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September-October 2011 Selected Content

Unschooled Girl - Kate Fridkis

An Unschooled View On Bullying

Once, a girl teased me about my nose. She said she had a friend whose plastic surgeon father could "fix that." I was fourteen, and no one had ever said anything that mean to me, despite the fact that my nose had a bump on it. I stood perfectly still, unable to respond, and the homeschooled ten-year-old girls I'd been talking with sprang into action.

"Her nose is beautiful!"

"Leave her alone!"

"Why are you so mean?"

She was wearing a school uniform. A pleated skirt. The whole deal. We had never met her before today, and her brother was new to the homeschooling group. He'd been taken out of school because of some mysterious behavioral issues that none of the mothers would clarify. He ran around bopping other kids over the head with a toy light saber.

My nose was beautiful. I'd never thought it might be anything other than that. I'd always known that not going to school made me different from most other kids my age, but the differences felt abstract. By the time I was eight or nine, I'd heard kids could be really mean to each other, because I read lots of books about kids who went to school. The idea of school, and the bullies who hid inside it, waiting, was a little like the idea of the battlefields in the fantasy novels I favored. Yeah, there were giant trolls wielding viciously sharp axes, but you just put the book down and they went away.

How could we be mean to each other? There weren't enough of us to gang up on anyone. Our mothers were always nearby. Little rivalries formed occasionally. Sometimes several of the girls liked the same boy. Sometimes several of the boys liked me, and I felt very important. I won't lie--my best friend and I made fun of everyone behind their backs, giggling together halfway across the park, or in our bedrooms. We were far from perfect. But we were far from cruel. The very overweight girl wasn't teased for her size. What kind of person would do that? The very awkward boy wasn't told that he was very awkward. Instead, I dated him because he was smart. If you asked me what it was about homeschooling group that made it so difficult to be mean, I wouldn't know how to answer. I might say meanness is learned, and there was no one there to learn it from. I might say meanness felt unnatural.

In her beautiful, self-deprecating writing guide, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott urges her students and readers to think back to the things that we all have in common. To write first about kindergarten, then about elementary school. To work up through the grades. To write about the places where we all begin. The bullies who tormented us, and wouldn't give up until our souls were half-crushed and we became sensitive, brilliant writers out of self defense and desperation. When her students are completely overwhelmed, she tells them to describe their school lunch rooms. Paragraphs about the sandwiches they ate--how they were wrapped and who wrapped them. The politics of who was sitting where. The complicatedness of such a seemingly simple scene. A scene we can all identify with, because we were all there.

Except for me. I wasn't there.

I don't have school in common with everyone else. But I don't feel left out. The things most people remember about school are never things I want to remember. And now, when I click another link that reads, "Teenager Bullied to Death," I am struck yet again by how lucky I am to have begun so differently, to have had the luxury of becoming a writer anyway.

There has been a rash of suicides recently--gay teenagers killing themselves after being bullied, often for years, by their peers. Dan Savage spearheaded the "It Gets Better Project." President Obama joined the campaign, making a PSA in which he urges gay kids not to give in to despair. He says, "We've got to dispel the myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage--that it's some inevitable part of growing up. It's not. We have an obligation to ensure that our schools are safe for all of our kids."

How did that myth find roots? How did the idea that bullying is somehow justifiable gain purchase?

Maybe there's just too much of it. Maybe it feels unstoppable. That's just what kids do, and when you put so many of them together, day after day, then that's what will happen. In their twenties, some my friends still recall the horrors of middle school with a quiet solemnity, in voices better suited for telling ghost stories. Some of my friends shrug it off. "Yeah, I got picked on. Who didn't?"

Of course, it depends on where you went to school, to some extent. The private schools were able to be more protective of their students. People weren't getting beaten up, but they weren't comfortable, either. They weren't really safe. I knew a girl who cried out of frustration because her family wasn't rich enough. She would never have the right clothes, and she'd never really be included. God forbid, she said, she keep putting on weight. She was fourteen. A boy I knew who went to a poor, public school found himself in physical fights constantly because of the color of his skin. The things he was routinely called are things I can't write here. I can't say them aloud. I can hardly let myself think them. He was diagnosed with anger problems, for fighting back when a group of bigger boys surrounded him, knocked him down, and kicked him.

We're not sure where the line between teasing and bullying lies. Is it when the teasing is constant? Is it when it becomes physically threatening? Teasing sounds manageable. It doesn't sound like such a big deal. Bullying, as we have seen before and see again with this most recent string of suicides, can be a matter of life or death.

I was homeschooled in part because my mother studied child psychology, and she didn't want her kids to be exposed to some of the things that she knew happened in schools. She had been one of the lucky ones: pretty, popular, white, smart. But she saw what happened to the girls who didn't look like her. And the awkward ones. And the kids who were too different in whatever way. She didn't want to take a chance on me. Which was probably a good idea, because I inherited a lot of my dad's quirky Jewish genes and ended up looking pretty awkward, especially during the middle school years.

But when people asked me why I was homeschooled (which they did incessantly), and I said I was trying to avoid all that peer pressure and teasing and bullying (which I didn't always say, but sometimes), many people told me that all that stuff was good for me. It was the "real world." It was important to "get through it." Why? So you could prove that you could survive long enough to reproduce? So you could go on to be tormented in the workplace without complaint? There seemed to be some unshakable consensus that suffering was good for you, and that kids needed to suffer at the hands of their peers, so that they could learn that the world was a tough, damaging, emotionally devastating place where you would probably never be able to relax. Maybe that's true, to an extent. But it isn't my reality.

The truth is, there are challenges everywhere you look and everywhere you go in life. You don't need them manufactured for you when you're ten. You have to learn to deal with people no matter what. But hopefully everyone ends up, as adults, in a better environment than middle school--by most reports, it seems to be. And I really don't see why being tormented from such a young age in any way (whether it be the kind of teasing that makes you cry, or the kind of bullying that finds you on your back on the playground, being kicked) is even close to acceptable, let alone necessary.

While I recognize that homeschooling is not a viable or perfect solution to the problem of bullying in school for everyone, I'm tired of people imagining that it isn't a very real, supportable reason for the decision to try alternative education.

Anne Lamott describes being teased ceaselessly for her awkward looks--having to get funny because she would never be appropriately pretty. You can tell it's the getting funny part that she likes. She's proud of herself for adapting. But I am only thankful that those weren't my two options: funny or pretty. I felt like I was both. I felt like I got funny because I felt comfortable being funny, and because it was better. And I felt pretty because no one told me I wasn't.

She describes the kid who is against the fence, by himself, in the school yard. No one will talk to him. He is scared of everyone else, because of what they can do to him. It's maybe third grade. He will probably become a writer, she jokes. We all laugh. I laugh, too. But I am still unwilling to part with my childhood happiness.

One of the boys in my group of homeschooled friends was gay. But to be perfectly honest, it was never discussed. Not even once. Good luck standing out as "too different" in a group of random secular homeschoolers. Although I do remember that he dyed his hair red at some point, and I did tease him about that.

© 2011, Kate Fridkis


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