It has been decades now since I was in middle school. But I still can feel my cheeks going red with embarrassment, my eyes darting around to see who was listening, my sense of self wilting.
There was one kid who always started it. I never knew why I was the chosen target. I was not the only person he picked on -- there were many, really. They varied, which only served to make me feel more anxious.
It typically happened as the last of us were coming out of the lunch line, when the other tables were pretty much full. The moment of attack required the best audience. He’d wait until I was walking by his area, where he was sitting with a bunch of his buddies. He’d make sure that I was near enough, so that his calls were clearly meant only for me.
A lot of times, I would be almost completely by him. I was almost believing that today, finally, would be the day that it wouldn’t happen ... that the lunch period would be calm for me ... that I would not feel stupid ....
Then he’d start it. "Woof! Woof!! Woof!!" he’d bark. "There goes the dog!"
All his friends would laugh. I would continue walking to my friends, mortified, but holding my head high, determined to just not show how much it hurt.
Yet, literally all these years later, I can still feel the sting. (Why is there such power in something as simple as a noise?) My own two -- much loved -- sons and their friends (whom I so enjoy) are now about the same age as this boy was then.
Last weekend, my three children were asked in a general way about how school was going. The adult worried a bit about various actions that she thought might have been going on, now that classes had started. She asked them if they saw people picking on others in the hallways, or saying mean things? She questioned if it was hard to stand up for others if you saw something going on?
My middle son, the 7th-grader, shook his head. "That is not what happens," he stated firmly. The other two -- a 9th-grader and a 3rd-grader -- both rather determinedly agreed.
I’ve been thinking about this during the past week. I am quite sure that I am not the only adult around that acutely remembers painful things from my school years. I also realize that the "bullying" that I experienced pales in comparison to others.
But happily, I’ve seen firsthand our school district’s "no tolerance for bullying" policy in action. The WSESU has a stated mission that even encompasses this: "To provide a safe, inclusive and supportive environment where all students grow academically, socially and emotionally, and are challenged to reach their potential as local and global community members." Districtwide, officials are measuring harassment issues-and have action plans in place to continually improve their efforts to stop it. Students of all ages participate in "climate surveys" -- where they actually answer questions that ask them if they feel safe.
Things that we parents just accepted and brushed off as "kids being kids" are now reacted to by the adults in charge-and other students are actively trained in standing up for others. Last year, through a coordinated effort between the schools and the New England Youth Theatre, children were even led through powerful, lifelike scenes of potential situations they might face.
Of course, not all students will say that they feel safe. In fact, in the 2012 Climate Survey for our district, 10 percent did say that they did "not perceive school as a safe place." -- 1 in 10 kids find it, at some level, uncomfortable to go to school. That’s not good, and I’m thrilled that there are many action steps already identified in each of the school’s plans to address ways to change that.
But to flip that, though, the statistic is saying that 90 percent of the kids do find it a safe place. I wonder, would 90 percent of us adults have said that, when we were kids? I suppose that I thought school was "safe" -- but I didn’t feel "safe" in that lunchroom. So many years later, I am honestly not sure how I would have responded to that question as a 7th-grader.
The part that has most swirled in my head this week is this great change. During the discussion with the kids, the other adults listening were all nodding -- clearly remembering their own pains suffered as they were growing up. Of course, I have no way of knowing what others were really thinking ... but from their expressions and quick cringes, it seemed the adults were clearly remembering.
But my own children found this idea foreign. Why would school mean bad memories of being picked on?
And for that simple, but major, shift, I think we are doing something right here in this town.
Jill Stahl Tyler is a parent to three children involved in the local schools-now at the high school, middle school and elementary school levels! She firmly believes in all education, and currently sits on the board for the Brattleboro School Endowment, the Brattleboro Town School Board and the Early Education Services policy council.