“Do you have a moment, Heather?” asked my son’s sixth grade teacher. Her voice was tight and concerned. I clutched my cell phone at my ear.
“Sure.” My pulse quickened.
“Your son and his friends are a bit too bold. Sometimes they’re not so nice.”
I swallowed hard and listened as she recounted my son’s questionable behavior. The teacher told me he wasn’t a bad kid and boys his age often jockey for position, but any hint of bullying was not okay. His gang was loud, rambunctious, and didn’t allow weaker kids to sit at their lunch table. When we finished the conversation, I hung up the phone feeling like a total failure as a mother.
In our small Pennsylvania town, word spreads fast and I didn’t want my son labeled a bully. I knew it was my responsibility to fix this now. But I was more frightened that he might actually be an intimidator. This crushed me because I thought he understood the torment I’d endured. Like the heroine of 13 Reasons Why, I was the victim of bullying that made me shy and afraid as a teenager.
My tormentor was a super popular knockout with a ton of friends. But she became enraged anytime I beat her in the 400-yard dash in gym class. “Heather is a whore,” she chanted in the 8th grade locker room, encouraging the other girls to join in. Another time she cut up my school picture and taped it back together. She created a disfigured puzzle of my face and then passed it around the entire school. At a county track meet, she refused to hand me the baton in our relay race until the other runners passed me. She was more interested in humiliating me than helping our team.
I was the oldest of four children. My Temple University valedictorian mother turned full-time housewife enrolled me in a “finishing/modeling school,” hoping to build my self-confidence and help me to stand up to the mean girl ruining my life. It worked. By sixteen, I was on a work/study program. I spent my morning in my rural Pennsylvania school and then hopped a bus to New York for auditions. We settled into an unspoken truce, the mean girl and me, ignoring each other during the limited time I was in school. Still I always checked over my shoulder sure that she could strike at any moment. I couldn’t wait to flee my small town.
I left for a long time. But when our son was born, my husband and I returned to the same county I’d escaped, wanting him to grow up near his grandparents. Years later, with that phone call from my son’s teacher, I was on the other—the mother of the mean kid.
We had hard talks—my son, my husband, and me. I shared my story so he’d understand how cruel and damaging unkind words and actions could be. First he had to apologize. I told him that if I had a report of another hint of bullying, he’d be punished. Because he was an athlete, I made kindness a sport, challenging him to play The Compliment Game. To win, he had to give three compliments a day to a teammate, family member, or friend.
The message got through. His teachers picked him to be a poetry buddy with a classmate who kids were picking on. My son cared about his partner and they became allies. In high school, with his jock pals, he befriended special needs students, sitting with them at lunch. I was proud when I checked his phone and found that he Face Timed and texted these new buddies outside of school. Later he volunteered and was chosen to help with the Special Olympics field day. Now a high school senior, he’s thinking about majoring in Special Education in college.
The other day, I bumped into my bully at the bank. We’re both forty-seven now. She’s still gorgeous.
“How are your children?” I asked as I moved ahead in the line for the bank teller.
“Kids are tough. It’s so much harder than I imagined.” She smiled almost apologetically. “And yours?”
I gave her a quick answer and my best fake smile. It was good she couldn’t read my mind because I thinking, “Please don’t let my son become what you were.”
I cashed my check and left quickly, still haunted.
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Blowing out someone else’s candle doesn’t make yours any brighter.
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Sunday, Feb. 11, 3-5, I’m having a book launch celebration for my just-released Young Adult novel WHAT THE VALLEY KNOWS at the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts. To combat meanness in the world, part of the festivities will include a KINDNESS ROCKS station. Learn more about the KINDNESS ROCKS PROJECT HERE. Everyone is invited! I hope to see you the 11th!
GoggleWorks Center for the Arts
201 Washington Street
Reading, PA 19601
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Till next time,