“Yuck! Cooties!” I made a great show of vigorously brushing off my arms to rid myself of the imagined fleas I pretended had leaped on me when I got too near one of my fifth-grade classmates. My friends copied me and we ran away, giggling.
I attended a county school in Northern Alberta that pulled in kids from miles around. Most of the students came from farm families. My parents were not farmers, but my grandparents were, and I loved nothing more than to visit them and wander around the countryside on the barrel-backed Indian pony I’d gotten for my eighth birthday. When chores needed doing, I happily pitched in, mucking out pigpens and chicken coops, and slopping the hogs, stumbling after my grandpa with the chop-filled lard pail he had turned into a feed bucket for me. Unlike my classmates, however, I did the work because I wanted to and enjoyed it. I also knew that at the end of my visit I could slip off the yoke of farm chores and go home. Not so for some of my classmates.
My classmates came from hardworking families who were doing the best they could in a country that challenged the hardiest and sometimes won. Some were prosperous. Some, not so much. Some had no running water, making laundry and baths a challenge. There were never enough hands for all the work that needed doing. So children were rousted out of bed early enough to do chores—milking, hauling water, bringing in firewood, feeding stock, gathering eggs—before walking to meet the 7:30 a.m. school bus, often a half mile or more away and in temperatures of -40F or colder, with wind whipping snow across the icy roads.
A few never washed up or changed out of their work clothes before leaving for school. They simply came smelling like the barn and showing evidence of their labors. Those children became the targets of our derision and taunts. We pretended they harbored fleas and would scream and run away if they came too near. We’d dust ourselves off if we didn’t get away fast enough, brushing away the nonexistent pests and, symbolically, our classmates as well.
In our school, classrooms raised money with lunch-time bake sales of goodies the students brought from home. The entire student body would visit the fund-raising classroom, where the kids’ nickels and dimes could buy a slice of whatever sweet treat caught their fancy. My mother usually made angel food cake for our class sales, with chocolate icing drizzled over the top and down the sides. It sold out in the first few minutes. The kids we picked on brought lumpy burnt cookies and shiny strings of candy that looked like solidified molasses. We made gross noises and rude comments over their offerings, which sat unsold.
My bullying did not last long, and it was mild in comparison with the bullying that goes on today, but it haunts me stilI. Becoming the eventual target of some bullying myself might have instilled some empathy in me, but I can’t remember if I was bullied before or after I acted the bully. More than likely, simply growing older and more compassionate made me realize how cruel my words and actions were to children who had done nothing to deserve them. I ache at how their hearts must have curled up inside them and how hard they must have worked to stave off their tears. I do not know where they are or how their lives turned out, but I offer them my sincerest apologies for my youthful cruelty. If living well is the best revenge, I hope they have lived well.
Back in fifth grade, I wasn’t even aware I was a bully. In those days we simply called it “picking on” someone. It was treated more as a rite of passage than an act of cruelty. Today, society is finally acknowledging bullying for what it is, thanks in part to many organizations that offer support and information to the picked on and to the pickers alike.
Yesterday was the beginning of Bullying Awareness Week. Search out some organizations that seek to end bullying and learn more about them. One place to start is Bullying Awareness. There are plenty of others, some started by children who were targets themselves, such as Young Pioneers.
Sometimes all it takes to make a difference is to shine a light on a problem and bring it to public awareness.
All together now. Flashlights on!
Share: Do you have a bullying incident in your past you are ashamed to recall? Feel free to share it in the comments.