The little things matter: how my kid’s school schooled me on reacting to sexual bullying
I just returned from a meeting with my kid’s school counselor addressing an issue concerning her, and while there are others getting a talking-to right now, I can’t stop thinking about what just happened. I’m humbled, and I’m so incredibly glad my kid goes to school where she does.
The essentials are this: my daughter loves horses. LOVES. Horses. We own one. She has a million Breyer models and various toy horses. Half her clothing has horses on it. If she has an assignment and can turn it into something horse, she does. Horses are life. Her dream is to own a barn someday, and a stable full of horses, so much so that she’s basing her career choices on paths which would best fund her dream and still leave her free time to ride.
She draws horses too, and has for years, always trying to draw them better. She’s very proud of her work, sometimes taking hours to work on her pieces. Sometimes she colors them, sometimes she doesn’t. She customizes My Little Pony figures, adds mods to games to add horses. She doodles at school when she has time, and brings pictures to school to show her friends.
She’s also a pre-teen, and she loses her work sometimes. One picture was lost recently, only to be found again, then lost a second time. After that loss, it was returned to her by a male classmate…with an addition.
The texts I received from her bus ride home that day were full of hurt and fury. I was proud of the way she’d gotten angry, not let the incident make her cower and destroy the drawing. She had many emotions, but she understood feeding the fire would make it worse, so mostly tried to convey anger and then ignore it. We talked about it, processing her hurt, and I did my best to explain I don’t think it was personal–I doubted they understood how much that hurt her, that they were simply being dumb boys. She understood and was still hurt, which I said was very normal. I encouraged her to fix the drawing, erasing and then adding background to rub it out completely. I also applauded her new drawing, which was a bit…bloodthirsty. I also suggested maybe don’t take that one to school, just enjoy it at home.
Unfortunately, the incident wasn’t over. When she returned to school, the teasing kept happening. From everything I could gather, it was subtle, infrequent, but just enough to keep the wound open. My daughter was upset, still angry, but her anxiety began to pick up, and she didn’t want to go to school. I suggested she tell her counselor and teacher in the class where it happened, and she sent them an email once she was back home. One teacher wrote her back promising this would be addressed, and it seemed to be over for the night.
But as we went to bed, fears of what the next day would bring haunted her, and talking to her teachers and counselors wasn’t enough. When I offered to go with her, she said that was what she wanted.
I have to admit, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. I wanted to be passive as much as I could, to let this be her solving the issue, but I didn’t want to leave her to hang out to dry, either. I asked what she wanted me to do, and mostly she seemed to simply want me there. So we sat in the office and waited for her team’s counselor to be available.
First of all, while I’ve talked to this guy before, I’ve never seen him in action with my child. He greeted her with a warmth that came from really knowing and caring about her, and she responded with the kind of ease that said they’d had a lot of conversations and she was clearly glad to see him, to talk with him. I think that’s when I began to understand how serious this was in her head–she felt this comfortable with this counselor, but she still needed me present for this conversation. This point was driven home when she panicked as she found out he hadn’t gotten her email yet and she’d have to relay the story out loud.
She did great, though, repeating the email almost verbatim, her voice only wavering a little. She was calm, cool, and composed.
And that’s when I got schooled.
I am ashamed to say, I expected her to be soothed but told this was how boys are. To say this wasn’t okay but point out this was pretty minor, that this was about defacing property and kids being hurtful and clueless. I thought maybe the boys would be spoken to, maybe, but I wasn’t sure. What I wasn’t ready for was the counselor essentially treating this like sexual assault.
I hesitate saying that, because it feels so serious, implying more invasion than I think my child felt, but basically he took this incredibly seriously, making room for her to feel whatever she felt, to say in no way was this okay. He validated her, thanked her for coming forward, gave her a script to say to her bullies and made it clear the names she gave of those who teased her would be talked to. He explained emphatically any additional teasing especially after they were warned would have immediate consequences. The assistant principal was referenced several times. He repeated these things several times in different ways, made sure my daughter felt okay with how things were going, and when he dismissed her for class, orchestrated an elaborate set of timing so she would not meet her harassers in the hall as they came to the office to be talked to.
Please, please note this is a male counselor, and he’s got at least five years on me. Probably a few more. I’m forty–feel the generation he’s from. Please note the assistant principal referenced is also male. This next bit only matters for the full picture of awesome my daughter is subconsciously digesting: the counselor is a white man, the assistant principal is black. They’re both stereotypical “tough guys.”
My twelve year old was just told, with no blinks, no excuses, no nothing but validation, that they have her back. That she deserves to have strong, powerful people, men included, on her side. That her feelings are valid and her dignity should be protected. That peers, boys or girls, have no write to draw on her pictures, but that when it’s sexual it’s very serious and will be stopped right now. Any attempts to keep things going after the perpetrators have been told to stop will be met with swift justice.
This was the message I watched my girl get. My very pretty, anxiety-carrying, passionate, deep-feeling child. I could not pay money enough in the world to set up that kind of empowerment, and it just happened because that’s a day of doing business at her school. I don’t even think I affected the outcome much by being there. I think this would have happened without me present. I’m selfishly grateful she needed me there so I could witness.
What do I say? Thank you? I did, but it feels so tawdry. I’m ashamed at some of my own thoughts, like I didn’t take it seriously enough. Like I was going to give these guys permission they didn’t deserve. Because I was raised in a different world, in different schools, with different counselors.
For all time, for her life, my child will believe differently. These people pass hundreds of young men and women through their building each year, teaching them this kind of different too. They will carry this into the world. Those boys, who very probably did not mean anything as cruel as it was perceived, will learn they must mind their accidental cruelty. They will live with that message too, and carry it forward to their own children, their sons and daughters.
I just…thank you? What useless words.
What amazing, incredible educators. If only the whole world could go to this school.