A Few Charms (Banner)

A Few Charms (Banner)

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Speaking up when it would be easier to remain silent.

A few months ago I asked my 12-year-old daughter Taylor what she would do if a boy at school grabbed her butt. But it was only a few WEEKS ago, on a Tuesday morning, when this part of the story started.

I witnessed an "incident" at a track meet. Some girls were standing against the fence observing the races. A group of boys came up behind them... and... well, something happened. I could not see exactly what happened, but whatever it was it led to the boys running away laughing. And led to the girls all looking at each with obvious shock and disbelief. And then they started saying to one girl in particular, "What happened?" "Who WAS that?" "Do you even KNOW him?" And then the girls proceeded to run after the boys.

Later when the girl in question came back in my direction I got her attention and asked what had happened. She was clearly uncomfortable but reluctantly said, "Um, he grabbed my butt." I told her I was very sorry that happened, and I would be telling the teachers, and she thanked me.

Shortly afterwards, the boy in question came by; I've know him for years as he is one of my son Mitchell's good friends. I asked him what had happened. He said, "Nothing." I told him what the girl had told me, and he and his friend denied it, telling me they were just standing there behind the girls. As they explained it, one of them asked the other, "Are you hungry for some of that?" then the friend said, "I'm not hungry right now." I wasn't sure if the sexual innuendo was intentional or not. They said the girl then turned around and accused one of them of touching her, and they ran off. Of course if they hadn't done anything I'm not sure why they would run off. Anyway, I asked if they knew what would happen if Mitchell's DAD grabbed someone's butt at work? Did they know what that was called? Their answer was, "Yeah, it's sexual harassment." OK, good. At least they know that much. I conceded that maybe I misunderstood the girl.

I later sought her out and asked her again, and she repeated the same story. I told her what I think everyone needs to hear when something like this happens, whether it's ongoing bullying or a single event: it is wrong, you did nothing to deserve this, and you need to tell an adult. She assured me she had already told her teacher/coach. I also think people need to know how to handle these situations in the moment, especially girls who need to learn to stand up for themselves and be assertive. I told her, "If this ever happens again, you need to tell the person it's inappropriate and it's NOT ok!" 

I had heard stories about girls having their butt grabbed at school. However, I hadn't done anything about it - yet. But I was so incensed after witnessing this that when we left I told my husband to drive me directly to the school - I was going to see the principal!

On the way there I asked my husband Mike what I should tell the principal. He said, "Just tell her what you saw." So I did. I did not see any grabbing of the butt, I just saw the behaviours, and spoke to both parties. The principal took the information, clarified some points, and thanked me for being an involved parent.

The next morning (Wednesday) at the breakfast table I told my kids what had happened, in case it came up at school. When Mitchell got home that day he was very crabby but the reason for this did not come out until he and my husband were in the car on the way home from rugby practice. Mitchell was upset because his friend had told him he'd been interviewed by the police.

Mitchell told Mike that he was upset that we didn't believe his friend's story, but believed the girl. It's true; it was a situation of "he said, she said." But when we discussed it Thursday morning, I told him that I felt it was important that both parties get the message that behaviour like that, whether it happened as described or not, is NOT OK! I also clarified that I only told the principal what I SAW.

Later that day I followed up with the principal and she assured me that the principals at each school were investigating this further and IF the police were at the school, or interviewing anyone, it was NOT in relation to the incident at the track meet.
Mitchell 5-years-old before starting grade 1
In discussing this with Mitchell before he left for school that Thursday morning, I reminded him of the times when I stood up for him when someone was mean to him or HE was being bullied.
There was that time in grade 1 when an older boy at school kept taking his Pokemon cards and wouldn't give them back. When Mitchell pointed the boy out to me, just getting into the car with his mother, I had confronted the boy. I told the boy what Mitchell had told me, and said, "In our house we call it bullying when you repeatedly do something mean to someone." The poor boy was dumbstruck and looked to his mom. She shrugged and said, "You'd want me to stand up for you if it had happened to you." But still, I was a pretty fierce momma bear, and I'm pretty sure the boy's mom has never spoken to me again since.

Then there was the situation where a group of boys were always making Mitchell the victim in a game in the school yard, and wouldn't listen to him when he said he didn't like it. Even after the teachers told those boys they should stop, they didn't. Mitchell had started to question whether the teachers were effective in creating a safe place to learn and play. I reminded him how I had emailed the parents of those three boys, who we knew quite well. How one family spoke to their son and encouraged him to apologize and find a way to heal their friendship. But how another parent dismissed their child's behaviour as just "going along with the others." And how the third boy's parents - the boy who was always the instigator and blatant aggressor in the school yard - dismissed the whole situation because they didn't like the fact that I initiated the conversation with the three families by email! I told Mitchell that there are parents who probably still think of me as... well... that's a word the kids are not supposed to say!

I also reminded Mitchell about the situation when he was in grade two and his teacher called and spoke to Mike and told him Mitchell was a "troublemaker" in the classroom. I went and spent the next day sitting in the back of the classroom - which the teacher was none too happy about! What I saw was a grim classroom situation, where the kids had to sit quietly at their desks, all neatly in a row, and when they'd finished their workbook pages, they had to stand in line at the front of the classroom to show the teacher their work. I could see how hard it was for these 7-year-old boys to stand quietly and STILL in line. When Mitchell finally made his way to the front of the line, the teacher pointed out an error in his work, and he hung his head and trudged back to his desk. Later when there were some shenanigans among the boys - clearly just trying to create some stimulation in this stifling environment - someone threw a ball of paper and the teacher accused Mitchell. He hadn't done it, because as an observer I had seen who did, but I could see Mitchell was dejected and felt it was futile to even try to defend himself.

Mitchell in grade 2, October 2008, almost 7-years-old
It turns out the reason for the phone call to Mike was that Mitchell had laughed when one of his friends had acted silly in the library after the teacher had told the boy to stop - those boys being asked to sit quietly in a line again. As a consequence for laughing, the teacher sent Mitchell out into the hall by himself. She later told Mike and I in a meeting, that Mitchell had laughed at HER! When I told her how Mitchell recounted the story, I suggested that she couldn't actually know he was laughing AT her; that she had made an assumption. She replied, "I've taught kids like that before!" When the Principal supported the teacher, saying she was pretty sure that's how it would have happened, we promptly removed him from the school. I could see now why our little 7-year-old had told me, "Mommy, the teachers and principal think I'm a 'bad kid'." I was very pleased to hear that the teacher retired and didn't return the next year.
And finally I reminded my son about the situation just last year when he was in grade six (now at a different school). That when a classmate, and good friend of his, was getting systematically bullied, had the finger pointed at him, was blamed for every transaction, and felt there was nothing he could do except take his punishment, I emailed the principal. The principal took the bullying situation seriously, although she was pretty surprised when I told her it was in fact the teacher who was behaving this way! After fighting with this teacher all year to ensure our daughter had the assistance she required for her learning disability, I swore that my job was not done til that teacher retired! And after this bullying situation, I like to think I had something to do with the fact that she was not back the following September after apparently being encouraged to retire!

After recounting all these situations, I reminded Mitchell that, as much as he may not like it, I am the type of person who will stand up for what she believes in. As parenting guru Barbara Coloroso explains it, integrity is the ability to "Discern what is the right thing to do. Be willing to act when the burden is heavy. Be willing to speak up when it is more comfortable to be silent." We've taught our kids not to be bullies OR bystanders. And I can't ask that of them if I am not willing to do the same!

A school picture of my mom
I think I got this resolve from my Mom. My mother was never afraid of standing up for what she believed in! She was the lone parent at parent council meetings advocating for sex education in middle school. She asked people not to smoke at meetings long before there was any ban on smoking in the workplace or in public places. If someone said what she called an "off-colour joke," she would give them heck!  She would always call out a colleague if they said something sexist. And when the halls outside her college classroom were lined on either side with young men, she was the teacher that would tell the male students that it was NOT OK to whistle or make catcalls as girls walked by - or grab their butts as they walked this gauntlet.

When I first heard the name of the retired "Making Waves" charm, the first thing that popped into my head was, "My mom was never afraid of making waves." And I had to buy it. Any time in my life now, when I wonder, "Should I bring this up?" or "Should I say something?" I look at this charm and give it a little spin. Then I steel myself and say, "Don't be afraid of making waves."
waves coming ashore on an angle on a beach in Australia
Have you ever watched waves coming in to shore - on a lake or the ocean? If the waves come towards the shore at an angle, they look like they are running along the shore chasing each other. That is what this charm looks like when you spin it; like you are "making waves." It's an optical illusion and when it spins it looks like the lines are converging.

When you grow up in a dysfunctional family, whether there is an alcoholic or some form of abuse, many children learn "don't make waves." Often their intention is to not upset a parent, believing that the parent "can't handle it." I was told by our caregiver not to "bother" my mother with my problems because, "your mother has enough on her plate." It's true, as the single source of income in our family she did have a lot on her plate, but she didn't know that I was told to protect her. She was a strong woman and I could have trusted that she "could handle it." I tried being perfect for a very long time, but now I don't worry so much about "making waves."

Stay tuned for a follow-up post to find out my daughter's - and her friends' - answers to that question, "What would you do if a boy grabbed your butt?" If you're a parent, ask your own daughter!

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