Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Bullying Sucks!

First of all, let me make it clear that I have a few wonderful extrovert friends with good hearts. I cannot imagine that they would ever, under any circumstances, mistreat another person like the incident I will describe in this blog. I am in no way lumping all extroverts together as "the bad guys." However, I have experienced many times that when an extroverted personality is combined with an ugly heart, bad things happen. Things that their targets can take months or years to recover from, as they blaze on down their trail, swords and clubs in hand, waiting to whack the next person who gets in their way.

As introverts, I'm sure we can all remember our school days and the kids we had to put up with. I can remember for instance sitting and minding my own business, eating my peanut butter sandwich in the lunchroom, watching the antics around me. One kid might be laughing as he yanked another kid's chair out from under him. Another might be cutting in the lunch line, pushing the quiet kid behind him out of the way. And a third might swoop up behind me and swipe my peanut butter sandwich out of my hand, taunting "come get it!" as he ran off laughing.

These annoying, childish extrovert antics we introverts all endured in school may change in their practical presentation as we grow from childhood into adulthood. But, the dynamics remain the same. And, unfortunately, the stakes can be higher and the fallout greater.

I recently had to pull my daughter and myself out of a homeschool group because of the treatment we received there. My daughter, incidentally, is an extrovert, with many extrovert tendencies. But, fighting with other kids for sport is not one of them. She tends to play boisterously and speak her mind to the point of being bossy sometimes. However, she doesn't have a mean bone in her body.

My daughter, "Ava," was friends with another little extrovert girl, "Mia," in the homeschool group. That is, until Mia realized my daughter was just as boisterous and headstrong as she is. Mia liked to lead the pack. She liked to be in charge and be the center of attention. Over time I realized that Mia was very spoiled and encouraged by her mother, "Sunnie," to believe that she had the right to completely dictate her environment and the people in it. Sunnie organized exclusive events at her house where only "some" members of the group were invited.

Long story short, Mia decided that not only did she no longer wished to be friends with my daughter Ava, but she decided she hated Ava passionately. She began snubbing Ava quite rudely each time she saw her. Looking back, I can see a string of incidents that led to the blow-up. One was when Mia and another little girl were making fun of Mia's handicapped brother. Ava told them they were wrong to do that and wouldn't back down. It was clear Mia didn't like having someone stand up to her. So she upped the ante.

The next time we arrived first at Mia's house for a playgroup, Mia rudely snubbed each of Ava's attempts to be friendly to her. Ava is not the type of child who holds grudges but we found out that Mia is. And as soon as the second guests arrived, Mia took the other girls into her room with her, slamming the door in Ava's face.

One of the reasons I have a hard time sharing the planet with people who act like this is that I can't even imagine being so nasty to another person. Nor knowingly allowing my child to be so ugly. I asked Ava if she wanted me to go tell the other mothers, who were chatting just around the corner, what was going on. With tears in her eyes, she said, no Mommy, I just want to stay out here with you.

I now know that the other mothers had been holding a grudge against me and my child right along with their daughters for a while. Apparently they had decided my daughter was "aggressive" when she's really just boisterous. They had also decided she is a "troublemaker" because she wouldn't back down from standing up for a handicapped child who was being teased. So, I can look back and see that these other moms were knowingly allowing their daughters to slam the door in my daughter's face and refuse to play with her. After that playgroup, I emailed the hostess mom asking her what was wrong and if we could work out any differences, but she brushed me off saying, "nothing, I just have a lot on my mind."

The whole mess finally openly erupted on a field trip a few days later. As soon as Mia saw us, she glared at Ava, then marched up to me, handed me a bag of a few things Ava had left at her house, and snarled, "You need to tell Ava to stop leaving her junk at my house." She spun around and marched away leaving me standing in dismay, holding my daughter's hand. My daughter looked up at me with big, hurt, questioning eyes. I realize now I should have left the field trip right then. But, Ava had really been looking forward to this field trip. And, as an introvert, one of my biggest weak areas is thinking on my feet and acting appropriately on the spot. How many times I have looked back after an incident of attack and thought, "I SHOULD have said..."

So I stayed close to Ava's side. During the orientation, Mia gathered up a group of other girls, practically shoved them all in the seats at the table with her, and snapped at Ava, "You can't sit here! There's not enough room!" I saw another mom, "Cathy," whom I normally find to be unfriendly, tell Mia that there was enough room for Ava and to let her sit down with the other girls. (Even someone who doesn't seem to like me had noticed Mia's treatment of my daughter). But Ava chose to sit with me in the back. Bless her heart, she enjoyed the orientation games with me as her partner. She has a strong spunky spirit that seems very resilient. If that had happened to me at age 8, I would have been crying in the corner waiting to leave.

Then came the worst. We were all loaded on a hay wagon for the longest and most unpleasant ride I have endured since being picked on myself in elementary school during bus rides. Mia grabbed her friends and sat them down around her like worker bees around the queen. Sunnie sat at the far end of the wagon, I see now, so that she could conveniently ignore what was going on. Ava tried to sit with the other girls but was scathingly repelled away by Mia. The wagon was packed and on the verge of moving, so it was too late to change seats. I told Mia to cool it and she did - for about 2 minutes.

The endless hay wagon ride took us around a working farm and showed us practically every detail of how a farm works. If Mia and a group of other little girls hadn't been whispering, pointing, and jostling each other while looking at my daughter the whole time, we would have greatly enjoyed it. But my stomach tightened more with each passing minute. Ava loudly informed Mia that if she was going to be so mean, she didn't want to play with her anyway. Then Ava set about trying to ignore Mia while I reproached Mia for her behavior every few minutes.

Finally, the wagon ride from hell ended, and we all got off. I went immediately to Sunnie and told her our girls weren't getting along and to please keep Mia away from Ava and I would do the same. Sunnie said, "Yes I know" in a way that made me realize she had known all along.

Poor Ava was so stressed that she went off and sat by herself during lunch, even refusing to let me come sit with her. She ate her sandwich and buried her nose in a book. I was so relieved when it was finally time to get in the car and go home. Out of my rear view mirror, I saw Sunnie glance my way, make a pointing gesture, and whisper in the ear of another mom. It was pathetic, seeing two grown women whisper just like two second graders on the playground whispering about a third girl... just like Sunnie's 8 year old daughter had just done to my daughter. Things don't change much over the years with many of the bullies; they just become bigger bullies as they get older.

In the car ride on the way home from the field trip, Ava cried most of the way. I had to pull over and comfort her twice. She said, "Mommy, I think we are going to have to find some new friends," and I was so glad she saw that for herself. I knew she was right, but since I'm a grown-up, I tried one more time to correspond with Sunnie and see if there was any ironing out that could be done.

In response to my e-mail, Sunnie unleashed a torrent of irrational hate and rage that she had clearly been building up for a while. It was also clear that it really had nothing to do with me or my daughter. I can see now that Sunnie has some serious emotional problems that she needs a good therapist for. Instead, though, Sunnie projects her own problems onto other people. That's the scary thing about bullies... many of them only grow up into bigger and meaner bullies in adult bodies with the minds of spoiled children and hearts of hatred for anyone they perceive to be in their way.

I chose to continue the email conversation with Sunnie knowing it would be a good idea to have in writing what transpired in case I ever have to account for what happened for any reason. Despite Sunnie's excessively irrational and hostile responses, I continued to try and advocate for mediation and peaceful co-existence. Sunnie wouldn't hear of it. Each email she sent me in response to my attempts to make sense of the situation was increasingly hateful. In response to my sharing how badly Mia had hurt Ava with her cruel behavior, I was told that I'm an irresponsible parent, that my child is aggressive and will never make friends until I discipline her, that it's not her problem if my kid can't make friends, and that I need to train my child up in the ways of the Lord. I was mind-blown that another parent would be so hateful toward a child. I know Ava isn't perfect and has her own growing up to do. But that doesn't excuse an adult's hateful attitude toward her.

Bullies always work in numbers. Sunnie informed me of other moms who had teamed up with her to gossip about me and my child and wanted us out of the play group. I really don't know how many moms really are on her side, or whether it's just Sunnie and one of her best buddies, who was also openly unkind. But, being in a group with only one or two bullies is like drinking out of a punch bowl that someone has pissed in. It may be only 10% piss and 90% punch, but even so, who wants to drink out of it?

So rather than try to fight for our right to stay in the group, we left. We could have stayed and fought. I could have sent a letter to the president of the group detailing what really happened, along with forwarding Sunnie's hateful emails to me. The president surely would have tried to "mediate." In a Christian homeschool group, this typically means pretend to forgive each other and paste a couple of Bible-verse band-aids over the gashes.

And then there is the same sad dynamic that I was the victim of in grade school. One of the world's ugly truths is, that female bullies always have a lot of friends. In sixth grade, two girls that daily made my life a living hell were among the most popular girls in the sixth grade. They each had about three dozen friends; I had exactly two. Being an introvert and not being able to navigate groups well, I've never had a lot of friends.

Roll the clock forward 30 years and I'm looking at the same situation. Sunnie has lots of friends in the homeschool group; it doesn't matter that just under the surface she's a raving nutcase. She's talkative, outgoing, and aggressive. In our culture, these qualities count for far more than being quiet, compassionate, and non-aggressive. I don't have anywhere near the social clout that Sunnie does and at this point have no idea if anyone in the group is really a friend at all. Considering the fact that we've been away all fall and no one has inquired after me, I'd say there's not much there to lean on. I'd try going back if I knew there was even one person there who I know would have my back and my daughter's. But I don't know that. And I don't feel it would be wise to re-expose my daughter to a situation where the deck is so heavily stacked against her.

I had already tried to "mediate" with Sunnie and had received some "correct Christian" responses mixed in with the hostility. She did have Mia write Ava a short note apologizing for her behavior on the field trip because it was the "correct" thing to do. Sunnie also suggested I bring Ava back to the play group and leave after a short time so that Ava wouldn't get into any "trouble." That way, she could tell the other moms, "I tried to do the Christian thing and invite them back, but Ava's mom said she didn't want to come back." (gee I wonder why?! after blasting me, blasting my child, calling me an irresponsible parent, beating me up with religion...)

An important side note here: passive-aggressive bullies can be more dangerous than outright bullies. The trouble with trying to iron out problems with crazy people is their cunning attempt to make you look like the troublemaker and themselves look like the one who was trying to work things out.

So I decided for my daughter's sake that we will take a year off from any sort of homeschool group participation and then re-evaluate what to do. I know if we went back now, it would be unfair to Ava. Sunnie especially, possibly her buddy who has also sided against us, and whoever else they might have swayed to their side of the story would be there waiting like hunters with loaded guns. And my daughter and I would be like ducks during open season. Because people like Sunnie don't want to forgive, mediate, work things out or make peace. They want to fight and attack. This is baffling for laid-back peacemakers like myself, one who doesn't enjoy confrontation even when it's necessary. The Sunnies of the world are jazzed by confrontation, fighting, and running over anybody who gets in their way. Again, the little bullies in 2nd grade become the bigger bullies in 7th grade and then the mean-spirited adults who will even attack a little child for the sake of protecting their own agenda any time they feel their "queen bee" status is threatened.

I have been reading an interesting website called "The Bully Project." I see dozens of parents on their facebook page complaining about their children being bullied at school every day. I sympathize with these parents, remembering my days as a kid in school, where I endured more than my fair share of bullying.

My memories of being bullied at school, and the trauma it caused as well as the scars I bear to this day, are among the main reasons I decided to homeschool my own child. But, the Christian homeschool world, so proud of itself for being "above" all the "heathen activity" that goes on in regular school, has its own share of bullies. (Let me make it clear that I have never homeschooled for religious reasons). I have endured more unkind treatment in the name of God than I ever did before starting to homeschool.

Christian homeschoolers have their own unique brand of bullying. Instead of just admittedly being jerks, they do their bullying in Jesus' name. (we need to set a good example for our children, we need to make sure we don't ruin our witness). They feel justified in excluding children and adults who they believe don't measure up to their religious standards (such as having an outlandish haircut, wearing shorts that are too short, using even slightly colorful language, or playing too boisterously). It's sort of ass-backward - the ones who are often lauded as 'cool' in regular school are more likely to be bullied in the homeschool group.

So where does that leave the ordinary kids and parents? We wanted to homeschool, one reason hoping we'd find some other nice people who had pulled their kids out of school because of bullying and other issues (and, to be fair, we have met a few nice people over the years like this, though unfortunately none we have become close to). But unfortunately there have also been the times we have met the religious bullies - using the Bible and Jesus' name as a weapon - clubbing people like me and my daughter for being ordinary. Crazy.

Anti-bullying people hope to see a day when bullying has been addressed and controlled, hopefully eliminated. Parents want their gay child, their overweight child, their shy child, their mentally challenged child will be accepted and supported by students, teachers, faculty, and other parents in school.

I commend their vision and support it. And I will add to that, that I hope to see a day when homeschooling parents who have ordinary children, that are not from uber-religious backgrounds, that may be loud and boisterous and imperfect, and might even have a weird haircut, colorful speech, or (gasp!) be gay, will be accepted and supported by homeschool groups all over the country.

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