I keep meaning to post this, from Lois Lowry’s blog. Generally I am baffled by and scared of poetry, but not this poem. (I just attended a screening of a documentary in progress about bullying, so maybe the subject’s on my mind. But who am I kidding — it’s never NOT on my mind.)
Sins of the Father
by W.D. Ehrhart
Today my child came home from school in tears.
A classmate taunted her about her clothes,
and the other kids joined in, enough of them
to make her feel as if the fault was hers,
as if she can’t fit in no matter what.
A decent child, lovely, bright, considerate.
It breaks my heart. It makes me want someone
to pay. It makes me thinkâ€”O Christ, it makes
me think of things I haven’t thought about
in years. How we nicknamed Barbara Hoffman
“Barn,” walked behind her through the halls and mooed
like cows. We kept this up for years, and not
for any reason I could tell you now
or even then except that it was fun.
Or seemed like fun. The nights that Barbara
must have cried herself to sleep, the days
she must have dreaded getting up for school.
Or Suzanne Heider. We called her “Spider.”
And we were certain Gareth Schultz was queer
and let him know it. Now there’s nothing I
can do but stand outside my daughter’s door
listening to her cry herself to sleep.
1. Kids are mean. Girls are mean and boys are mean. Adults frequently screw up when it comes to girl-and-boy-meannness. But I do believe that parents and educators have resources if we really want to create a culture less hospitable to bullying. That’s a subject for another post, but I’ve written about it before: here and here, among other places.
2. Ehrhart, who has been called “the dean of Vietnam war poetry,” sounds like a fascinating guy. And he obviously writes about way more than war. I love the poem on his Wikipedia page.
I followed your links and found those articles fascinating.
Ironically, some of the worst bullying I experienced as a child was in the context of my Jewish Sunday school classroom. I had an overcrowded classroom with inexperienced and overwhelmed teachers and they had absolutely no idea how to deal with bullying. My one friend in the class was a girl who had some pretty significant mental impairments — she was born with hydrocephalus, and suffered some significant damage to her frontal lobes, leaving her with really poor impulse control. There were a ton of kids in this class who would amuse themselves by baiting her. On one particularly memorable Sunday I announced that I would punch the next person who baited J., and then did, to the shock and distress of the teacher (who, seriously, was more upset at having to deal with A SITUATION than she was about the bullying in the first place. If I sound kind of bitter about all this? I am.)
One of the things I have been pondering lately about bullying — there is a concept in accessibility called “universal design” which from what I understand expresses that when you design to allow wheelchair access, you strive to create a space that’s also just more usable for everyone. If you’ve ever opened a door by pressing the wheelchair-access button with your butt because your arms were full, you’ve experienced one example of how this can work.
I think universal design is a concept that can be applied pretty broadly, and particularly with anti-bullying curricula. My younger daughter attends a school that is about 20% Muslim. (There’s a large Somali population in my city, so most of these kids are immigrants or the children of immigrants.) It is absolutely unacceptable to the adults who run this school that any Somali girl would ever be made to feel ashamed of her hijab. The way they create this safety is that teasing about clothing is really, really unacceptable. Adults are alert to it and nip it in the bud. The net result is that one particularly vulnerable group is kept safe but everyone benefits: the poor kids are not teased about wearing old or unstylish clothes. My kids, who have eccentric tastes, are not teased. (Kiera likes to wear dresses with pants underneath. Molly, my older daughter, who previously attended this school, likes to wear head-to-toe orange, the brighter the better. No peer has ever teased her about this.) The first grade boy who came to school in a slightly oversized women’s leopard-print faux-fur coat was not teased. (I don’t know if this was gender variance, eccentric fashion taste, poverty, or the natural consequence of losing the coat his parents bought him in October, but he seemed to really like the coat so it was probably eccentricity or gender variance or both.)
When communities are committed to the idea that gay, trans, and gender-variant kids have an absolute basic right to feel safe at school, that doesn’t just benefit the gay, trans, and gender-variant kids. That benefits every kid, because when you build a school where teachers pay attention to the signs that things are not right, where kids believe that if they ask for help they can get it, etc., every child is safer.
Great comment, Naomi. I totally agree.