrs later) I still remember the horror of the bullying instigated against me by my sixth grade teacher and the years of horror that lasted until I left high school. Those 7 years marked me for life. The male teacher laughed at my last name, asked how I cheated on my IQ test, demeaned me for being taller than my peers, and encouraged vicious name calling. And now this country elected a vicious, anti-woman, hate-mongering, bully. No change.

  5. CG Says:

    This sounds horrendous, and gives me a different perspective on the kinds of things I experienced as a kid (some of them were bad, but they weren’t sustained or encouraged by adults). I think I’ve posted about this before, but I completely agree that the adults in the school can really set the tone for how the kids behave. They can either participate in or encourage bad behavior (sounds like what happened in your school, which is horrifying), mostly ignore it and not help (my experience), or proactively work to establish norms of kindness and respect (I think my husband’s elementary school was like this, and my own kids’ certainly is).

    I wish the kids who didn’t fit in with the mainstream could somehow know that they will likely become adults who are happy with themselves and have good relationships with their partners and friends. But you tend to not believe that as a kid and think that the grownups who tell you so are just trying to make you feel better.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I believed it!

      And it did help that when I was in groups outside of those specific kids (after school programs, summer camps, softball, swimming, etc.) I wasn’t subject to such things. I got along well with kids a year or two older than I was. So I had reason to believe it wasn’t me.

  6. Cloud Says:

    Ugh. I am so sorry that happened, and horrified at the role of the teacher.

    I have a flip side story: I once met someone who’d gone to jr. high with me and she thanked me for making her jr. high days less horrible because a lot of people had picked on her and I was always nice. I was embarrassed to realize I could remember only one interaction with her. I’d gotten a hole in my tights and she told me I could sew it closed and gave me a tip on how to do it cleanly… which would not have occurred to me at the time- I just got new tights!- but came in handy during college, when I both wore tights more frequently and had less money to spend on new ones. But from what she said, it was clear we talked more than that and I just had no memory of it at all. I have always wondered if that is reflection of my poor memory or of the fact that what she remembers as conversations was just like saying hi to an acquaintance in the halls to me. Luckily, I had the one remembered interaction to fall back on and we talked about fixing holes in tights and how cold it was in Chicago briefly before going our separate ways.

    That interaction has stuck with me, though. I was definitely NOT in the “in” crowd in school, but I was never really bullied (beyond some nonsense some of the boys did which angers me more in retrospect than it did at the time). I had friends and enough social capital that I never felt pressured to be mean to or exclude anyone. I knew there were kids who got picked on, though, and while I never joined in, in retrospect I wish I’d reached out more. Watching my kids now, it seems like they will probably be about the same as I was, and I’ve been thinking about how to encourage them to reach out more than I did. I think you are right that schools are more tuned into this now. I think that was something that started after the Columbine shootings, as more people saw danger in letting bullying continue. It is sad that we couldn’t have tried to fix this just because it was so hard on the bullied kids.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I think just being treated normally when you’re expecting bullying is enough to make a lasting impression.

      Growing up, I don’t think I realized it was bullying (I thought of it as teasing) because I thought bullying meant physical violence, and after 3rd grade there was no physical violence. And the people who did things that could have crossed lines (like boys mooning me or girls making derogatory comments about my breast-size) were always done by (white) people from poverty-stricken households whose parents had low education, so I always mentally forgave them for it because I figured what did they know.

  7. undine Says:

    Sixth grade, bullied mercilessly by the other girls for being too smart. This is what gave me a deep and lifelong suspicion about all the “sisterhood & solidarity” rhetoric once feminism became fashionable. I’m a feminist but had no illusions that women were nicer, kinder, or more supportive than men. I had the good sense never to say this (because unfashionable), but did I believe it? Nope nope nope nope nope.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Women are maybe equally supportive…

      • undine Says:

        Equally, but not more supportive than men, as was the orthodoxy. Basically, you hope that people are nice and go from there. But whenever I’ve fallen for the women’s solidarity thing, I’ve been burned, big time. YMMV.

  8. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    Bullying sucks.

    I was “lucky” that my encounters with bullying all started with boys physically assaulting me in some way: pushing me around, unwanted advances/touching, etc. and that it started early enough that my childhood instincts to punch back were in full force. I think it scared all the girls that I would tell a boy to get his hands off me and follow that up with putting him on the ground for not complying, it never occurred to any of them to bully me. They didn’t have the capacity to realize that my defending myself shouldn’t make me the scary person in the equation, it’s the 5th grade boy who thinks he has a right to any girl’s body who should be scary.

    I could deal with the wariness and ostracism fall-out from that since I knew I was right to defend myself and we had a good library, so who needs friends? I’m not sure I would have dealt as well with a more subtle approach to bullying though, and as it was, socially, I pretty much stumbled through middle and high school. Didn’t hate it but wouldn’t revisit it for the world.


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