Recently, our daughter’s teachers informed us that she is the classroom bully.
A sentence like that undoubtedly conjures a range of emotions within parents on the receiving end of it; a sense of shame for inadvertently instilling the bullying gene in our child, disappointment in our parenting skills, and maybe even a sense of relief, too, that our child is not the one being bullied.
One small thing I haven’t mentioned — our daughter just turned a year old.
How can a one year-old possibly be a bully, you might be wondering? Apparently, she has been approaching the nearest baby in her room at daycare and snatching a toy out of his hands. She toddles quickly away with her prize, and then, the kicker — she will look over her shoulder and stare smolderingly at the befuddled, toy-less other baby for a moment, just to get her point across.
Obviously, right now this “problem” is more cute than truly alarming, and something I’m pretty sure we can nip in the bud once she actually gains some verbal skills and a sense of understanding about right or wrong. But still, I am worried. I’ve long been a neurotic person, and worries only increased exponentially as I became a mother. Bullying is one of my deep-rooted fears, one that’s only grown as my eldest child, a 4-year-old son, approaches school age. Will my kids encounter bullying when they entered school? Will they become bullies themselves? Which scenario is worse?
In this case, I know from what I fear. I attended a right-wing Jewish yeshiva with an extremely homogenous population, where every classmate was white, Jewish, and middle to upper-middle class. Divorced parents were rare, gay was non-existent. Many might think that this type of environment, where everyone is like everyone else, precludes bullying, but I’d venture to say it might be only riper for it. Bullying often stems from a fear and mistrust of “the other”; differences were not taught to be celebrated or even tolerated, really, as they are in public schools or in more modern Jewish day schools. When someone was different in a yeshiva, and someone was bound to be, he didn’t have a crowd of other different kids to sit at the lunch table with; he was a sitting duck.
I know, because I was a bully to one of such “different” girl in my elementary school class. She was a full-blown and bona fide nerd, with saddle shoes and pastel pink glasses that took up the entire top half of her face. Her hair refused to be corralled neatly into a ponytail, and she painfully stumbled over basic Hebrew words when she was called on in class. She wasn’t pretty, rich, brainy or sporty, currency held in high regard by the rest of us. I was a little different too, a loudmouth who chafed against constant exhortations to behave in public and who read adult romance novels during class, but I was cute and good at machanayim (a Jewish version of dodgeball), so I sailed breezily through social situations. Not so much for the other girl.
It wasn’t brutal hazing, but there was a definite, subtle campaign of teasing and ridicule, and I was at the helm, along with a couple of others. We called her names and rolled our eyes when she mispronounced words or dared to ask the teacher a question (which she quickly learned not to do); we never willingly included her in our Chinese jump rope games; and once, when she offered me some of her snack, I shrieked that she had cooties and ran away. When we were left to pick partner up for class projects, she was often the last one standing, and then tacked on to another pair of girls who could barely contain their disappointment. A teacher attempted to step in at one point or another, pleading with the class after the girl was called to the office on some trumped-up excuse or asked to do an unnecessary errand, but it didn’t help. There weren’t overtly malicious incidents that could be cited, only a general feeling of a clear divide we felt existed between us and her.
Though the bullying wasn’t like the incidents that make news headlines, and my classmates and I outgrew it as we got older and more empathetic, damage had undeniably been done, and I’m sure I still don’t know the full implications of its reach.
One day in eighth grade, the girl was absent and the teacher told us her mother was sick with cancer. She had been for years. To say I was embarrassed by the part I had played in the girl’s ostracizing during those early years of grade school is an acute understatement. I am still filled with such a deep sense of shame, regret and anguish for this girl, who was trying so hard to fit in at school while also dealing with something no child should ever have to at home.
The fact that we were observant Jews, in a school with a curriculum that was driven by Torah values and ideals, did not override the fact that we were young girls who were also sent the message to conform at all costs; to extinguish all doubts about religion and God and curiosity about how other people, of other belief systems, lived their lives; and to not want or ask for too much, lest it lead us off the narrow path that the school had laid out for us.
I called this girl, a year or two after I graduated and switched schools, to apologize, and she graciously accepted. I still cringe inwardly whenever I think of my part on her misery.
As times have changed, so has the Orthodox Jewish community along with it. Anti-bullying programs are now standard in most yeshivas. Divorce is now common; more fortunately, so are different types of observant Jews, like those who proclaim their coming out and who have bravely and publicly participated in the “It Gets Better” video project, and the women who have just completed the same intensive course of study as male rabbis to earn the title of maharat, spiritual leaders who engage with the Jewish community. There are many more progressive, modern yeshivas and Jewish day schools that exist, with (slightly) more diverse student bodies, and there are even Hebrew-language charter schools with students of varying religions and races. All things considered, I am confident that whichever school I choose to send my children to, they will have a wider embrace of people who are different than I was inculcated with when I was a young student.
Today is Spirit Day in the U.S., a national day of support for LGBT youth and awareness about bullying. Today, I am reminded of my shameful past experience with the word, and of my hope that the more my community widens its tent to include other, “different” types of Jews, the more we will come to ask ourselves: What’s so wonderful about being the same as everyone else?