You might guess that bullying starts in middle school. . . . or late elementary school. Well, think again. My older son is only in second grade, and this year he has experienced six acts of bullying, one of which resulted in an injury. But this wasn't even the first time he found himself at the receiving end of bad behavior by mean boys (and a girl).
Both of my sons attended a preschool in a neighboring city. It was only ten minutes away by car and offered long hours during which I could work on my book-length memoir without being interrupted. There were aspects of the school I didn't like but none greater than one ill-behaved child.
One day as my older son was playing atop a plastic pirate-ship structure, this boy lobbed a golf-ball-sized rock in his direction from a distance of about twenty-five feet. It hit my five year old on the side of the head. Two days later this kid picked up another small rock scattered amongst the woodchips and again hurled it at Christopher, hitting him in the middle of the back this time. He also pushed both of my sons -- Charlie was only three at the time -- down slides, called Christopher "stupid" and "a liar," and mocked his gorgeous red hair. He was pretty horrible to the teachers as well, rolling his eyes at them, talking back, and not listening to their instructions.
I think he should have been kicked out of the school immediately. But the director allowed him to stay several more weeks until the end of the school year. He was then not allowed to join the summer program before his kindergarten year at the neighborhood elementary school. Needless to say, I was a nervous wreck worrying about my boys those weeks following the rock incidents.
Christopher had only one issue of a bullying nature kindergarten year at our town's elementary school. Three days in a row he was chased around at recess by a certain boy. My younger son would have probably welcomed such a pursuit, but Christopher didn't like it. The teachers caught on the third day, and they put a stop to it.
Since first grade was bully-free, this year feels out of whack by comparison. The problems started in the fall during an after-school game of four square. Christopher hit a particularly good shot that bounced high near the head of an opponent who was unable to return the ball. Instead of acknowledging the effective shot and stepping temporarily out of the game, according to the rules, he kicked my son out of the game. "You are banned from four square for two months," he said.
The next day Christopher tried to go back into the popular game. His friends were playing, and he had done nothing wrong so why shouldn't he? Well, the other boy saw him and scolded: "I thought I banned you."
My son has not tried to play four square with that group again, at least while that boy is there. It's too bad because he really likes four square. He tells me he will return to it this summer at the school's day camp. The offending boy didn't attend last year so may not again this year.
In the winter, my son was shoved to the ground in gym class. He fell onto the hardwood floor, and three of his fingers were pinched under a folding door separating the gym from the cafeteria. How it happened is this: The kids in his class were -- yep, you guessed it! -- playing four square when the teacher called them one by one to pick their lunch-seat assignments out of a bucket. After obtaining their assignments, they were to return to their games in the same rotation. But when my son reclaimed his position another boy pushed him to the ground. It was very uncharacteristic of this child, and my son suspects it wasn't even his idea. Just before it happened Christopher saw a girl in the class make eye contact with the boy and nod her head. Christopher believes the girl, whom he describes as being not nice to him on a few earlier occasions, was egging the boy on.
Little League has provided the source of the most recent bullying episodes. A couple of weeks ago my son heard a boy he passed in the hallway at school say, "The Phillies stink!" Christopher is a member of the AA Phillies team. The person who made the comment is on another team in the league. Chris believes the remark was directed at him because he was the only team member in that area of the hallway as the boys passed one another. The bully was wearing his team shirt and walking with other boys; Chris was walking alone. Chris says he doesn't know which player it was because he did not look back to see (or he might not want to tell me).
A week ago we arrived at my younger son's tee ball clinic in town. As I am a full-time single mother, each of my sons must hang around the other one's sporting events and other activities. Seeing a father hit fly balls to a group of boys -- the older siblings of tee ball players -- I encouraged Christopher to join them since he too had brought along his mitt. Yet as he approached the boys, the familiar refrain rang out: "The Phillies stink!" Again Chris can't (or won't) divulge which child said it. Unfortunately, I didn't witness the event as I was still collecting things from the car. But I did arrive a moment later so I know who was there. And if my suspicions are correct, one boy is responsible for the majority of offenses against my son.
While walking to lunch with his class a few days ago, Chris overheard what else? "The Phillies stink." A different boy on the same team as the bully just mentioned said it to a teammate in the main hallway.
Why is there so much more bullying this year?
I blame the increase on the hyped-up competitiveness of growing boys and the macho sports culture that starts with Little League. In the fall, my son played football . . . but on a team that competed against kids in a neighboring city not kids on other teams from his own school.
That makes a difference.
While basketball was set up the same way as baseball, my son reports experiencing no negativity at school or outside of it based on which team he was on. Teams were more evenly balanced according to player ability, with no one team dominating play and no young participants (at least that I know of) acting cocky and obnoxious about their victories.
Yet I don't necessarily view this year as an aberration. Rather, I see it as a sign of things to come. It's not easy growing up male today. Each boy (and girl, for that matter) needs to find a way to toughen up against the epidemic of bullying.
Back in the school hallway, the last time an opposing player badmouthed Chris's team he was not alone in hearing the slander. Another Philly did as well, and he took the opportunity to respond to the poor sport when his team beat the latter's that very day in a game of gym-class kickball. "It might have been karma that caused your team to lose because you called our team losers," he said.
I want to teach my son how to make a snappy comeback like that.