The Other Bullying Problem

"alone" courtesy c-louise, sxc

There is a lot of attention focused on the problem of bullying in schools right now, which is a good thing.

There are lots of stories right now about kids bullying other kids. All this reminds me of two related stories from my own family history where the bullies weren’t kids.  Just the victims.

I’ll never forget the day I learned what the word “tenure” meant.  The first day of 5th grade, in a long, terrifying speech, my teacher explained to the entire class that “tenure” meant she could do whatever she wanted to us, and we better not go crying to our parents.

If Day 1 began with a preemptive “if you report me, it’s just going to mean you get it worse” speech, you can imagine how the rest of the year went.

Some teachers frankly shouldn’t be allowed within 10 miles of children. Brenda Lee was one of them. Unbelievably, she’s still teaching in this school system. If my kids are ever assigned to her, I’ll homeschool them that year.  Maybe she’s a changed woman who’s done intensive anger management work, but regardless, I’m not taking any chances with my kids.

Let’s go ahead and call what she did what it was: abuse.  When adults fail to control their anger and bully children, that’s abuse. Usually emotional (and that was brutal enough), but occasionally she’d smack kids as well when she was really on a rampage.  Each year, she singled out a handful of kids.  Like all bullies, she picked those least likely to stand up for themselves, or to have someone else stand up for them.  I fit the profile marvelously.

The worst part 5th grade was when I came home crying every. single. day… and my mom’s response was “You’re just oversensitive. If I go to the teacher or the principal, it’ll just make things worse.”

Late in the school year, it got so bad that the other kids complained to their parents.  There was a hearing at school. From then on, teachers had to have at least one other teacher present to discipline students.  Mrs. Lee seethed with rage the week after the hearing, so much that she stuttered when she spoke.  But the abuse stopped, at least for the rest of that year. I think it was as close as she ever got to being genuinely afraid of losing her job.  Apparently, that was the year she learned “tenure” didn’t mean a free pass to take out all your anger on little kids.

A few years later, my mom told me a story from her own childhood. She’d had a scary teacher as well in late elementary. My mom was as fair as my daughter is, with pale blond hair and nearly invisible eyelashes.  One day, she asked her mom if she could wear just enough mascara that you could tell she had eyelashes.  So her mom, my grandma Pearl, put on a tiny bit.

Her teacher didn’t take it well, humiliated my (very shy) mom, and made her stand at the front of the class the entire day.  She went home crying and told her mom about it.

This may have been a tactical error on Mom’s part, given her mom’s forceful personality.

I loved my grandma dearly, but she was a redheaded terror. You didn’t tell her what to do, and you damn sure didn’t tell her how she could send her own daughter to school.  The next day, she made up my mom’s face, in Mom’s words “like a $2 hooker,” dragged her to school, and then proceeded to dress down the teacher and dare her to comment on Mom’s appearance.  All of which was 10x worse for my mom than standing in front of the class.

In hindsight, I understand why my mom reacted the way she did to my dilemma. She didn’t want a repeat of her own experience. She may well have been right that speaking up would have escalated the abuse in the short term. The adult me completely gets that.

Unfortunately, the 5th grade me heard “toughen up” as “you’re the real problem here” and “me going to the teacher will only make things worse” as “I’m not going to stand up for you, and neither should you.”

I’m not sure I have a real point with these stories, other than they’re true, and timely, and I wanted to share them. As with all my stories, take away from them whatever you find valuable.  That said, a few closing thoughts from your storyteller:

  • When an adult acts like a bullying child to actual children, that’s abuse. It has no place in society, and certainly no place in schools.
  • In both stories, the parent involved put protecting their own insecurities ahead of protecting their kid, they just did it in opposite ways.  What neither parent did was get over her own issues long enough to figure out what was really best for her daughter.
  • While neither my mom nor I were raised in single parent homes, there are no dads involved anywhere in either of these stories. Their absence in the stories is as telling as the moms’ actions. This is one of the reasons I love Chris so much. There are precious few significant stories in my kids’ lives so far that don’t have a “and then Dad…” part.
  • I know I’ve failed my own kids in the “getting over your own stuff enough to do what’s best for them” department. Particularly as a young parent. I’ve confessed my failings to my kids, because it’s important that they know they’re not the problem with my bad behavior. What I think maybe I ought to do as well, is ask them to pray for their dad and me to have the wisdom to parent them well.

If you find anything good and valuable in the story and feel like sharing, or have your own story to share, drop it in the comments, or email me at katina [at] internet-bard dot com.

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3 Comments


  1. ·

    I had Betty Combs for my fifth grade teacher. While she didn’t start the school year with an imperious “you can’t touch me” speech, her love of demeaning students was legend. Students cowered at the thought of getting her.

    Things came to a head when I was placed in a gifted program. One day a week three of us taken from her class to participate in special studies. She refused to tell us what was covered in class while we were gone, and refused to give us the homework. She threatened the other students with detention if they told us. I complained to the gifted teacher, who said she had tried to come to terms with Mrs. Combs but couldn’t. I went to the principal on my own, who refused to believe my “tall tale”. I was a good student and didn’t want to get a bad grade so I went to my mother. She called the teacher and very politely asked if I could be given the opportunity to make up the work.

    The next day Mrs. Combs called me up in front of class and berated me in front of everyone. She said that since the other two students in the gifted program weren’t tattletales she would give them A’s on the work they missed, but I would have to make up the the homework for the last six weeks period. It was due the next day. My mother worked 3rd shift and didn’t get home until nearly midnight. I was still up doing homework when she got home, and she was furious.

    The next day Mrs. Combs was called out of class and another teacher came in to cover. A long time later Mrs. Combs came into class with the principal and apologized for her behavior to the entire class. I didn’t know it at the time, but my mother had gone the principal’s office. Mrs. Combs was incredibly conciliatory toward me for the rest of the school year, and reacted with visible fear whenever she saw my mother. I don’t know what my mother said or did, but it got the point across.

    As far as I’m concerned my mother handled the situation like an adult. She didn’t drag me into it, even though it was about me. This teacher was a bully and as far as I know my mother was the first person to stand up to her so forcefully.

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    Charles – Thanks for sharing your story. I agree that your mom handled the situation admirably. I know that you’ve said you have some hard memories of your family life; it’s nice to hear that you have this one where your mom came to your defense and came through for you. People are complex creatures, aren’t they?

    It’s sad that when I tell this story, online and in “real life,” it always seems to resonate with someone else’s experiences. Usually many people.

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