When Heather picked her 8-year-old daughter up from school last week, Adeline was all smiles. Her second grade class spent the week preparing for Martin Luther King Day, and she was beaming as she handed her mom the mobile she made in his honor.
“Oh, Adeline, I love this,” Heather exclaimed, admiring the rainbow cloud and crayon-colored portrait of Dr. King. Then she read Adeline’s art-rendered version of his iconic speech, and her heart sank:
I have a dream that one day there will be flying cars, I will be a famous gymnastics star, and bullies will stop bullying.
“As soon as I read the bully one, I started to cry right there in my car,” said Heather, “I know our insecurities and fears often come out in art, and the last few months have been really hard for Adeline.”
Adeline always loved school. She would bounce out of bed each morning, eager to start the day. “She would choose one of her signature outfits,” Heather remembers, “Lots of bright colors and crazy patterns, and ask me to do her hair in some fun version of a side ponytail. She was completely confident and it was amazing to watch.” Other moms would tell Heather how much they adored Adeline’s spirit, her individuality, how they wished their own children were more like her. But in November, something changed.
“She just stopped wanting to get up in the morning, she didn’t want to go to school, or try anything new at all. Her attitude was completely different. It was like someone took a light switch and turned off our carefree, confident daughter and replaced her with someone much more sad.” After many casual conversations failed to uncover the problem, Heather finally sat her daughter down and forced her to talk.
“Mommy, the kids at school tell me I am ugly every day,” Adeline said, tears streaming down her beautiful face. “They call me stupid when we work on math problems. They make fun of the clothes I wear. They yell at me on the bus. I don’t have a single friend in my whole class. I feel so alone.”
Through her own tears Heather asked if Adeline told the teacher what was going on. It turns out she had, many times. “She just tells me not to tattle,” Adeline explained, “I don’t want to get in trouble.” Infuriated, Heather contacted the teacher. “I was very professional, but I told her how much this was affecting Adeline. I wanted answers. I wanted to know what she was going to do to fix this situation.”
After several back-and-forth emails, the teacher assured Heather that she would would separate Adeline from the children who were tormenting her the most, but it seemed the damage had already been done.
The bullying didn’t stop, months went by and Adeline was still a target. Heather tried to build her daughter up at home, but her self esteem was torn down repeatedly at school. At gymnastics, Adeline asked her mom to stop putting her hair into the stylish bun she was known for, she wanted a ponytail “just like everyone else.” When she started taking violin lessons, she would shut down whenever she made a mistake. She couldn’t handle disappointment. When Heather told her she was beautiful, she shook her head. “No, I’m not. I’m ugly.”
“Trying to validate her didn’t have an impact because what the kids said mattered more to her than the truth. The bullies were winning. I felt like I was watching her slip away.”
As Heather stared at the “I Have a Dream” mobile, she realized there were still two other dreams listed on the art project. One, about the flying car, exemplified Adeline’s creativity, and the other, about gymnastics, showed her drive and desire to succeed. Maybe her daughter was still there after all.
“People say that kids need to toughen up, that they should work out these problems themselves, that kids will be kids. Well, I disagree. Children aren’t as emotionally mature as adults. It’s our job to protect them until they are strong enough to handle this kind of torment. I want her to grow into the person she’s supposed to be, and this is damaging her.”
When asked what will happen if the bullying starts again in the new school, Heather said, “I will definitely keep moving her if I have to, I will be in the parking lot every day, I will talk to the parents. It starts there and it can stop there. I’ll do whatever it takes.”
“My husband and I aren’t like everyone else,” Heather explains. “Our living room has more music equipment than furniture. My kitchen table isn’t perfectly arranged, it’s a mess with art supplies strewn everywhere. My kids are going to be more weird, so to speak, because we are unconventional. We may live in a conservative neighborhood, but we don’t necessarily fit in. We are city people in suburbia. I know that we’re different, and I’m proud of that. People who try their whole lives to be like everyone else miss out on what’s really important. I don’t want that for Adeline. Protecting who she is at her core is as important as keeping her physically safe. It’s my job.”
“For Christmas I bought her these rainbow sequined suspenders she asked for. She wore them to school one day, but when she came home, I found them hidden in her backpack. She never wore them again. I hope she wears them on the first day at her new school. I want her to go in as herself. Keep being different and weird, little girl. I think ‘weird’ is a good word. You’re perfect just the way you are.”
When I asked Adeline how she felt about her mom sticking up for her and pulling her out of that school, she simply said, “It makes me so happy. My mom loves me very much.”
In the iconic words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” All parents have dreams for their children, some big, some small, and love might be the best weapon we have as we fight to make those dreams a reality.
Photos courtesy of Heather Allgood