Saturday, April 17, 2010

Girl Bullying

One thing I remember from the fifth and sixth grades was my closet. I kept all my "old" stuffed animals in the back, along with my Barbies and crayons. That way, if anyone stopped by, they would only see my perfume and lip glosses - all the stuff that everyone in my middle school owned. But I still locked the door and dragged out the crayons and Barbies when the coast was clear.

I distinctly remember why: I did not want to become Carol. Carol was the girl who openly talked about breast development, brought her ballerina sweatshirt on the field trip, and refused to wear a bra even on Tuesday, assembly day, when we had to wear white blouses. That meant we could easily inventory the girls who wore bras and those who didn't because the straps were visible.

Tween girl world is a treacherous place, with so many rules to follow that it seemed like a new world. Well, it was a new world, and one that I navigated only when I had to. I was glad we lived right by the beach, away from the housing developments where all my "friends" lived. I could still read on Saturdays, walk on the beach and revisit Barbie and her stewardess suit. I didn't have to worry about bras or pretending to like boys.

Carol was bullied. But not in the way boys were bullied: they punched each other in the nose, they shoved and hit. They were sent to the dean and suspended.

We were much more covert. We did something called relational bullying, or social bullying. We isolated Carol. She didn't attend sleepovers or get notes passed to her or go to the mall. When we had to work in groups, we moved our chairs tightly because no one wanted the teacher to say, "Let's see who has room for Carol." No one had room for Carol. No one spoke to her. Eventually, the teacher had her work with boys because we didn't pass the paper to her. I'm not sure how she survived sixth grade.

There is a tremendous amount of attention paid to bullying these days. PTA's are giving workshops on bullying, Dr. Phil is talking about it, and kids are dying, literally, as a result of bullying. There is the Internet now, and myspace which has replaced our passing of notes and "slam books" - stapled together looseleaf in which we wrote anonymous comments about each other. I never wrote in one. I used to move my pen across the top of the page and close it (while everyone watched) Then I passed it on to the next girl. I was terrified of that book, way too terrified to ever actually write in it.

I'm not sure if this type of girl bullying is recognized. It's not as obvious or direct as posting pictures or writing comments in cyberspace. The girl behind most of the bullying of Carol was popular and bright, a highly unlikely suspect. Researchers say that is the way it usually is. The social bullying increases that girl's social status while robbing the victim of any social status.

I used to wonder if the teachers knew what was going on; they seemed oblivious. Placing Carol with the boy group was pretty much the social death knell for Carol.

The problem with this kind of bullying is its subtle nature. It's might be difficult for adults to detect, but it's widespread: most women I talk to either remember or were the class Carol.

I've read about Carols in YA, but these protagonists were isolated in more of a Carrie situation: one of their parents was really, really odd or they did something highly unusual that weirded their classmates out. I don't see much attention being paid to this less visible kind of bullying, and I wonder if that's because you need to be in it, or have gone through it, to recognize it.

Last week, Emma cleaned her closet out (my kids clean their rooms when they are not under direct threat as often as Haley's Comet blazes past) because "Sandy" had worn one of the hoodies that Emma has. She had to go through all her clothes to make sure nothing she had was like "Sandy's" because, you know...she explained. I nodded. Sandy is the class Carol. I asked her what the teachers did to help Sandy. Emma looked at me, "Help her? They don't even know."

So little has changed.


Jemi Fraser said...

This totally breaks my heart. As a teacher I try to be aware of the nuances, but kids are very good about hiding their bullying. One trick I've found that's worked over the years is completely random groupings for all assignments all the time. All names are in the jar and the jar selects groups. That way no one can be left out. It's so hard to watch someone be bullied. I find girls (I teach grade 6) to be much 'better' at bullying than boys - they're more subtle and can be so mean.

Bish Denham said...

Oh this is so sad. As long as there are children I fear this kind of stuff will go on. I was a bit of a Carol, mostly just sort of ignored. In a way it was fine with me as I thought most of my classmates were idiots and I really didn't want to have anything to do with them. But sometimes...sometimes I got lonely.

Anne Spollen said...

I know what you are both saying - I used to watch my seventh grade class very, very closely and I admit to opening and reading notes I found on the floor. Girls are truly sneaky with this kind of thing. I could spot it instantly with boys.

I think we've all been a Carol at one time or another. I sometimes wonder if this kind of "pack" behavior is human nature and we have to fight it. Other times, I think I went through adolescence with the female version of the characters in Lord of the Flies...

Cynthia Watson said...

Sad & scary!

Mary Witzl said...

I was absolutely a Carol, though possibly less cool. It was horrible, but looking back on it all, I wonder if I was much better than the sly, confident ones who bullied me. I can remember being cold and aloof to another girl who had no friends because I feared she might make my weirdness more obvious -- as if anything could have!

The teachers were largely unaware, though I do remember one drawing me aside and telling me that when I grew up, being unusual wouldn't be something to be embarrassed about. She was right, too. Now I'm weird and (mostly) proud of it.

I've watched my daughters navigate adolescence with real trepidation, though. They too were bullied a little, but they were better about it than I was. And thank GOD they weren't bullies themselves! That was my real nightmare.

storyqueen said...

I think the pack mentality doesn't end with adolescence...some mean girls become mean women, then mean moms and they cluster together and bully as well. Sad.

This post is so important.


adrienne said...

It's a shame that kind of bullying is hard to detect. Maybe another way to approach the problem is try to identify and help kids with low self esteem at a younger age - they're more likely to become victims.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Some people believe bullying is part of the tribal experience, that it is somehow a ritual we go through which toughens us up and helps us establish who has what it takes to emerge as leaders within a group. Some of us believe this is a totally absurd and dangerous point of view.

I think one reason teachers have difficulty dealing with bullying behavior is that they are inadequately trained and prepared to handle this type of acting out behavior and group dynamic. If it isn't the sort of classroom management technique that is boiled down to some sort of homogenous intervention, it isn't truly dealt with.

Marcia said...

This is sad, but I agree that as long as kids exist (as long as PEOPLE exist) it'll happen. I do think sometimes we're all Carol in certain situations. I know one of the reasons kids participate in ostracizing "Carol" is that they're so relieved it's not THEM. I also tended to like "Carols" and was rather oblivious when I invited people from all levels of 2nd grade society to my birthday party without any regard for the pecking order. I don't think most teachers know who the Carols are. And if they do, they must be so torn about how to handle it.

Anne Spollen said...

Agreed, Cynthia, it's both --

Here's to weirdness, Mary. I can't imagine you raising bullies; I'm glad your girls got through it. It's such a tough stage to witness. And you were lucky to have at least one teacher who was aware.

Anne Spollen said...

There are mean women/moms, Shelley, you're right. And they do all seem to cluster together; I've seen their kids cluster and bully as well. Good point - it doesn't just exist at schools.

Self esteem, Adrienne. That really is important. It can't stop bullying, but it could reduce its damage.

I like to think, Stewart, that we've moved beyond tribal behavior that we've all sort of evolved somehow into saner creatures with more refined decisions. Maybe I just like to think that, but it's not realistic.

Schools seem to be at a complete loss: they can't even detect it let alone intervene. And they can't make a mistake and accuse a kid of bullying is she's not.

You're right, Marcia. I do remember being so so so relieved that it wasn't me. I was way odder than Carol, but I used to study the accepted kids and emulate them. Then I could go home and be as weird as I wanted without anyone watching.

I'm hoping this isn't one of those behaviors that is just part of the human condition...

Anonymous said...

It doesn't really change. The way bullying is executed may change (as with the internet), but otherwise it's the same pettiness and power plays.

K.C. Shaw said...

That's really sad. I remember Charlene from sixth grade, who was two years older than the rest of us because she'd been held back twice (and I'm glad they don't do that anymore) and who was a misfit in so many ways due to what I now recognize as developmental/cognitive delays. I was always afraid in sixth grade that I'd do something that would remind people of Charlene, and I would be treated like her.

A lot of the problem is firmly with the teachers, whether they're aware of their behavior or not. My sixth grade teacher treated "good" students much differently than the "bad" students (which included me), which led directly to subtle ostracism by the students along the same lines. I saw the same process in action a few years ago when I did my student teaching in fifth grade. My mentoring teacher--an otherwise excellent teacher and nice person--disliked one of the boys, didn't mind showing her impatience with him, and seemed oblivious to the students' behavior when they started imitating her and treating him badly. I did what I could to show that I thought he was really cool and smart, but I doubt my influence lasted once I moved to first grade for the second half of my student teaching.

Mary Witzl said...

What storyqueen says is true. Although there were a few exceptions, all of the girl bullies at my daughters' school had mothers who were obvious bullies -- the kind to gossip, exclude, and disparage other women and judge others by their clothes, neighborhood, accents, etc. There are so many things we can teach our kids or pass on to them. How sad to leave them with an exclusive, bullying nature.

I've really enjoyed reading all the comments here. I think teachers DO need to be trained how to recognize bullies and how to conduct classes with zero bully tolerance. Even where I teach, many of them fall short.

Anne Spollen said...

That's what I'm thinking, Medeia - it really hasn't changed. Only the medium has changed, but the message hasn't.

I have such similar stories, K.C. One of the reasons I left traditional public school teaching and switched over to college and online was the result of teachers and situations exactly like the ones you described. Teachers have to set the example in not bullying or making allies, and sadly, I can attest that they do not always do that. I saw it happen as a teacher, then as a mom with my own kids.

I liked these comments, too, Mary.
And bully moms/women - they are everywhere, in boy sports, girl dance, all over the place. We all need to learn to deal with them at all ages.

Shannon said...

But how do you deal with it? I remember the casual cruelties of prickly tweenage girls. I have a large blank spot in my brain where most people stash their "middle school" memories because most of it is too painful to rehash. Sometimes when my little sister talks about the "drah-mahs" of her friends, I hear a faint echo of what sixth grade was like for me.

Before I went to sixth grade, I thought I was a normal kid: my family accepted me, my teachers put compliments on all my report cards, I loved the summertime but I especially loved going back to school with a bag full of new school supplies and a bright pink eraser that squeaked whenever I used it. Oh yes, and I read compusively, listened to the same music as my Dad's generation, and played an instrument. There is never anything wrong with any child the world over until they go to middle school.

Once I was there, I was informed that I had no sense of humor, (reminder: cuss words and crass pseudo-innuendos were considered a 'sense of humor', which doesn't make sense because all of us were in the dark about that sort of thing) and anything affiliated with the school band must be avoided, like small pox. I'm know I'm not the only one, but it is hard to go from being Scout to Seymour Glass when you're eleven years old.

But I do remember what did help. I had my dad's music, my mom's encouragement, and a 'Nanny' that looked after my sister and I who always knew what to say. Foul deeds rise, which means that usually the Carols of the world preserve their villains in print, humiliate them in fiction for all time, or as I'm finding out (to the small, eleven year old girl part of me's gleeful satisfaction), go to better schools and become the mean girls' bosses. ^_^

Anne Spollen said...

Wow, Shannon. Sixth grade seems to be a watershed year. Once when I was teaching a very bright group of seventh grade kids, we were reading a story about cliques. I asked them, "So when do you guys think it all changes from being friends with everyone to clique behavior?" In a choral response, the class said, "Sixth grade."

Your line is so true: "There is never anything wrong with any child the world over until they go to middle school." And I love the Scout to Seymour Glass comparison.

The only thing is you know now that it gets better. It just never feels that way when you're in the middle of it.