The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Friday, March 18, 2005

There's a small figure at my elbow, as I listen to eleven year old Jody haltingly read through her work.
He hovers, uncertain, a three and a half foot high shadow just out of peripheral view.

An age passes. I look up, and see old eyes in a tiny, young boy's body.
"Miss, can I tell you something?"
Is it about school, Michael? He can stray a little from the subject on occasion. I've learnt the dividends this question can offer.
Serious nod. Tears forming. Nervous lips ready to speak, but not wanting to say.
Is it something you want help with?
"Miss, I'm being bullied." The drama of the statement belied by the whispered delivery.

Okay, then wait while I listen to Jody read this, and I'll ask you to come back up.
"Yes Miss." Michael obediently sits back down and continues colouring his 'scary poem'.

Jody finishes the harder parts of her exercise (what is the personality of Tom like?) and goes back to her seat to write up the easier question we've also discussed (do you think you like Tom?), armed with useful suggestions on how to add a 'because clause' to her writing.

Okay, Michael, you can talk to me now. Is it a child at this school?
Silent nod.
Is it a child in this class?
Silent shake.
Is it a child who is older than you?
Shake. Eyes widening.
Do you know this child's name?
Nod. Tremble.

I'll cut the next fifteen minutes short for you: it was Joe. I'd moved him down a set from my literacy class of children with mild learning difficulties, three months ago. He'd been a sweet but very scatty boy, the sort you end up teaching sat next to, so you can place a swift restraining hand on their arm at the first sign of inveitable twitchiness. Joe's very boisterous, and very very bored by a curriculum he has not the slightest hope of being able to read or undertand. That's not the point.

Joe had walked past me at breaktime last week, and I'd been shocked at how tall he'd grown - the dizzy heights of four foot something, already, in one year. Not the point.
Michael had mentioned that Joe had hit him in an Art lesson last week. He had also recently scored abysmally low in a classroom test, and had asked me three different times if he were being moved down a set. Was I really thinking of moving him down? Really and truly could he stay in the same class? Day after day.
Harassed and hectored by the imminent end of term, I'd not noticed the conversational satellites he was sending out.
Watching the trust he was placing in me now, by saying this, knowing my impotence to help, I saw suddenly how many times he had tried to speak these words.

Michael had already told his tutor, his head of year - everyone knew that he was having problems with the now much taller, much more powerful Joe. I'd done a bullying conference between Michael and Kerry just last Friday, which had ended in amicable apologies and restored trust. The schools' anti-bullying strategies were all being utilised and juddering slowly into place. That's not the point.
I was bullied horribly at school. Several schools. I know how disfiguring it can be, how it affects liveliness, temper, grades, and attendance. I know how the victim plays a certain passively inviting role in the bullying, too - how we can make it worse by a certain response. Which is not the point.

I know how much longer than eleven years of compulsory schooling it takes to work off the effects. I was nineteen before I looked up every one of the kids who had bullied me, and turned up on their doorstep to talk, amicably, about it. In each case, not one bully was aware of what effect their words had dealt me. They had grown into reasonable, intelligent people. That's not the point.

Instead of allowing myself to carry bitterness forward through my life, I decided to listen fairly to them, and give credence to what they had to say, as, without exception, they also did for me, a virtual stranger from their past.
I believed them, their protestations of unknowing casual harm, and subsequently wondered who I had bullied without even knowing. That, too is not the point.
The point is that I don't see bullying.

Teachers never see bullying.

If there's one thing that is important for a bully to succeed - crucial to the task of bullying, in fact - it's to keep it out of the teacher's view.
As a child, I literally could not conceive of a world in which the adults around me could not see how swamped my world had become by violent, sustained attack. I used to wonder if they were testing me, judging my resilience, before they finally, eventually would intervene.
As an adult, and an adult with a responsibililty to stop bullying amongst 250 students a year, I see nothing.

Not a single whisper. Not a dirty look, or a shove.

No pencils taken, no books grabbed and ripped up, thrown away. No friends from outside of school roped in to spit or claw scratch. The poison in the apparently friendly question, the menace in the apparently lukewarm tone.

No stealing or name calling, or sexual aggression. I never hear the nasty nicknames. I never see the trippings up outside the classroom, the explicit notes scrawled across a bag, the smears of fetid substances left across the back of a uniform, the missiles lodged in the hair.

I can't confront the dehumanising of the victim, because I can't see where it happens.

I know that 95% of schoolchildren say that bullying - serious bullying - occurs in front of them in their schools.

I sit in the same rooms, and I don't see any of it.

It's one of the reasons I became a teacher, and it's the hardest thing to fail at.

I told Michael to keep a diary of the bullying - that teachers and families often don't realise that it's not the pencil he snapped, or the poke with the ruler, or the crude vigour of a nasty name that sticks in the memory and keeps you awake at night - it's the horrifying repetitiousness of knowing these minor infractions will continue every day.
A diary of events - no names, no glamourising, no showing off, just flatly recorded simple events - can show a disinterested adult in one swoop how long and how demeaning a bully's words and actions have become.
It's hard to argue when a child has documented that this is happening every day.
Can you get yourself a notepad, Michael, to write this in?

"Yes Miss."

Good boy. Now sit down, but let me know in two weeks how you feel about this.

"Miss?" Ten minutes later, another tug at my sleeves, and my heartstrings.

"I don't have a notepad." Barely audible whisper.

I'll get you one, Michael. I'll bring you it tomorrow. Is that okay? Have we done with this now, for the time being?

Silent nod. And I feel, rightly or wrongly, for this kid, for this incident, and for the kid who's been accused, just today: at least I tried.

Some bullying resources. Just in case.