In light of the rash of suicides committed by bullied children as young as nine years old, I felt compelled to address this horrendous issue and offer what parents and students can do about it. But first, I wanted to share my family’s story. We are certainly no strangers to bullying. I’m sure many of you readers or your children have experienced it as well. I consider myself and family members who were bullied victors, not victims. We were able to overcome. What doesn’t kill you can make you stronger. I hope my story helps parents deal with this problem and perhaps prevent a child’s life from being ruined or erased.
I was bullied
I’ll admit it. I use to be bullied. When I lived in St. Louis at age seven, my next door neighbor Gail use to taunt me. She was older and quite mean. At age nine, during the height of Civil Rights and Black Power. my Mom and I moved to Charlottesville Virginia, I got into fights with the white kids who wouldn’t let me sit down next to them on the school bus. I was so happy to move to the Chicago (back North) and be around more black people. But I got a rude awakening when the kids who lived in public housing across the street, use to mock the way I talked. I was the new girl, an only child with one parent, who lived in those “new houses”. That was in the early 70s. I was a preteen, living on the near West Side’s Little Italy neighborhood. These days they call it University Village.
Back then, Italians in the brownstones and blacks in the Jane Addams projects lived a block away from each other. I was sandwiched between the two worlds in the newly constructed townhomes built for the doctors, professors and professionals who worked at or near the University of Illinois, Circle Campus. My complex was evenly integrated, a modern day albatross within boundaries of old world rowhouses and boxy public low rises. The Italian kids threw eggs at my window because I was black. The black kids ran me home because I talked “white”. Those were days filled with dread, anxiety and fear. I felt sick every waking minute of my life. The eggs from the Italian kids I understood. But I didn’t understand the jealousies and contempt from my own people. I even drew the ire of one teacher, who thought I didn’t belong. Being a six grader was not fun and games for me.
One of my earlier tormentors
One of my earlier tormentors, I’ll name W. J., was an obese 13-year-old in my class who sat next to the teacher’s desk because he was so unruly. He threatened to beat me up after class. He tried “feeling me” up my skirt and kicking me in the school yard. I had daydreams of taking a switchblade, cornering him alone in an alley and gutting his huge belly like a freakin’ whale. Years later, I heard he was bullied and molested himself by other boys and men in the neighborhood.
There were more bullies after him. The neighborhood I lived in was tough and I had to form tough skin. Either go to the neighborhood Catholic school and get bullied by the racist Italians or attend the public school and get bullied by the kids in the projects. Given my experience in Virginia, Mom opted for the project kids. I later learned my mother was also bullied by racists in her all white high school in a small Illinois town outside of St. Louis, MO. I’m sure this helped seal her decision. Better to deal with your own kind. At least there was shared commonality. But many of the kids I went to school with didn’t see me as like them. I was stuck in an environment that considered me “different”. In those days there were few options open to a young black mother. Magnet schools weren’t created yet. You attended neighborhood schools. I developed stomachaches and a reputation for being tardy. I dreaded what each day might bring.
When backed in a corner, I fought back
My experiences happened years before Zero Tolerance in schools was implemented. Mom would tell me to just ignore them. So I spent a great deal of time, not responding to the hecklers and pretending it didn’t faze me. But my stomach was in knots. Mom once had to come to the Principal’s office and sit down with me and the bully, another boy, who I got into a fight with. Mom tried to bring peace to the situation, God bless her. That night I got a rock thrown through my bedroom window. When backed in a corner, I had to buckle down and fight. Yes, I fought. When I could no longer ignore or walk away, when they laid hands on me, I threw my books to the ground and fought back. And I usually won! “Yes, my mom said to me, “If you’re pushed into a corner, do what you have to do.” I surprised many of my fellow classmates and myself! This proper talking girl who lived in the new houses could defend herself quite handily if pushed. That earned me respect. The following year I had little trouble and made some lasting friends. I guess I had to prove myself before being accepted. These days, the only way kids settle things are with deadly weapons - either inflicted on the target or themselves. This is the time to be discerning. Is it the neighborhood bully punk or the gangbanger your child is dealing with? Do you KNOW whether your child is being bullied in the first place?
In my day, I was able to fight back. That was because Zero Tolerance hadn’t been enacted. This well- meaning mandate has made it more difficult for some bullied children to defend themselves, because they too can be punished. Sometimes walking away and telling the teacher isn’t an option, so children are sitting ducks to the wrath of the bully. I should know, the cycle of bullying passed down to my son after Zero Tolerance was enacted.
Next week: My bullied son – a victim of Zero Tolerance Part 2 of 3