The upside to bullying

As the new school year gets underway, bullying is top of mind for all parents. This inspiring story of one school community that refused to let a bullied boy stand alone comes at just the right time.

Melanie Defazio | Stocksy United 

The call came in a little after noon. The minute I saw the name of my son’s middle school on the caller ID I was worried. Calls from school are never good news. I picked up the phone hesitantly, and when the woman identified herself as the school’s assistant principal I braced myself.

“I’m calling to talk to you about an incident that happened during gym class,” she began. “Peter is fine, he wasn’t hurt, but a boy said something to him.”

I was relieved to know that my 13-year-old son wasn’t physically hurt. He’s not a very athletic kid. Actually, he’s not athletic at all. Peter (not his real name) is more cerebral than physical; he’s into writing, drawing and singing. He’s also extremely intuitive, sensitive and articulate—all wonderful qualities but not the kind that win popularity contests in junior high school. As a result, he’s always had trouble fitting in, and this past year in particular, he struggled to make friends. He had a handful of friends who he hung out with at school, but he didn’t feel comfortable inviting them home.

“Apparently another boy called Peter a ‘fag,’” the assistant principal continued.

My heart sunk. In the world of teenage boys, the word “fag”—an abhorrent word in so many ways—is the ultimate slander.

“I want you to know that we take this very seriously. We’re calling the boy in with his parents and we’ll be speaking to them about using such language. We consider this sexual harassment.”

Bringing the bullying out into the open

For months, Peter had come home periodically upset about some boys in chorus who were taunting him. One boy in particular had teased Peter for being “too polite” and “too nice,” which sounded ridiculous to my wise son. Peter’s non-reaction upset the boy, and he then launched into an attack on the nice clothes Peter wore to school, saying, “You think you’re so great with your clothes. Your life is perfect.”

“You don’t know the first thing about my life,” Peter had replied.

I was incensed when I heard of the exchange and wanted to intervene, but Peter refused to tell me their names, repeatedly insisting that it was not bullying but simply kids doing what kids do. He astounded me with his philosophical attitude. Peter made me promise not to call the school. I was proud of him for wanting to fight his own battles, but I was also sad and angry that my son had to endure such nastiness. With this latest incident, the situation was finally out in the open and would be dealt with by the school.

“You might want to know that a number of other students leapt to Peter’s defense,” the woman continued. “They immediately reported the incident to the office. I’ll be speaking with Peter later today.”

When I looked in my rear view mirror and saw Peter bouncing down the sidewalk with a huge smile on his face, I was confused.

I was relieved and a little bit surprised to learn that other students had stepped in to help. I thought of Peter and how embarrassed he must have been; first to have the word “fag” hurled at him, and then to have other kids make a big deal of it. I believed that he would have preferred to suffer silently, not drawing attention to himself.

When I went to pick him up later that afternoon I expected Peter to be angry or sullen. Instead, he was nonplussed. He got in the car and didn’t mention the incident. When I broached the subject he told me he was more troubled by having to go to the principal’s office than being called a name. He was afraid it would turn into a huge drama, and Peter intensely disliked drama at school. In passing, he mentioned that one of the boys who reported the incident was an eighth-grader who had never been particularly nice to him, and this was unexpected.

A few weeks later I got another call from the assistant principal. A boy had gone up to Peter in the hall and said that everyone in school hated him. Again, other students had rushed to the office to report the event.

Once more, I waited in my car after school expecting Peter to be upset. He had endured so much bullying in the past months. Though he seldom complained, I knew he was hurt. He had internalized the comments, and had started to believe that he could do nothing right.

When I looked in my rear view mirror and saw Peter bouncing down the sidewalk with a huge smile on his face, I was confused.

As soon as he got in the car he told me what happened. He was walking down the hall with two girls when the boy (the one who had taunted Peter in chorus) spewed his vitriol. The girls immediately pounced. One yelled at the boy and the other kicked him, and they both dragged him to the office. Other kids joined in to defend Peter.

“So you’re not upset?” I asked.

“Upset? No way, I’ve never felt so good about myself. I thought everyone at school hated me, but I guess they don’t.”

The only thing that worried Peter was that the girl who kicked the boy would get in trouble. I told him I didn’t condone physical attacks, but privately I smiled at the thought of the two girls rushing the bully.

A turning point—all due to his defenders

From that day on, Peter went to school with a new sense of confidence. He had been pushed down by a few boys, but lifted up by the rest of the students. He got out of the car in the mornings with a swagger I hadn’t seen before. It’s not that he was suddenly popular; he still only had the same handful of friends, but he realized that even though he was different, people he barely knew cared enough to stand up for him.

I imagine those other students never thought beyond reporting a bully to the office. It’s likely they did what they knew was right and went on with their days, never considering the effects of their actions. But by taking a stand, by calling out a bully, they had helped my son to see himself in a new light.

When school starts again in a few weeks Peter will be there, in his nice clothes with his good manners, and the knowledge that the other kids have his back.

Jaimie Seaton
Jaimie Seaton

Jaimie Seaton is the mother of two teenagers, and has been a journalist for over twenty years. She has lived and worked in South Africa, the Netherlands, Singapore and Thailand, and has written for and edited numerous publications worldwide; including the Sunday Times of London and Newsweek. Now back home in New Hampshire, she contributes to various publications, including Purple, and the Washington Post. She is currently revising her first novel.

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