The boy in fourth period

My first year of teaching, he was enrolled in my freshman honors English class, fourth period.  He was enrolled, but by the middle of November, I was getting used to marking a little X in the box by his name.  He was enrolled, but he almost never attended school.

Dan had school phobia, they told us.  After winter break, we all met with his parents to discuss how to help him come back to school, now that he had missed so much.  He showed up in January, then disappeared again.

I recognized Dan when I saw him.  He was a walking target.  Anxious, nervous ticks, shoulders slumped.  Walking targets are the kids who care too much about fitting in but don’t quite know how to.  The ones who want to be normal even though that just isn’t the way they are wired.  I knew all about walking targets.

I had been one myself throughout my childhood.  For a long, long time, I assumed that I had social troubles was because I had been abused in my home until I was ten.  No one had taught me how to fit in.  No one had given me self-confidence and ease and all that good shit.  As I get older, however, I have come to realize that much of it may just have been the way I was born.

My son cares deeply about fitting in.  My son doesn’t know how to.  And he fights me hard when I try to help him.  Not that I really know how to help him.

My parents, I have come to suspect, were much the same way.  Not freaks, but just different enough to stand out.  That, paired with a dorky sort of charisma that draws attention to oneself?  Might as well tape that “Kick Me” sign to our backs before we even leave for school in the morning.

So, I recognized this kid the few times he came into my room.  I heard rumors that his school phobia came from being teased, and I sure believed that.  Dan disappeared again in January, but we were assured he would try to return in February.

Some say he shot himself that day just so he wouldn’t have to return to school.

There were far, far too many kids who died from my first year of teaching.  There was a tragic car accident and another suicide, not to mention some other deaths in the school system.  But, lately his death has haunted me the most, even though I knew him the least.

I turned mean girl once my senior year of high school.  I had finally accomplished some level of social acceptance, after years of social scrabbling to try to get out from the bottom of the heap.  When a sophomore friend of mine started in with an ex-boyfriend of mine, I turned quite a few of the senior girls against her.  “Leave her alone,” the ex-boyfriend told me.  “She can’t walk down the halls in school without people taunting her.”

That was all it took to bring me to my senses.  I had been in her shoes so many times, and the last thing I wanted to do was be that kind of an asshole.  I had behaved very, very badly.

She’s turned out OK and seems to have forgiven me, which gives me less absolution than you would think.  But, the incident stands out for me as a reminder that the tormenters are human and easily can be turned around, if only handled properly.

It’s that proper handling that’s so tricky to figure out.  Who needs to intervene?  How?  When?  When do we let the victim fight for his own self-respect and when do we step in?  What could have been done differently in eighth grade, sixth grade, kindergarten to have kept Dan from shooting himself on the roof of his house?

I ask you these questions, and so many more.  What should the parents do?  What helps a kid learn the trick for stopping the bullying?  I cannot tell you my story because we are in a small town, and details will not help my child.  Suffice it to say, nothing terrible has happened yet, but my kid is feeling the beginnings and he is trying hard to deal with it.

I cannot tell you the story, but you can tell me yours. What worked with your kids?  What worked with you?  Were you a bully, a bullied?  Both?  Were your kids?  Talk to me people.  Tell me what you know.

Because even now, thirteen years later, I still go to sleep some nights thinking about Dan.

23 responses to “The boy in fourth period

  1. She Started It

    I have many stories, that I can’t tell either.

    But what I will say is this: someone I know is still suffering the effects of PTSD from this type of thing. And knowing what she has gone through as an adult, still, so many years later because of what happened at school — I, too, am just very, very scared.

    I’m just sorry. And I hope something changes to make it go away.

  2. I wish I knew what the answer is, my niece is being bullied at school by a girl 3 years older than her (my niece is in the 2nd grade)….. its heartbreaking…. my Mother who works at the sister school to my niece’s (my mom is in the k-1 building and a few blocks away is the 2nd-5th grade building) talked to the assistant principal and the counselor that both schools shared, and so far, whatever they have said to the older child seems to have worked… my niece has not been picked on this past week… but it made me so angry that my niece was scared to go to school because so and so wanted to beat her up! I am always amazed at how young the drama starts…..

  3. People didn’t stop bullying me until I got enough backbone to stand up straight and tell them to stop. I used a voice that said I would fight back and I meant it. And people heard it. I didn’t care at all anymore if I went to the principal’s office for getting physical with someone or fighting back. Authority in the society of our schools is only useful if it protects you. And it often doesn’t.

    And fitting in is just not worth the price of admission, and there are so many different layers of fitting in- you never really arrive. The best times I’ve had in social situations have been with small groups of friends that let other people in. The best friend I ever had- the person I wish I could be sometimes- was the kind who would sit with the uncomfortably shy kid at the party or invite a casual acquaintance to join her and her friends if they were at a cafe. Acceptance by the larger group… it’s not as emotionally satisfying.

    Bullying wasn’t the reason I pulled my children out of school, but in the last two weeks the subject has come up every day. My boys weren’t bullied, but I saw and heard instances where they were excluded because they were different or treated badly by a peer because they could be. I am sure someone is going to tell me that I should have let them stay in a larger group environment so they could learn how to handle similar future episodes, but I don’t want any of my children to look on other people with the same wariness and disappointment that I do.

    I wonder how you were able to get people to stop taunting your friend. The most frightening thing about bullying or any other group think phenomenon is how it takes on a life of its own once you let the genie out of the bottle.

  4. It was pretty easy, actually, Deb. I just sort of called it off. Without me fueling it, they had no reason to continue. At least, that’s how I remember it. She may remember differently.

  5. If that’s the case, then I’m sure you would have given it up on your own even without someone asking you to. That gets exhausting, and there’s so much to do Senior Year.

  6. I don’t know, Deb. The power was pretty intoxicating.

  7. Still, I have faith.

  8. I was bullied. Even now, at the age of 40, it still makes me fuming mad to see some of those names on Facebook, or to get a high school reunion invitation in the mail. My mother was a popular kid when she was in school, and she could never wrap her mind around how painful school was for me. Somehow it was all my fault, and if I just tried a little bit harder, she was SURE I would fit in.

    I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t understand why children do it in the first place, and I’m not sure that understanding would make a difference any way. I feel so sorry for your little boy. Poor guy. I feel sorry for you too – having to stand by and watch, but I’m glad that you accept the bullying for what it is.

  9. andrea harris

    Wow. This is very poignant. I am not sure if you came or became that way, but I do know that your upbringing has made you very strong and also resulted in your knack for helping other people. Those are life choices that you made, ones that your student, for any number of reasons, could not see as options for himself.

  10. It wasn’t me, it was my brother. And it still affects his self-esteem and the way he views himself to this day. It also affected his education. It’s hard to do well when you hate going to school.

    This scares me as well because I’m starting to see the same personality in my youngest. My oldest is like me – someone who blends in well. My youngest is far more outgoing, creative and just plain interesting, but he stands out and he does his own thing. I wish I had some answers. If you figure it out, please let me know.

  11. I was picked on, even by my siblings (nice, huh?). I managed to find a small circle of friends in high school, but still to this day only have a scant few friends and never really feel part of a large group. I’m not sure why I survived — it wasn’t horrible teasing, I was never physically tormented, I was lucky enough to start out with decent self-esteem? who knows.

    The bullying of our children, however, is altogether different. We have been dealing with it too. Fortunately, the sour weather has kept neighborhood interaction to one-on-one playdates which are much more successful. I’m dreading the good weather and seeing a bunch of boys outside. Because I just know the mob mentality will take over, and my son will be odd man out. I did finally bring up the problem with a couple of the mothers in a non-confrontational way. They were surprised and did not know what had been going on. Hopefully with more adult eyes on the situation we will keep things in check, but who knows. It is hard, hard, hard.

    Is there a child that he does mesh well with that you could foster the relationship. Maybe that child would then help stick up for him a bit? That was our strategy, we’ll see if it works, so far so good. Also though encouraging him to SEE the abuse. That seemed to be our problem — the subtle exclusions and jibes just didn’t seem to be evident to him. We needed to give specific lessons on how that was mean and how he should respond responsibly. We encourage him to stick up for himself (although verbally, as so far things are not physical).

    Hoping this helps some and you know you are not alone. I think you will do all the right things.

  12. This is a hard hard thing. As a middle school counselor I see it all the time. And we are a “model” school with a huge integrated anti-bullying program that incorporates classroom lessons, high school mentors, teacher and parent facilitators, and a common language that helps all kids understand that “we don’t do that here.”

    But, guess what? It still happens. We are lucky to have teachers that take a very aggressive and proactive stance. However, sometimes we are reactive. And there are still the kids that don’t quite “feel” as if they fit in. And perception is a big part of it. Sometimes, it is the fact that these kids want so desperately to fit in, but don’t quite know how, that makes them feel every small look or glance as a punch in the gut. And so, then when something bigger does happen, they feel as if their very being is threatened.

    As a school, we tell the kids over and over again, that we will take quick action to deal with anything that we know about. But, kids are smart…and sly…and we can’t know everything. And if no one tells us, we can’t do anything. We encourage the bystanders to do something, they aren’t the target, but are often afraid of becoming the target if they say something. It is about empowering these kids, as well as the targets to speak up, and feel safe in doing so.

    It sounds like that is what the ex-boyfriend did in your story. He wasn’t afraid to step up and say something. And you listened.

    But, how? And when you have kids that are wired in such a way that these social situations are hard to begin with, how to you teach them to feel empowered without making them more of a target?

    As someone else mentioned, sometimes it is as easy as finding that “other” person, who is willing to take a kid under their wing and let others know that what they are doing is not ok. But, often, it takes the help and awareness of teachers and staff and even other parents.

    Does the school know what is going on? Are they helping? Or are they part of the problem?

  13. Emily, this just sucks and I’m sorry. I too was very awkward socially. It saved my little rear end that my parents moved to Manhattan and stuck us in a quirky prep school, where there was such a crazy mix of kids that my own oddities blended into everyone else’s. I gained confidence there & just the confidence to walk down the street – but lost it all again in college because I was back to the too too homogeneous world that I had left behind when we moved from a suburban somewhere. I suppose it was just God or fate or the Universe that allowed me a better experience for at time. I carved out my little world in college til I got through & felt the same damn way living in suburban CT & now it is gone, gone, gone because I chose to pick up and move my family somewhere that I’d feel better (Northampton MA, another place my quirky blends into the background!)
    So, sometimes, I guess I think some kids don’t fit and I don’t know if you can change the feeling or aura of not fitting in or being cool…although I think kids should be held 100% accountable for their behavior. It is easier to change actions and behaviors than feelings. Several times in Isaac’s school years (he is now 10 1/2, 5th grade), there has been the start of something – because he is a bit sensitive and not so athletic, which made him an easy target in our former community – and I called in to the teacher. I made it clear each time that my sole interest was in finding a solution for Isaac, not in exacting punishment for other children, that I knew I had no “rights” in that arena. I will say that approach was very effective with classroom teachers, school counselors and principals. Everyone immediately became willing to play ball with me & we found some very positive solutions. Isaac even a few times ended up being friends with some of the kids involved. Our school system from a young age used school counselor group mediation in which kids take control and use I statement. So Isaac in first grade had to say to a small group of kids (with school counselor present) “I feel frustrated when you steal my baseball hat on the bus and throw it on the ground.”
    And I was so very proud. And, it did work because, like you said, it doesn’t have to take much to turn the situation around.

  14. This just shatters my heart. Wouldn’t it be great if kids didn’t have to deal with all of this?

  15. I only know what worked for my son. I taught him to stand up for himself, something he didn’t know he could do. I intervened with the teacher and she put a stop to all of the bullying. It’s only going to get worse for him, but it’s just one of those things I told him (and he seemed to accept):

    Not everyone will like you. That’s okay.

    I wish it didn’t have to be this way. It hurts me. My brother, my husband, both had such terrible bullies after them and it kills me that Ben does too.


  16. I was bullied a bit in late elementary school for seeming poorer than the other kids and not having as many clothes (the funny thing was my family is/was pretty wealthy, just not spendy) and having a single mom. I don’t remember being devastated–I had my own group of buddies. But it did factor into my mom’s decision to let me try out for a new magnet school, and I ended up there and it was great.

    My husband was pretty severely picked on in middle school, poor thing. I can still see how it’s affected him sometimes. My husband worries about bringing up our girl in his same little Swedish village, since she can be a bit shy like he was, and perhaps will be bookish, and she’ll have th added detriment of an immigrant mother. So we’ll watch out for that.

  17. I was bullied in elementary school starting about 3rd grade and through early junior high, but I was “lucky” enough that it was a love-hate relationship with my bullies, for the most part. I wanted to fit in, but I just didn’t. It sucked but I got my own back more than once, and I had a core group of friends who kept me sane.

    In high school in Australia, however, I experienced the kind of destructive cruelty that almost drove me over the edge. That, coupled with the sexual assault that prompted it, has placed a bitter film over any remotely happy memories of that place.

    I’m sorry to say it didn’t prevent me from being a bit of a bitch myself from time to time as a high school junior and senior who found a way to fit in with a hip crowd. However, much like you, there was always a safety valve built in that held me back from tipping over the precarious edge into real cruelty.

    I have no idea how Badger will do, but being as he’s so very much like me, I suspect he will try to fit in here and there, find a group he meshes with, and hopefully, avoid the worst of it.

    I wish the same for Zach. That’s all the advice I can give. Encourage the friendships with the kids who do get him, because that is the foundation that will keep that target off his back.

  18. I grew up quiet and shy, an observer by nature, with Tourrette Syndrome made worse in Catch-22 fashion by the verbal, physical and emotional abuse, and ostracization received from fellow students.

    My mom regrets telling me over and over to ignore them and they would stop. She wishes she would have instead taught me to fight and to defend myself.

    I wish the teachers had made some attempt to stop the abuse and had not instead yelled at ME on the rare occasion I stuck up for myself.

  19. Hello again 🙂
    Something got me thinking about my previous comment and I wanted to add a twist of hope to it.

    I think often of all the friends I have met and made since high school ended who were also the oddballs, the cast-offs, the never-fit-ins, the picked upon. It is true that none of us are the big-city lawyers, the Supreme Court judges, running for Mayor…
    but these people I met later in life were always very kind, pure-hearted, loving people. Writers, dancers, physical artists by hobby and by interest.
    Quite a lot of us, of them, wound up in public or social service of some kind- nurses, patient techs, social workers, professional massage therapists.
    Oh please don’t read this that I don’t believe in your great love and ability for your son, or read any doubt of you into it!
    No one wants to watch someone they love have to go through the pain of being bullied and the effect it may have on his or her potential. But just a ray of hope maybe.

  20. I’m not sure that “bullied” is quite the right word for what I went through with my peers in school; suffice to say that one of the more memorable escalations had to involve the police because a gang of middle-schoolers repeatedly attempted to kill me, and I literally never had a friend until I was 17 and in college. And even then, I was the victim of a sexual predator, so whatever it was about me that drew people to torture me in grade school, middle school, and high school, it was still there when I went to college.

    A lot of this had to do with how I was brought up, and how my parents chose to handle the situation. I was raised by an emotionally abusive alcoholic and a classic powerless codependent, and I identified with the powerless parent because my father was a complete asshole. So my formative example of a decent person was that of powerlessness. My parents’ advice regarding how to handle the bullying was complete crap.

    No child should ever be told to ignore bullying. I would strongly recommend two things: firstly, making the child, of whatever gender, take a class in effective physical self-defense, even if that doesn’t seem warranted. The increase in confidence will help, even if the situation doesn’t come to blows. And the child should be told that it’s fine if he or she has to grab some jerk by the balls and punch them out. So they get a black mark on their school record. Who the hell cares? It’s better than thousands of dollars and decades in therapy, believe me. The second thing the parent and child should do is get a book or books about how to deal with aggressive people. The parent should probably read the book and interpret the useful advice for the child. These books are usually written by military officers and/or law enforcement, and if I had known then what I know now, my life would have been so much different. Even something as simple as how to deal with the classic challenging-type question … that the easiest and quickest disarm is to respond with another question. (For example: “Where do you think you’re going?” Rather than answering, a useful response might be: “Where are you going?”) Nobody ever told me that, but it works, even with aggressive adults. Those types of tips and tricks can be very powerful.

    I’ve heard many times the theory that unhappy children grow up to be sensitive and kind adults. If you’ll forgive me — that’s crap. They grow up to be unhappy adults who do the best they can with the terrible pain they carry with them. Some survivors of this kind of thing turn around and face what’s chasing us, and try to heal. Many end up as doormats, alcoholics, people pleasers, depressives, etc. I don’t know anyone who was severely bullied as a child who did not suffer psychological and emotional damage because of it.

    Another thing I’d say is that bullied children really look to the adults in their lives for examples. If you are passive, if you allow yourself to be pushed around, if your self-image is not good and your child sees and hears that in your self-criticism … he or she will not believe the good things you try to say about him or her. Why? Because kids smell hypocrisy faster than a bloodhound on a hot trail. That is why so many well-loved children still suffer huge esteem damage when being bullied or persecuted –the “supportive” adults in their lives aren’t examples they can actually respect or believe. It makes a big, big difference.

  21. Oops, I didn’t read the other comments before posting — my remark about bullied children growing up to be unhappy was in no sense directed at Karen. Sorry about that. 🙂

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