It all started last year when BooBoo brought a rubber ball to school to play with at recess. After playing with it for a few minutes, a kid named Trevor confiscated it for his own amusement. Words were spoken, a struggle was had, and tears were shed. Trevor was swiftly reprimanded for his actions and first grade life went back to normal.
Or so we thought. Unfortunately for BooBoo, Trevor was a classmate with an apparent axe to grind. So from that recess forward, BooBoo became the sole target of Trevor’s aggressive and passive-aggressive behavior. There were secret arm grabs and pinches, personal items that mysteriously went “missing,” verbal threats, put-downs, and even a random rumor about BooBoo pooping his pants. My son, a spirited boy who’d always loved school, was slowly being reduced to a defeated child who complained about stomach pains on school days. My kid who used to skip out of the school gate upon dismissal now shuffled slowly with his head hung low. When I’d ask how his day went, sometimes there would be tears, other times there would be silence, and still other times there would be only one word spoken: “Trevor.”
Who was this Trevor? Was he a misunderstood kid? Did he have good parents? Surely there was something we could do. After talking with my son’s teacher and exhaustively addressing every personal concern, I felt reasonably confident our troubles with Trevor would be over.
But they continued.
Frustrated, I instructed my son to ignore Trevor. But how could he ignore a child who refused to be ignored? He couldn’t.
My husband, a man rarely concerned with undeserved niceties, had another idea. “The next time Trevor does anything to you, I want you to stand tall and shout at the top of your lungs, ‘Trevor! You need to stop [insert offense]!’ You need to say it so loud that everyone — students, teachers, supervisors, and especially Trevor — hears you.” I could see this was a tall order for BooBoo. He was a tenderhearted child who was nice to everyone, even his bully. He’d already tried forgiveness. He’d already tried standing up for himself the best way he knew how. He’d told all the right people and did all the right things, but as a 6-year-old, he struggled to understand the whys of it all. Why was this happening to him? Why was Trevor acting like this? Why didn’t Trevor like him?
No closer to resolution, we sat down again with BooBoo’s teacher, who was now joined by the assistant principal. Knowing the school had a strict no-bullying policy, I trusted there was a plan in place to address such matters of harassment.
“Maybe your son should try making friends with Trevor,” the assistant principal suggested. Excuse me? Was this the best solution they could offer?
“Wait a minute!” I shouted (probably louder than I intended to), “You’re asking my son to make friends with a child who’s caused him suffering all year long?”
“Well, yes. I’ve found that so often, kids who bully are just seeking out attention. Your son is a popular child and all the students want to be friends with him. This might be the case with Trevor; he’s just going about it wrong,” the assistant principal concluded.
“No! Absolutely not. My son will not make friends with this boy, nor will he have any contact with him from this point forward. If you need to remove my son from his classroom, then do it. Do whatever you need to do to keep Trevor far away from my son. Friendships are supposed to be mutual and healthy, not fueled by intimidation or toxicity. I know this would all be a whole lot easier for you guys if [BooBoo] and Trevor could be friends, but that’s never going to happen. I will not allow that to happen.”
Did I overreact? Could a forced friendship eventually transform into a genuine one? Perhaps, but I wasn’t betting on it. You see, growing up I was forced into one of those unhealthy “friendships” with my bully.
Having attended a private Christian school, forgiveness was the golden rule. So when I began having problems with a girl named Molly in the second grade, I was instructed to forgive and friend her like a good neighbor should. But Molly wouldn’t make it easy.
Like me, Molly was in the second grade, but she was a year older and towered over me by at least 5 inches. And she was a bully. My bully. I’m not really sure how the abuse started, but I do remember Molly picking me up against my will, swinging me around as I’d struggle to break free, and tossing me onto the far corner of the blacktop near the lunch tables. She did that a lot. She’d intimidate me, drive friends away from me, smother me, and tell people we were best friends. And because even a class of 7-year-olds could tell that something wasn’t quite right with Molly, no one dared to doubt her.
I was a shy kid who liked Rainbow Brite, hopscotch, and jelly bracelets; I wasn’t the kind to make waves and Molly knew it. So I took it. I felt bad for her. I tried to be her friend at the continual advisement of my teacher and school staff, but my efforts didn’t matter. Molly harassed me when I was nice, she harassed me when I withdrew, and she continued to harass me for three more years.
By the time fifth grade rolled around, picking me up and tossing me around wasn’t so easy anymore. There were now shoves, threatening notes, and insults. While I’d hid the bulk of the bullying from my parents, our ongoing struggle landed us in the principal’s office mid-year. According to Molly, she just really liked me and considered me her best friend. How we were “friends” I didn’t exactly know. She’d made me feel small (both physically and emotionally) and the last time I checked, friendship wasn’t supposed to do that. The school asked me to forgive her, to pray on it, but all I could do was pray that Molly would leave me alone. Guilt made me feel as if I should forgive, but there was too much hurt and too much history to let it go so easily. Molly made school painful and confusing. She caused me to doubt myself, question friendship, and feel as if I was the bad guy when I’d done nothing wrong.
A few weeks later Molly was gone. I didn’t know where she went or why. I didn’t know if her parents pulled her out of school or if she was instructed to leave. All I knew was that one day she was there and the next, she was gone. People asked me where she went, you know, because we were such great friends. I didn’t know. I didn’t care. For a moment, I felt that familiar guilt wash over me as I thanked God for answering my prayer. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I made a subconscious promise to myself to never suffer through a relationship like that again. I’d speak up sooner and louder. I’d run for the hills. I’d play the bad guy — anything to escape the emotional and physical turmoil of abuse.
And it was that promise that forced me to speak up on behalf of my son. While BooBoo and Trevor’s situation may never have reached “Molly” proportions, I knew that leading a victim into the lion’s den wasn’t the answer.
It’s the bullies who’ve got work to do, not the victims. Let’s enable our kids to expect more from their relationships. Let’s encourage them to stand up, speak up, or simply shout “NO!” to circumstances that don’t feel right. School shouldn’t be scary. Bullies shouldn’t get a free pass. And friendship shouldn’t hurt.