“I found myself remembering the day in kindergarten when the teachers showed us ‘Dumbo:’ a Disney movie about a puny, weird-looking circus elephant that everyone made fun of. As the story unfolded, I realized to my amazement that all the kids in the class, even the bullies, the ones who despised and tormented the weak and the ugly, were rooting *against* Dumbo’s tormentors. Over and over they laughed and cheered, both when Dumbo succeeded and when bad things happened to the bullies. But they’re *you,* I thought to myself. How did they not know? They didn’t know. It was astounding, an astounding truth. *Everyone thought they were Dumbo.*”
~ Elif Batuman from The Idiot
This book quote and Dumbo will hopefully make sense by the time you get to the end of the post. But right now, other than the evident surface meaning (which is enough, really), just bear with me. This is probably a jarring transition. At first.
Three Halloweens ago, The Boy was in the beginnings of third grade and he began having a problem with a bully at school…one of my worst nightmares as an anxious parent. I know every parent to some degree kind of brags about their kids…but I mean…my kid really IS kind and thoughtful and mature and smart. Really. He’s a deep thinker. He has a strong moral compass, and I’m not even going to qualify this with ‘for a kid,’ or ‘for his age,’ because I know my fair share of adults who aren’t as evolved. And I wish I could take credit for all of it, but really? He handled this bully situation more independently and more kindly and maturely than I would have handled it, even now, at age 40.
For a month, The Boy just ignored this kid picking on him and saying hateful things to him daily. He’s strong like that. Why was this kid picking on my son? I don’t know, and to be quite frank, I don’t really give a fuck. I’m not a victim blamer. I know there are parents out there who believe their little angel can do no wrong, but I’m not one of those parents. I don’t blame teachers when my kid gets bad grades. If I thought for a second The Boy had been rude or mean or hateful, even unintentionally, to another kid, there would be consequences for The Boy, and he would know I was disappointed in him, and he would CARE I was disappointed in him, regardless of the reason for his unkindness to another person. That being said, I don’t believe my boy did anything to provoke this other kid. Anyway, after that month, the constant hateful words and the ‘accidental’ bumping around on the playground at outside recess, and the ostracizing my son by intimidating other kids who were my son’s friends finally wore on the boy enough to tell his teacher. Who didn’t do shit. “Tell him to please stop.” That was her suggestion to my kid. After months of social and emotional torture. Bullies don’t respond to, ‘Please stop treating me poorly.’ They don’t. But The Boy did try, ‘Please stop,’ a few times. And he went to his teacher again to get the same useless ‘assistance’ again. And then Christmas break rolled around.
J and I had no idea The Boy was facing this situation at school, because school taught The Boy to Handle Things Himself and Not Tattle, and when he finally couldn’t take it anymore and went to the adult authority figure who was present and should have cared, he got no real help or relief. So he held it in. He never told us. His worthless, phoning it in teacher never told us (all my readers know I adore teachers as a group of people…but not this one in particular). So The Boy had a happy Christmas break with his family away from school for two weeks, and on the first scheduled day of school after break, he said he felt like he was going to throw up…he couldn’t eat breakfast…he had a headache…”I can’t go to school today, Mom.” He didn’t have a fever (headache with The Boy usually is because of dehydration, which I knew wasn’t the case…or comes with a fever, because it’s a sinus infection). And he never actually threw up or had any other digestive issues. And The Boy formerly *loved* school. He loves to learn new things. He’s an only child, so it’s his main chance to socialize with other kids on a regular basis. I mean, this is the same kid, who, in second grade when he had PNEUMONIA, begged to go to school. He’s not a school skippin’ kinda kid.
So I asked him if something was worrying or upsetting him at school, because I remember my first panic attack, and The Boy’s symptoms looked the same to me. He started crying. And came out with everything. This other kid said some pretty hateful shit to my son…daily…for months. He pushed him around on the playground every day recess was outside, and one day, the school nurse called me to pick The Boy up because ‘he tripped’ and had gotten a bloody lip that was so swollen and angry she thought he may require stitches and/or a visit to the dentist (he didn’t, thank goodness), and when I got there, through tears and pain, The Boy made it very clear to me, by repeating over and over again that, ‘It was an accident.’ (I now obviously don’t believe it was an accident). This kid threatened other children that if they sat with my son at lunch/played with him at recess that he’d treat them similarly, and The Boy, as I’ve said, got no support from his teacher, who even after being approached directly did nothing, but didn’t notice the weeks of social shifting and differing behavior in the class before the approach either. The Boy felt like he was totally on his own, dealing with a little jerk like this…
I was livid, to say the least. I called school and demanded to speak with the principal…NOT his teacher, because I made it blatantly clear that I no longer trusted his teacher with my son’s well-being in any way. The Boy didn’t want me to call, and didn’t want to go talk to the principal, because despite how poorly and hurtfully he’d been treated for months with no recourse, he ‘didn’t want <kid> to get in trouble.’ That’s the son I raised. I’m very proud of him. We aren’t a violent house, but I can say with authority that if I were him, that kid would have had the shit kicked out of him long before we reached the point we did. Like Ralphie in that movie ^^^? My limit would have been reached.
The first thing I said to The Boy’s principal face to face was, ‘My son does not have to forgive or socialize with this kid in any way. I don’t want any part of ‘shake hands and be friends.”
See, I’m an optimist and I believe in kindness and acceptance. I really do. And I believe forgiveness is a good thing. I really do. But I don’t believe it’s something that’s granted without being earned. Civility and peaceful coexistence for the most part can be blanket given to all people, but forgiveness? After you’ve purposefully hurt me in any way possible for months without consequence? Nope. The oppressed and hurt don’t have to forgive and make amends with the people who oppress and hurt them. In fact, I hate the entire idea that they should. Because there isn’t equal blame and fault there; there shouldn’t be equal emotional labor spent in the aftermath. And let’s all be real…even on the rare occasions a bully truly IS sorry…it’s still uneven when the bullied forgive. The damage has already been done, and the bully already got away with it for however long. No. If forgiveness is ever possible, it must be sought and earned BY THE OPPRESSOR…by the person who did the hurting. And then *maybe*. But that’s still a maybe.
I don’t have to be friends with anyone who I feel devalues, disrespects, hurts, or otherwise doesn’t care about me, just because of some ancient philosopher’s idea that I should. I don’t have to educate my peers or especially those who are supposedly more mature and learned than me on how I should be treated, and give them chance after chance to hurt me and hurt me until they get it right. I’m done with that. I’m done with always being the kind, accepting doormat. I’m not a doormat; I’m a human being. So is my son. So is every other person who’s ever been pushed around by a bully for being…black? A girl? Small? Physically weaker? Smart? Not smart? Disabled? Ill? Different looking or sounding? Quiet? Loud? For how they dress? Their body style or facial features? How they learn? Who or what they love? Their natural human feelings?
I’m responsible for my actions and how I treat other people, and it’s about damn time those who make choices to hurt and ridicule and generally act like assholes take some responsibility for theirs. They don’t get my blanket forgiveness and grace. Where was their grace for me when they were treating me poorly? No, from now on, as a human not a doormat, I demand sincere atonement first. And ‘I’m sorry,’ doesn’t really mean shit. Talk’s cheap. Changed behavior is the real atonement. And I still don’t have to forgive you, and I definitely don’t have to ‘shake hands and be friends,’ and let you back into my life. I decide, of those people who have hurt me, who earns my grace. And so does The Boy. And so does everyone else who’s been hurt by a bully for whatever reason for being naturally who they are.
Some of us are the mean, exclusionary elephants. Some of us are the circus bosses. Some of us are the clowns. We all need to be more self-aware about who we are and who is actually Dumbo in the story. It’s not always us. All of us aren’t Dumbo. Or the crows. Or Timothy Mouse. Some of us are the bad guys sometimes. We really are. We need to do better. And when and if we do better? Dumbo isn’t obligated to forgive us and be our friend now. He might. Dumbos are naturally like that, usually…sweet and kind and forgiving. But he doesn’t have to. He doesn’t have to shake our hand and be our friend. We need to stop demanding that he does.