Some of the most painful things that ever happened to me happened in childhood. One day after school, I sat in the car with my mom, facing the tree in our side yard, and crying and crying and telling her I was never going back to school. I had no friends. My only friend, in my class, was pretending she didn’t know me, so she could hang out with more popular kids. Much to my surprise, I did not die. And I went back to school. It’s not all sunshine in childhood, and if it was, adulthood would be impossible. People need practice in working through trouble.
The New York Times has been doing a series on cyber bullying: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/05/us/05bully.html . There’s been a lot of bullying talk lately. The Times piece reminded me of a book I’ve been reading about anxiety. It suggests that living with your anxiety is better than trying to train yourself out of it, or medicate it off. Anxiety, they say, is normal. Anxiety is pain, and pain is normal. Better to live with it than try to kill it. It won’t die until you do, and if you kill it, you’ll kill a vital part of yourself. I don’t love the idea. To accept and work with anxiety is hard. The trouble is, it also works a lot better for me.
The discussion of bullying often presupposes that pain is a bad thing. That kids will be irreparably damaged– a parent in the article told her daughter, who was bullying, that her victim would “be destroyed for the rest of her life.” Really? “Destroyed”? “For the rest of her life”? Humans have survived the Holocaust and the slave trade. Surely this girl can survive some nasty comments, uncomfortable feelings, and being alone. I’m much more worried about us telling kids that they are fragile and weak than I am worried about temporary pain.
When people are cruel to you, you can learn a lot. You can learn that other people don’t have to define you. You can learn that a sting of insult that feels like it will never go away… will, eventually, go away. You can even learn to forgive. Suffering is a great teacher. Like a lot of your teachers, you hate her, but you can’t deny she is instructive.
It’s not that adults don’t need to step in, or kids don’t need comfort and advice and boundaries. The ultimate goal, though, can’t be about stopping cruelty– an impossible task. It has to be about making kids wiser and stronger. Helping them learn who to trust, and how to be assertive. How to persevere through hard times and built up their stamina.
When students poked at me and tried to provoke me, my first year of teaching, I had enough sense of myself to remember, “I didn’t dress to please 15-year-olds. I like my shoes.” I’m really not sure I could have done that without the kids who bullied me over the years. I wish there was another way I could have learned that, but I don’t know what it would have been.