By Toni Vitanza

As a parent blogger for EP, I’ve mostly drawn upon my memories of parenting my 15 year old son for material. But a recent post by “Mandy” under the blog about “Bullying and Sportsmanship” made me recall a truly seminal series of events in my childhood. It concerns bullying, group dynamics, school politics and how these things can make our children miserable, but how they can also make them into the kind of adults I think we need more of in this society.

In first grade I self-selected early as the kind of girl we all know…teacher’s pet, straight-A, queen of nothing and president of everything, an over-achiever. ‘Nuff said? In second grade we had not one, not two, but three different teachers. The first died suddenly (tough on second-graders who all sort of fall in love with the teacher), the second could only accept a brief stint as a substitute before getting married and moving away, the third became terribly ill. Since cursive writing was the crux of learning in second grade back then, we all ended up with horrible handwriting going into third grade, due to the lack of consistent teaching.

I landed in the third-grade classroom of Mrs. D. She seemed, to us, VERY old. Looking back on my second-grade group picture, I realize that even today at my age of nearly 48, I would consider her old — well past what we would consider retirement age now. And I could tell from the get-go, somehow, that she just didn’t like me much. I have met retired teachers from that area who remember Mrs. D. well, and I have learned that she was highly involved with a very strict church that has to this day a reputation for being harshly judgmental. My family was not a church-going one, and in the mid-’60s in small-town Texas, this alone was remarkable. Maybe her antipathy toward me was the result of an idea that my parents weren’t doing their best by me in terms of religious training. Who knows? But I just knew, in the way nine-year-olds can, that Mrs. D. HATED me. I have often remembered one day when I chose Louisa May Alcott’s book Little Women from the bookmobile and Mrs. D. pooh-poohed my selection, telling me it was far beyond my abilities. I kept it, read it, and loved it and re-read it many times, and I don’t think I did it out of the need to “show her.” (I ended up majoring in literature.)

Alphabetically, I was seated in front of Amy W. Amy had just moved into the school; her mother was a fourth-grade teacher who had decided to exercise her right to have her daughter go to school where she taught rather than to the school in their neighborhood. Amy was an early prototype of the “mean girl” we all hear about more frequently nowadays. But Mrs. D. wasn’t much better. Mrs. D. would call me to the front of the class, have me hold up my notebook, and point out to everyone in the class my dreadful handwriting; then she’d have me remove the page and pin it to the bulletin board. She would mock the clothes my mother home-sewed for me, and of which I was terribly proud. Amy would sit behind me and poke me with pencils, write on my collars with ballpoint pens, and even — finally — use a pair of school scissors to cut my hair, all without this teacher saying a word. I felt powerless because I knew Amy’s mom was a fourth-grade teacher and figured that Mrs. D. would take Amy’s side in any dispute. These were the days when students — even good ones — knew that a teacher’s word was respected, and a teacher was always given the benefit of a doubt in any dispute with a student. (My, how times have changed!)

My best friend at the time was, oddly I guess, a boy named Tracey and we enjoyed each other’s company tremendously. But no sooner had third grade begun — with Amy soon the head of a circle of acolytes who copied her every fashion and mannerism — than Tracey become the target of the most insidious kind of childish torment I have seen to this date. Amy formed the “Hate Tracey Club” and every girl was in it but me. When I approached Amy to ask why she would pick on Tracey this way, Amy told me, “Because we have to hate SOMEBODY.” She couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to join, and continued her recruitment efforts relentlessly. The point of the group was not just to hate Tracey, but to demonstrate this hatred in all the ways third-graders can figure out how to do this. Third-graders are remarkably inventive in this regard. It was when Amy cut my hair that my mother got involved. Soon enough there was an after-school meeting scheduled with the teacher and I sat at home expecting the sky to open up and swallow someone — me, my mother, Mrs. D., Amy, Amy’s mother, Tracey, who knows who else. When my mother finally arrived home I anxiously asked what had happened at the meeting. My mother was nonchalant and flippantly mentioned that our school pictures would be returned in a few days. I was mystified and frustrated and felt somehow let down. I wanted to hear that SOMEONE had been punished, and punished HARD!

(To this day, I have not asked what went on between my mother and Mrs. D. Nothing at school seemed to change significantly, except that perhaps Mrs. D. seemed to ease up just a bit on me. Maybe this blog will prompt me to ask! I’m fascinated by how my mom handled this. She didn’t run interference, I suspect, largely because I was not forthcoming about the depth of my misery. Back then we were not taught that our parents’ function was to champion us and our causes at all times, we were helped when we ASKED for help, maybe, and not before. The understanding was that teachers’ and parents’ words would not be questioned unless there was some overwhelming evidence against them. Our parents didn’t run around ANTICIPATING our needs or thinking much about what was bothering us — they shrugged their shoulders and said, “Toni’s in a phase.” Sometimes I wonder if maybe that’s a healthier way to be.)

I have since had an occasion to run interference for my child at school; in his case it was with a teacher who had gone too far in enforcing her “zero tolerance” policy and had caused my son and me real anguish (that story is another post). There were no other students involved. But I do realize that in the 1960s, teaching was one of the few professions open to a bright woman and that perhaps my third-grade teacher was angry, frustrated, hostile, manipulative; I wouldn’t blame a woman of that period for feeling that way, but I don’t think it excuses my experience. I have also thought that perhaps she was mentally ill or on the early side of dementia. By the way, it would of course turn about that I landed in Amy’s mother’s fourth-grade classroom, and I dreaded the first day of school. My mother — again, in a sign of the times — didn’t see any need to run interference and I didn’t request it. I just spent the summer, between reading Nancy Drew books and looking out the window, agonizing over what would happen. But Mrs. W. was the antithesis of Mrs. D. and I had a great and supportive experience. She plied me with books and extra writing assignments and generally made me her pet. Her daughter was, for obvious reasons, placed in another class. All the while I was wondering why such a mean girl as Amy could have such a sweet mother.

It is not hard for me to understand why I am fascinated by the Charles Manson murders (they occurred at about this time, with a pathologically attractive person ordering people to do mean things to other people for no apparent reason whatsoever) and by the Jonestown tragedy (which occurred 30 years ago, during my senior year of high school) where a pathologically attractive person orders people to do mean things to their children and then themselves.

My family moved away from the neighborhood at the end of fourth grade. I heard that Amy went on to become a cheerleader at a large local suburban high school and then at a nearby public university. A few years ago I picked up a newspaper from the area and saw a photo of the blossoming trees at a local park, being tended by my long-ago school friend, Tracey. The caption mentioned that Tracey worked maintaining the park all by himself.

Perhaps in part due to these experiences, I have grown up to become a person who is concerned deeply — in ways that consume my time, money and efforts — with issues like social justice, crime, fairness, intolerance for religious difference, group dynamics, education, and equal opportunity. As my mother says, I am often the person saying something on the order of, “That’s just not RIGHT!” Go figure.

So my question is, how can we use these experiences our children have — both positive and negative — as a way of helping that child discover just who they are and what they believe as individuals? And do these kinds of experiences make us the people we are? (For example, was my childhood friend Tracey always a loner, or did his bullying experience make him into one?)

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