I asked Rocky if she would stay for a moment after school. She’s a wonderful student. Originally from Senegal, she is in her second year in this country, and she has grown by leaps and bounds, bypassing most of her peers in all subjects. She’s motivated and determined, and she pours herself into learning, going above and beyond at every opportunity.
Recently, she has begun to get a reputation around school for giving attitude to teachers and her peers. Some have suggested that she seems a little bit arrogant, and acts superior to those around her. What I have noticed is that she has begun to respond defensively, with anger, to any comment that she could possibly perceive as a slight.
“How long did it take to have your hair braided?” I ask her one day when she appears with a new hairdo.
“Oh!” squeals another student nearby, overhearing my question, “It takes five hours for me!”
“That’s not how long it took,” snarls Rocky, as though deeply offended by her classmate's contribution. (Her name has been changed, to protect her privacy.)
The scenario repeats itself over the next two weeks. Time and again she responds with anger and defensiveness to seemingly innocuous comments from her classmates.
I teach her English, math and social studies, and it’s easy to see patterns forming. One day other kids in the class reported with excitement that this straight-A student had punched a boy during science class when he tried to take candy from her.
After school, I asked her if she had noticed any changes in her behavior. I told her that we had seen and heard about some changes that were not positive, and I wondered if she was feeling differently, or if anything had happened recently that was making her feel so angry.
Her eyes filled with tears, which spilled down her cheeks. Her glasses magnified the sadness in her eyes, even as she blinked furiously to erase it.
“They’re always calling me African," she said. "No matter what I do, everyone always is calling me African, telling me to go back to Africa. I feel like I am being harassed every day.”
Her voice doesn’t shake -- she’s a strong little girl -- but it’s obvious that this has been building for some time.
The middle school in the Bronx where I teach is diverse, but the majority of students are African-American or Hispanic. Racial jokes are common, but when you are one of a hundred Mexican or Dominican kids, it doesn’t feel so personal.
Rocky is a minority, from a country that is not well understood. She is the only student from Africa in my class. The stereotypes that kids jump to when they talk about Africa tend to involve hunting lions and tigers, wearing leaves for clothes, and riding around on elephants.
Some kids are equipped to take these jokes, laughing them off, or quickly deflecting them. Some can respond back quickly with a witty comeback. But some kids can’t.
How we as adults, and they as kids, should respond is always difficult. The bullying that you can give a name to, or can describe in words that are easy to understand, is the bullying that can be addressed. Loud comments or notes calling classmates names -- those can be addressed. A lot of it cannot.
Often it is a mean look, an obnoxious sigh, an eye roll that only the victim could see. Sometimes it is a quiet exclusion from a group, or a secret not shared.
Nowadays it is common for a child to come to class and put his or her head on the desk, apparently upset over a slight that took place online the night before.
Sometimes it takes the form of blatant cruelty and name calling. Often it’s something like unfriending someone on Facebook, or showing allegiance to one of your enemies by writing on that student's wall.
There is often a feeling of shame associated with being hurt. Boys don’t talk about being bullied, for fear of looking "soft." Girls know that the most popular, most successful peers are the ones who can confidently deflect any slights aimed at them.
I spoke at length with Rocky, and we created a plan of how to address the people who had been harassing her. We strategized ways that she could respond to them that could make it less painful for her in the moment. Most of all, we talked about making sure that she didn’t allow their cruelty to change her into someone who acted cruelly.
Bullying is a problem in all schools. Our school is no different. Boys and girls alike are both the perpetrators and the victims. Those who are accused of bullying aren't necessarily bad kids, or even truly mean a lot of the time. But an environment where bullying or harassment is happening is an environment that can transform anyone into a bully.
The true danger of bullying is the way that it changes kids. After weeks of feeling defensive and guarded, Rocky began to hide her sweet softness. Enough of this transformation in children, and the environment of a school is changed.
My conversation with Rocky was about the aggression that I had seen from her. I hadn’t witnessed the harassment, but I did see that it made her something she is not.