One day last week, my 15 year-old son came home from school. Like always, I asked, “How was your day?”
“Lousy,” he said. “We were playing soccer and this kid kept calling me ‘gay.’ So every time he messed up the game, I called him, ‘loser.’ He got mad and pushed dirty snow into my face. It went into my throat and everything.”
This was a parenting mine field: a grim situation but one that came with all sorts of rules that must be picked through with delicacy. “Did any of your friends help you?” I asked.
“No. They’re all on his side.”
“Maybe they’re afraid of him?” I asked.
“Probably. He’s big,” said my son of the slender build.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yeah. My face hurts and my throat’s a little raw.”
The apples of his cheeks were reddened and sore-looking.
“Well, now you’re home. I’ll make you some tea for your throat,” I just wanted to offer him a touch of kindness. I wanted him to know that at home, at least, he has a refuge he can count on.
It’s a conundrum. I want to call my son’s teacher but I don’t dare. I can’t even offer to call the teacher or call the teacher on the sly, without my son’s knowledge.
I don’t dare break the rules and turn my son into a “shtinker.”
A “shtinker” is someone who tells: a tattletale, a squealer, a stoolpigeon.
Being labeled a shtinker is the worst thing that can happen to an Israeli school child.
Maybe in the States things are different. Maybe there, now that kids are killing themselves because of being bullied, it’s more fashionable, perhaps even sanctioned, the act of tattling. But here in Israel, it’s still garden variety tale-telling. It’s still called being a shtinker.
I read success stories about bullied kids at last defended. I see features about them on the news. I see such stories circulated by interoffice email at Kars for Kids, about bullied kids from broken homes nurtured back into wholeness by our mentors. But that’s in the U.S.
Here in Israel, things move slowly.
Here there is nothing so bad as being labeled shtinker. My son might as well give up on ever worming his way into the society of his peers should he become known as one.
As much as it hurts to watch, all I can really do is be there to listen. And if I break the code and tell his teacher, my son will lose even that small comfort: the comfort of having a safe place to talk about the bullying.
Because if I tell, he’ll be a shtinker. I’ll have betrayed his confidence. And he’ll have a label that sticks. Perhaps forever—or until he receives his high school diploma, whichever comes first.
Sometimes, the only thing a parent can do is to listen—listen and offer consolation in the hours after school.
Even though it aches.