Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Eight months and two days: the claws come out.

Last year, there was a bully.

Couple of things here: first, calling him a "bully" is soft-pedaling it. The kid was a sociopath, I'm pretty sure. Second, he arrived in second grade, then almost immediately set about making my child's (and by extension, Sandra Bullock's and my) life miserable. It took four years for the situation to come to a full boil.

There were incidents along the way. A school Sukkot dinner was interrupted for the Jawa and this awful kid to square off in the shadow of the play structure. In retrospect, I think that was the moment when the bully decided to put his entire demented focus on my child; they say that the way to defeat a bully is to stand up to him. In this case, I think standing up to him was the trigger.

Not that he left other kids alone. We parents shared various stories with each other, and I know of at least three other kids who lived in fear of this punk, plus one more whose parents wished he lived in fear of him. Sophie's choice, in this case, was to live in fear or get carried along in a wake of delinquent behavior.

In third grade, Sandra Bullock and I attempted to coach the uncoachable. The bully joined our hapless co-ed YMCA basketball team, quickly showing us that the rest of our kids were angels by comparison. Not once during that season did he respond to something we said. He either ignored us or argued with us.

That year, I volunteered to give the kids a "homework room" in the time between school and basketball practice. It would have been a good idea, if not for the bully. No homework was completed. As a cherry on top, his mother usually showed up late to pick him up, if at all. She was very busy, as it turned out, working on her Phd. in Child Development.


On the last day of fifth grade, we had a dance party for the kids, a "welcome to middle school" type of deal. Up until the day of the event, we thought we'd dodged the bullet. Reports from school said that the bully was ridiculing the party at every opportunity. Then he found out everyone else was coming. He called us the day of the party, asking to come. Unfortunately, we said yes. I swear to all of you that this kid couldn't go five minutes without doing something -- throwing food, running down the street, dragging other kids into his great sucking abyss of bad behavior. A real buzzkill, this kid.

Last year, for some reason, the bully decided to ratchet up his reign of terror on my child. That my child has a reputation for not politely shrinking away from conflict may have had something to do with it. Whatever the reasons, not a week passed without something happening. One week, he pushed the Jawa into a locker. The next week, he made the Jawa's best friend cry during P.E. The next he was mixing it up with the Russians, which is a bad idea. Those guys are scrappy.

Every week, at least once, the Jawa would come home loaded for bear. A massive blow-up over something, anything would follow. About two hours into the confrontation, we'd realize that it had something to do with something the bully did to him during school that day. "Goodnight" became nightly layman counseling sessions instead. He'd obsess over things he could say to the bully to shut him up once and for all, too young and naive to know that such a phrase did not exist.

I'm not sure what it took to spur us into action, but eventually, the aggregate total of aggravation inspired us and we decided to ratchet up the pressure. Trips to the principal's office were no good, because the kid simply wouldn't show up. Someone suggested we meet with his parents.

Now let me tell you why that wasn't a good idea. By the time a (much larger) kid has verbally and physically harassed your kid for four years, you don't really care much about that kid's well-being. You don't want to help the parents work things out, you don't want your kid to learn to get along with the other kid, you don't think of the other kid's actions as a "cry for help." By now, you've tried all of the institutional strategies the school has suggested. "Radical kindness" didn't work. Basically, and I am embarassed to say this, you just want to haul off and hit him.

That's the old school, which earns you the pity and disdain of your school community, so you try to keep it to yourself, with varying degrees of success.

And then, finally, the bully slipped. He'd been pretty careful to go just far enough to earn a one-day suspension or a no-show trip to the principal. This time, though, he forgot.

I went to pick up the Jawa at school one day. He was pretty shaken up. After some confrontational back-and-forth between us, I got him to spill the beans: the bully had told one of the Jawa's crew that he "wants to bring a knife to school to stab (him)."

Now, if you'd like to see a school with a touchy-feely reputation suddenly become as hard as Bruce Lee, go tell the principal that someone has threatened to stab your kid. The game was up.

They let him finish out the year, giving him time to concoct a story in which he'd left the school by choice, which is fine and matched his flights of fancy regarding his previous suspensions, for which his parents had apparently rewarded him with ice cream and trips to the mall. We just wanted him out of there.

I'm not kidding. Last year we couldn't go a day in our house without this kid's name coming up.

The reason why I bring all of this up is because it never occurred to us that other people -- people who haven't been targeted for terror by the class psycho -- would invite him to their Bar Mitzvahs.

About a month ago, we'd just settled into our seats at Temple Beth Sholom when who should come waltzing into the room but our nemesis himself. He was his usual self, moving from chair to chair, disrupting things, dragging whoever was near into his "who cares about you?" world.

Which is neither here nor there. Obviously, the kid is what he is. Call his actions a "cry for help" or whatever else you want. Consider, quite reasonably, that what he's doing is probably attempt at gaining the attention he's not getting from his over-committed mother. Like I said, I wish I was a good enough person to see it that way. I'm not.

All I cared about was not putting my Jawa in the line of fire again. Not only that, but as I sat there, steaming, I realized that I was probably as freaked out by this kid as the Jawa was. Nothing pretty about that at all.

No way could I focus on the Bat Mitzvah in front of me. All I was doing was waiting for this kid to do something so I could jump on him. I could only imagine what the Jawa was thinking, but I'm pretty sure I saw his shoulders tense up when his worst nightmare entered the room.

The way I saw it, we had only one option. I told the Jawa he didn't have to go to the party if the bad kid was going to be there. Visibly shaken, we went home.

Some people have since questioned our decision,and I can see where they're coming from. "What are you going to do the next time?" I was asked. My answer was that we'd keep avoiding the problem, which I know was pretty lame. In a perfect world, my Jawa and I would find a way to get past our issues with this kid and be better for it.

It's a difficult lesson, but I think there are some situations that are just unsalvageable. No way after all that this kid has put my son through will he ever be anything more to us than a singularly unpleasant roadblock to be avoided at all costs. There will be no playdate where everyone shakes hands and moves on. Sometimes that doesn't happen.

All of this is a long way of saying "Thank you" to the Beth Sholom family who took the time and initiative to call and tell us that the bully was not invited to their Bat Mitzvah. "He's a member of Beth Sholom, so I can't say if he won't show up to the ceremony, but he's not invited to the party," they said.

I am overwhelmed with relief, self-disgust, embarassment and thankfulness. We'd already RSVP'ed "no." That's where it is in our house. No more discussing, no working things out. Just "no."

Feel free to add this to the long list of parental failures I have managed to accumulate over the past 12 years. I should know better. But sometimes, even when you should know better, you leave the high road for someone else.


ted_dagnese said...

This kid hopes I never run into him. Hey - is there a way to change the appearance of this website. It's kind of difficult reading white text against a blue background.

Jean said...

I'm starting to wonder lately if bad parents make bad kids or whether it's sometimes the other way around.