A Story Of A 14 Year Old Target: The Antidote To Bullying…

Posted: September 8, 2012 in For Educators, For Parents and Guardians, For Teenagers
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A young boy, about 14, came into my office with 4 other boys. They were all there to try to find out how they could get their ID’s so they would be let in to the cafeteria. The 5 of them shared the same expression… the expression that nervous kids wear when they’re trying to appear comfortable.

It was their 2nd day of high school as new 9th graders in my Brooklyn high school with almost 3000 kids. Their nervousness was obvious, normal, and to be expected.

My words came easy to me (I’ve done this many times before), and after a few kind, understanding words, and a couple of comforting (and deliberately unfunny) jokes… they bravely (though still nervously) went on their ways together through the crowded halls to the cafeteria.

Except one.

While the others were leading the reluctant charge out of my office, the 5th boy, who stood behind them all with his back to my wall, who was a tallish, lean, good looking kid with shaggy, “skateboarder” type hair, asked me if there was any way he could be allowed to wear his hood.

His question piqued my curiosity… as do most strangely placed reasonable questions asked by a student. It was respectful. He asked because clearly, he didn’t want to break a school rule. And it was definitely motivated by some other less obvious need… and so I did what I normally do when a young person does or says something that triggers even the slightest hint of a concern… I smiled at him and told him to grab a seat “for a second”.

And it didn’t take long to get a clear picture of what was going on. This kid was a good kid, clearly. And he was carrying with him an added anxiety that made him ask me, a complete stranger, to be allowed to do something we both knew he wasn’t allowed to do.

And so after less than a minute, and with some purposefully placed and reassuring questions, this young man bravely told me that he’s been losing his hair, and “not just a little”. He explained to me that the doctors were trying to figure out what was going on, but that “his bald spot just kept growing”. And after this young man showed me the bald spot that covered nearly the whole back of his head that was barely obscured by his intentionally long and shaggy hair… I got it.

I got his need. This kid, on his 2nd day of high school, was just looking for any way possible to minimize the likelihood of being teased. He was just trying to find a way to keep the anxiety of starting high school at it’s normal level and not have it magnified by this “really weird” (his words, not mine) bald patch on the back of his head.

So with my most reassuring smile, I set out on my mission. I set out, with my tone, my directness and my confidence, to assure him that I was going to listen to him and help him navigate his minefield. I committed to teaching him, in this first interaction, that 1) there was an adult in this huge new and unknown building that he could talk to about anything, that 2) good things can happen when you communicate honestly and openly and bravely, and most importantly, that 3) there was a way to not have to hide, and a way to trust that he’d be fine, regardless of how he looked, or what others said to, or about him.

Right now, all of us are in period where the issue of “bullying” is on every adult’s, and child’s minds. We’re all worrying about the impact that being bullied has on a young persons safety and sense of self. We’re worried about kids killing themselves to escape bullying and we’re worried about kids becoming bullies as a way of stealing back some power.

And here I was in front of one of the thousands of kids I’ve known and will get to know, giving to him the gift that each kid deserves to be given… the idea that there is a way to reject and remain unharmed by the verbal and emotional attacks directed towards them. That there’s a point any of us can get to, where we realize that we have the power to choose whose words affect us… and whose don’t.

No kid deserves to be taunted or teased. Every kid needs to know there are adults in their lives who will back them up. And every adult needs to be more vigilant to the realities of young people today.

But whether we like it or not, teasing and harassing and bullying are a part of the developmental process. It’s true. We all know it, no matter how old we are, and because of this irrefutable truth, we need to do a better job at arming kids with the tools to cope, rather than fruitlessly trying to shield them from something that’s inevitably going to happen.

Instead, we need to teach our kids, like this kid with the “weird bald spot”, that it’s in them to have the quiet confidence that can empower them to hear verbal attacks, yet not let them in to cause harm. And I’m not talking about telling our kids to sit back and allow the abuse to continue… of course we should teach them to reach out for support when it exceeds a threshold we help them define. Nor am I suggesting that we teach our kids that bullying is normal or acceptable.

What I’m saying is that it’s in each kid, if there are adults in their lives to tell them as such, that they are more than capable of hearing a tease or a harsh word, of looking the bully in the eye, of shrugging off the attempt at harm, and moving forward in the direction of their choice.

Just as it’s in this young man with the attention-grabbing bald spot to be able to react to the next kid who says something stupid and mean, with a confident look, a sturdy shrug, and a step forward in the direction of his choice.

I spoke to this 9th grader for a few more minutes. We talked about quiet confidence. I told him that when, not if, the teasing happens, he’s got adults he can come to for support or help if he needs it. I told him that he wasn’t alone. And I assured him that everyone who has ever walked the planet, has had insecurities targeted and mocked by others… including me.

And then I introduced to him to what I knew. I told him the truth that the character and the confidence he needed to become graceful and strong with any shot that comes his way, was absolutely already a part of who he was. I told him straight away, that sitting there with me and speaking to me as openly as he did, was proof that it was in him to walk tall with ease and confidence… with or without the hair he preferred.

And he cracked a smile, looked me in the eye, and answered my question by saying “yeah Mr. Rockman, I believe you”.

And then I wrote myself a note to check on him the next day…

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