The Big Trip

Nineteen months ago I embarked with my 15 year old super-special (because she’s not only super, she’s also uniquely beautiful and very special to me) daughter in  what would be the biggest adventure of her life – to leave the comfort zone of the special schools’ world to explore the ‘real’ world, leaving behind her cat, her daddy and her older sister.  Culturally we were leaving the Muslim world to return to Western society; geographically we were moving from the United Arabic Emirates to Australia.

Our goal  was to present her opportunities to develop her full potential, to socialise and to make friends, which wasn’t really happening inside the universe of special schooling – she has made a few great amazing friends there, but they were not able to meet very often. The most fearsome feature of this transition, as any special parent might imagine, was the high-risk of bumping into bullying, which had in the past made a huge damage to my daughter’s self esteem. All the love and care she received from the special school during her five years in the UAE healed all the scars, and the person returning to Australia was a very confident, talkative and opinionated (sometimes more than I wish) teenager.

To find the right school was a separate chapter, which I shall share on a future entry. For this post it should suffice to say that we chose what we believed to be the perfect place based on the school’s public statement:

The spirit which pervades every lesson and every day is one where the emerging adolescent can shed protective layers gathered to protect against negative influences such as bullying, peer pressure and mindless intellectual classes. They can be who they truly are, without ridicule or disrespect.

That was exactly what we were looking for! We had also some great references about the person who would potentially be her class guardian (it was a Steiner school, and every class has a guardian, who follows the class from year 7 until year 12). When we visited the place we discovered that the guardian we've heard about had left, but the two teachers who interviewed us seem to be lovely people, the place looked so beautiful, peacefully located in a big lush green area, there were all those little kids running around dressed in lots of colours, with huge smiles on their faces, and we even had a quick chat with a couple of teenager students, who sounded very confident and articulated. It really looked like the perfect school.

Unfortunately, time proved our judgement – and the school statement – to be flawed. Bullying entered my daughter’s life progressively, it started with the teasing about her beautiful Italian name, followed by the adoption of an insulting nickname, which lead her to radicalise and change her name to a common English name she believed would not attract scrutiny. Disgusting comments where also made routinely about her body appearance, she was been ridiculed in every single possible way.

Unaware of these events, I believed my daughter was in the safest haven on earth – she had a beautiful small group of friends, who received her each morning with happy smiles and warm hugs, it was just later that I realised that most of these students were also victims of bullying. My daughter’s class operated on an openly segregative way: there was the ‘popular’ group, comprised of bullies and bystanders, and the ‘ones who opted out’  group – most of whom were victimised by bullying.

My daughter would give me hints that things were not that perfect, like when she complained of one girl forcibly applying make-up on her during drama practice… I though the girl  was probably playing. But soon the bullying became explicit: one week later she was repeatedly kicked and spat by this girl,   on the same day that she was attacked by one of the boys of her class, armed with a pointy wooden stick. To avoid being stabbed she grabbed the stick midway, ending with an ugly splinter in her hand. She reported the cases to the class guardian, who told her – and me, later on the same day – that she should learn to deal with her own problems instead of running to him for help. Besides, we should not worry: he kept an eye on the boy, who behaved well after the 'incident', and that was the last day of school for the other girl – I wonder why. School never communicated me these or any other ‘incidents’  that came to their knowledge.

When I pushed for a meeting to discuss the issue, the class guardian and the teacher responsible for High School tried to convince me that I should consider moving my daughter to a Special Steiner school, where she would be ‘safe’.  It was clear to me that, for this school, the best way to deal with bullying was to send the student being bullied away. Their proposal was rejected, and I left the meeting convinced that, in order to keep her place at school, I should refrain my complaints. The situation was far from right, but after giving it a good though I came to conclude that, despite all the wrongness, my daughter was not unhappy. In a twisted and awkward way, she was accepted as part of a group (the ‘ones who opted out’), comprised of lovely girls whom she loved deeply. She constantly talked about her dream of completing year 12 and graduating with her friends. Maybe the guardian and the teacher were right, maybe I was being over-protective, so I decided that, as long as she was not exposed to real danger, I would keep my big mouth shut.

Bullying did not stop. Alongside the insults and name calling, the bullies started to throw stuff at her, inside and outside of class, and they would annoy her in every way that those who have been bullied one day can imagine. Observing everything from the distance, I could feel that the problem started to undermine her self confidence. She started to doubt her capabilities and to feel shy and afraid of talking to people. She also started to show an increasing level of aggression when we did not agree on things, which I though could be an effect of her age/adolescence – but now I see clearly that it was her way of releasing the pressure inflicted by bullying. The situation in her class was so bad that, since she joined school, two girls from her ‘group’ left, tired of being routinely bullied.

Slowly I returned to the routine of reporting ‘incidents’ to school and, differently from the guardian’s approach, the teacher responsible for high school now acknowledged the problem, assuring me that measures were being taken to guarantee the student’s safety. Whatever these measures were, they certainly did not work, as it came the day when my daughter was surrounded by boys with torches, threatening to set her on fire.  She was petrified with terror! How much worse things could get? An investigation was conducted and concluded that, although the boys denied, it was ‘high likely’ that the ‘incident’ occur, as my daughter was clear or her report and there was also a witness who confirmed her account.

As a new friend of mine said once, if someone have treated a dog this way, the person would certainly be charged on animal cruelty. These guys received a ‘caution’  and were told that their behaviour would be ‘closely monitored’ and any repetition or attempt to harm or intimidate my daughter would be punishable. How good is that? I could not understand how the school could be so soft in face of such horrific behaviour. But from that point on my daughter stopped reporting bullying, and I naively believed that the ‘caution’ had somehow worked. Not for too long…

One week after I discovered that the bullies’ top dog (who was, of course, also involved on the ‘fire incident’) has pushed my daughter down stairs after class. I reported the fact to the teacher, who promised to ‘investigate’ my new ‘allegations’ after the holidays. As far as we are aware, the school is still ‘investigating’ the case, almost one month after school has resumed. We decided not to send our daughter back to school after the holidays. The bullies are still there. And they will probably be until the end of high school, as I have just discovered that their ‘top dog’ is, in fact, the grandson of the school’s CEO.

We are trying to fix our attention on the bright side. As my Australian sister says: on the big frame of life, these episodes are going to be nothing but a grain of sand. Our goals have been achieved. Our daughter has made the best group of friends that anyone on earth could hope for, and I can see their friendship will flourish throughout their lives. Plus, and this is a BIG plus, despite all the pressure from bullying, the difficulties imposed from her special needs and the fact that she is coming from five years in a special school, she has shone as a real star at school, getting great reports even in academic subjects like English and Science. :)

Now 17, she is entitled to go to tertiary education, so next year she will enrol for a Certificate II in Animal Studies, which is her passion. Life goes on, and every single stone we have encountered along the way will be dealt as a lesson. The journey has been hard, but all the effort was certainly worth. My daughter is not only growing to be an independent human being, she also spreads love and hope throughout her way. To conclude, I'll leave you with a message received from one of her friends from school:

... you are right, the mission was definitely accomplished for her to find great friends that love and care for her, because we truly do! And with her positive energy and influence, I sure will keep it with me, because she really woke me up to reality and that she always finds the best in people and she is so caring and compassionate and that is what I love most about her and what I will miss most as well.

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