Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Bully Me This

The following appears in the September edition of Chicago Parent.

I love me some Steve Harvey like no other, so I obviously watch a lot of Family Feud.

Yet a recent question left me reeling.

“Name the worst grade of grammar school.”

Being a Family Feud devotee, I naturally scored the number one answer: 7th grade. Zero hesitation. And it had everything to do with the dawn of the bully.

The causes of bullies are historically varied: insecurity, unstable home lives, malicious strains in the DNA to name a few. The result is the same: indiscriminate attacks throughout junior high school, leaving kids in an anxiety-induced state of alert, needing to decide:

Run, fight, or follow.

For those who follow, the statistics aren’t good. Bullies face much higher rates of substance abuse, depression, unemployment, incarceration, divorce, and suicide. So when my first son approached 7th grade, he was warned. Prepare to walk away from friends who will follow. Prepare for kids being total jag-offs. But the toughest warning of all?

Prepare to have your heart broken. Again and again.

It was a difficult year for him and me. I fought the urge to march over to the stoops of parents: DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOUR KID IS DOING? DO YOU KNOW WHAT HE IS SAYING? IS ANYBODY PAYING ATTENTION IN THERE???

My sane husband talked me down. It didn’t stop me from giving the side-eye whenever I spotted certain parents, but I tried not be obvious.

Fine. I was completely obvious.

So as my second son geared up for 7th grade, I started having the same talk with him. He cut me off.

“My grade doesn’t have a bully. Whenever a kid tries to be one, someone stops them.”

“A teacher?” I asked, astonished at the prospect that some miracle educator had finally found the cure to this horrible multi-generational ill. Who could this Marie Curie be? How had she eviscerated bullydom? Give me her name, son!

“Jake Brady.”

Wait. Jake Brady wasn’t a teacher. He was a kid! An always-smiling, slightly shorter-than-average kid. Sure, he was good at sports, but there was nothing terribly intimidating or scary about him. How was this even possible?

“He just stops it. Right when it starts. And everyone listens.”

Call it leadership. Call it confidence. Call it the gift of true humanity finding itself in a 12-year old boy. My son went on to clarify that Jake stuck up for everyone, not just his friends. He even stuck up for kids he didn’t like because he thought it was unfair for bullies to go after them for being different. And suddenly, my inner 12 year-old girl with the awkward perm, lazy eye, and stack of books wanted to hug Jake Brady. For someone who has never known a day of cool in her life, it was hard to believe that people such as this existed.

So thank you, kid. You have shown us all that empathy lives. That kindness lives. That good exists.

Please don’t ever change.