The Rules of the Game

When I was thirteen I transferred from a Montessori school to public junior high. In Montessori, I was typically allowed to work independently and didn't have any homework -- this was definitely not the case at the school I transferred to. I had a ton of friends at Montessori but was clueless how to go about making friends at my new school. I had no sense of how junior high worked; everyone was playing an elaborate social game and no one would tell me the rules. The kids had all grown up together and I didn't know any of them. They dressed differently than I did, liked stuff I didn't like, and seemed to regard any association with me as social death. What few friends I could find were also the frequent subjects of mockery: the popular kids would make a show of acting really nice to us on the playground and then laugh about it and expect us to laugh with them. Kids made fun of my last name, my glasses, knocked my books out of my hands, etc. Their greatest weapon was sarcasm ("Of course I'll show you around!" followed by a chorus of laughter): teachers were completely tone-deaf to it, and it stung horribly because I knew that the same words said geniunely would've been an invitation to friendship.

Not only was I unclear on the social rules of the game, I wasn't clear on the academic rules, either. I skipped gym because that was where I got made fun of the most (I was "hopeless and pathetic," a slow runner lacking hand-eye coordination and the ability to perform under pressure). Skipping gym landed me in detention; skipping lunch and eating my sandwich in the bathroom had similar repercussions. If the principal hadn't been sensitive to my situation, my many detentions would've snowballed into a suspension or two.

High school was worse. I'm still convinced I could feel every second of those four years. The sarcasm continued, often in tones of disgust. There was some antisemitic stuff tossed in the mix, too. I was featured on a blog called "Kids Who Suck" -- a couple of kids started the rumor that I'd performed sexual favors for a certain English teacher in order to get into a competitive university. When I told the dean about the online harassment, he told me he couldn't do anything -- it was "outside the school's jurisdiction." Playing dodgeball or floor hockey in gym was a hellish and humiliating experience, especially since no one was above taking potshots at me. By now I knew how to play the game well enough that skipping was out of the question; I convinced the gym teacher that I had some fictional peripheral vision problem that kept me from playing team sports, forged the doctor's note, and was allowed to walk the track on my own. I graduated high school with a permanent record that included the maximum amount of excused absences and a pretty high detention count.

Getting bullied in school feels so awful because the school is your entire universe, and it's a hypercontrolled universe. As if it's not humiliating enough to have to carry out your day-to-day business in an environment where you need to ask permission to go to the bathroom, you've also got to contend with a Greek chorus that's constantly reminding you how freakish, unattractive, and unworthy you are. And while it's true that it does get better -- you grow up, move away, travel, and meet new people who will love you for the very idiosyncracies that your childhood tormentors found so objectionable -- the idea of a good future is scarcely comfort enough when you have to wake up every day and go to a brick building where other kids harass you simply for being who you are. Adults have the tendency to think of being a kid as a temporary state on the way to adulthood instead of a life stage in its own right. School is considered a static holding pen for not-yet-adults instead of a very real workplace where things can be as terrifying and dramatic as they are anywhere else. Ofentimes school administrators will dissmiss bullying as "kids being kids" because they assume the universe in which kids exist is somehow more primitive than their own. This never made sense to me -- adults don't like being harrassed by coworkers in the office, so why should kids tolerate being punched on the school bus? When bullying happens, kids aren't just "being kids"; they're exhibiting a hostility towards difference that, if left unchecked, can fester and make for some pretty intolerant adults. If you're going to make us go to school, then no act of bullying should be "outside the school's jurisdiction"; kids feel rejected and humiliated as readily as their adult counterparts, and they are just as deserving of a safe place to work as their adult counterparts are. This isn't that difficult a concept to grasp. School should be a haven, not a minefield -- I hope my experience and the experiences of others will provide school administrators the incentive to make that change.

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