Bullying is making headlines again. This time it is an adult school bus monitor who was bullied by a group of kids until she burst into tears. Middle school kids tease and taunt the grandmotherly figure, calling her “fat” and “lazy” and other horrible names for twelve long minutes.
The video has gone viral this week. This morning on The Today Show, Matt Lauer expressed outrage. Commentator Nancy Snyderman called for the faces and names of the children to be made public.
But I wasn’t shocked. I wasn’t even surprised. Kids have been bullying teachers for years. We don’t hear about it much, but it’s there. I know. It happened to me.
It seemed so unlikely. I was everyone’s favorite teacher. I was young and caring and creative. I made sure that students didn’t have time to get bored in my classroom, and they loved me for it. One time we transformed Shakespeare’s plays into comic books. Another time we wrote letters to poets, asking outrageous questions to lure them into answering us. Alan Ginsberg wrote us back!
I loved my job, and it showed. I didn’t take it for granted though. I guarded my reputation because I knew that my students looked up to me. I dressed conservatively, always careful not to wear anything too short or too tight. I never drank a beer in a public restaurant, lest any of my students see me. I never danced at the proms that I chaperoned, even though the senior boys asked me to. I was good. Capital G “Good,” One of the principals wrote in my year-end evaluation, “She is an excellent role model for impressionable young teens.”
And I was. I tried to instill values in my students too. I listened to them as they struggled with drugs and alcohol and sex. I encouraged them to respect themselves and others. When someone was picked on, I stood up to the bullies. I was a champion of the misfits, and to be honest, I was proud of it. I even blocked a punch one time! I wrote out the “Incident Form” with a feeling of pride. I had stopped a fight! One of the boys was rumored to be in gang. I had saved the day. I had protected the innocent. I might as well have worn a cape. I was Teacher.
I was so good at my job, that I was contacted by a neighboring district, a smaller, affluent community, when they had an opening. The superintendent himself called me, and asked if I would consider leaving my current position. I took the job, even though it was a pay cut of $10,000. I was tired of dealing with discipline problems and gang violence. In my head, I envisioned an idyllic enclave where my students and I would discuss Homer.
But within a month, I knew I was in trouble. The students challenged me at every turn. They argued with me for every single point on a paper. They laughed if I mispronounced a word or lost my train of thought. I usually was an eloquent lecturer, but under their unrelenting glares, I grew self conscious.
Like an insidious disease, the symptoms were vague but palpable. One time a girl stood in my way while I was handing back papers. “Excuse me,” I said. She didn’t move. The class grew silent and watched. We stood, face to face, for just a moment, until she laughed, moved over, and said, “Whatever.”
Another day when I started lecturing, a girl pulled out her knitting! I told her to put it away. She did, but with exaggerated slowness. I filled out detention slips for such disrespect, but the principal sometimes excused the students from serving them.
To my face, he was supportive, telling me that things would be fine after the first year, but his actions made me wonder if he really was on my side. One morning, two boys began slurring words and singing “Margaritaville.” I sent them to the principal’s office. He sent them back. “They’re not drunk. They’re teasing you,” he said later. “Lighten up.”
But it was hard to lighten up when I felt like so powerless. It’s frightening. You are completely outnumbered. Of course a few students were nice, but as the year went on, they started just looking at me with pity. I decided it was my fault. I quit lecturing and tried projects instead. I turned the classroom into a coffee shop and held a poetry slam. I started a literary magazine and let the students design their individual pages. But it seemed that the harder I tried, the more they rebelled.
I started having nightmares. In one, I lost my voice. I stood in front of the class, gulping like a goldfish. Breathless, panicky. Not a sound came out. The students laughed and one by one, they walked out.
I had been the most popular teacher at my other school. How could it be so different now? What was I doing wrong? Finally, I realized I had been used to saving kids, but at this school, there was no one to save. There was no one who looked up to me. They were all going to go to college. In fact, most of them were Ivy League bound. They had plenty of mentors, role models, and confidantes. They didn’t need me, and if students don’t need you, there’s really only one other option, they have to want to “be” you.
But who would want to be me? I was tired. I was a new mom. My husband and I had adopted a baby over Christmas break. Naively, I thought that the students might be happy for me and give me a little break. But ironically, it just seemed to make things worse.
I took some time off to be with my baby. While I was gone, someone wrote an anonymous article in the school newspaper about poor teachers. In it was a line, “Lakes gets no respect. She just needs to die.”
The principal called to tell me. He was full of apologies, not sure how it had gotten into print, had notified the superintendent…but I barely heard any of it. I was in tears. I wasn’t used to being hated. Teaching was my life! It wasn’t just a job. I taught from my heart. What had happened?
That night, I taped the curtains to the wall of my baby’s room. This was two years after Columbine, and I didn’t know what they would do. Since that tragedy, anything and everything seemed possible. My husband told me I was over-reacting. But I couldn’t stop. I taped and taped. And then I lay awake all night, listening.
I took the next week off. During that time the principal assured me that he had investigated the incident thoroughly. Although he hadn’t found out exactly who had written the comment, he had disciplined the entire newspaper staff. Many of the other teachers called me to express their outrage, but to be honest, I didn’t really want their sympathy. I spent the time updating my resume.
But first I had to finish out the year. I couldn’t stay away forever. And you know, I’d be damned if kids were going to make me quit. I remembered my first teaching job in New York at a private school. I instantly became friends with one of the teachers, Elle. It was her first job too. She taught history, and I taught English.
At the beginning of the year, we decided to combine our classes for team teaching once a week. We planned to go field trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to the Intrepid, to Teddy Roosevelt’s house on Long Island. In New York, the opportunities were endless, and we were excited to be teachers in the Big City.
But I saw Elle quickly grow fearful. She was timid in front of the class, and that’s the worst thing to be. Students began cutting her class. I heard small comments in class about her in the hallways. I could tell she had lost their respect. The boys joked about her small breasts. The girls made fun of the way she dressed. She didn’t have much money, and in New York, image is everything. I tried to talk with her, and one time, I sat in on her class, to see if I could help. All I saw were twenty-five kids who were oblivious to her. They completely disregarded her. She had lost them long ago.
I tried to talk to the kids. “Are you trying to make her quit? This is how she pays her bills, how she eats. It’s not a game.” They didn’t get it. I didn’t blame them though. They were kids.
Elle quit in November.
I couldn’t let that happen to me. I went back to my school with my head held high.
The next couple of months went on without incident, but I couldn’t forget what had happened. I stopped going to after school activities. Go to the basketball game on Friday night? Why? So they could glare at me? Do a fundraiser on a Friday afternoon? Are you kidding?
I was just putting in time till the end of the year and my students and I both knew it. The cape had gone slack. (And when it isn’t billowing, it’s slack against your human parts, the parts that just wanted them to love me, to respect me, to be nice to me. Because I was nice. Because I was trying. And, well, just because.)
That stupid belief was probably my undoing. One day, I told my class, “My son has a doctor appointment tomorrow. I won’t be here in the afternoon.”
“What’s wrong with him?” a boy asked.
“He has a wound on the top of his head, and it just won’t heal,” I answered.
“What’d you do? Get a defective baby?” one girl said with a smirk.
The class laughed.
Then someone said, “No wonder his mother put him up for adoption.”
I stood, shocked, in the center of the room. “You are so… so… rude!” I gasped. I couldn’t say what I wanted to say. I couldn’t swear, throw things, or say mean things to them. As a teacher, was bound by a code of ethics, but more importantly, I was bound by a vision of who I was and who I wanted to be. I looked around wildly – for help, for sympathy – but there was none. The entire class was laughing at me. Every single one of them.
And so I left. I walked out the door.
I am so proud of that now. At the time, I felt guilty and useless and small. The cape had had been ripped off. And underneath, I was just a pissed off woman who wasn’t going to take it anymore.
The superintendent called me repeatedly that afternoon. But I never picked up. I listened to the voicemail. “This is unacceptable,” he said. “If you abandon your position, you will be fired tomorrow. Get back here immediately.”
But I ignored his calls. I rocked my baby instead. I told him the story of a woman who was born to be a Teacher. But instead she became a teacher who was also a mom and a wife and a person, who wouldn’t be bullied. I put my son to bed, and I glanced at the window. The curtains were taped still, and I hesitated. Then I scooped up my son and carried him into my room. He could sleep there for the night. I was a Mom, in that moment. Brave, Decisive, and My Own Person. As I strode into my room, my nightgown billowed behind me, a smaller, but more comfortable, cape.