When I was in the 6th grade, I was 5 feet 8 inches tall. For a thin, naturally curly-haired girl, being super tall felt like just one more “problem” to enduring during my pre-teen years. It took until high school for other girls to even get close to my height and the boys to pass me up. Those between years felt like an eternity. Recalling the square dance festival at Nibley Elementary still makes me cringe. I had to dance with the other tall kid in the class. Peter stood 5 feet 5 inches and that was stretching it. We both hated square dancing, but it was required, so we complied.
Being tall had a few advantages. I was always picked to play on a basketball team at P.E. I was also really good at tether ball. I was the champion of our class. Even my teacher, Mr. Butler, challenged me one day. We were just about the same height. He won….but not without a good fight. Mr. Butler’s glasses fell off and he got all sweaty. I remember feeling sorry for him at the time because he was concentrating so hard! It’s a strange thing to see your school teacher perspiring profusely. It seemed very out-of-place.
There are some disadvantages of being tall such as short pants, people always asking you to help them reach for things on shelves, and sometimes the other kids call you names. I was in the 6th grade when bullying wasn’t really a word used as commonly as it is today. In the 1970’s it was called “teasing” and didn’t go as far or get as personal as today’s name-calling. I remember when the boys would call me “Too Tall” or “Too Tall Jones”. I got that it was because I was tall, but didn’t know that Ed “Too Tall” Jones was actually a person until I heard his name once on TV. He was a football player for the Dallas Cowboys who was 6 foot 9 inches tall. I just sort of ignored the kids who said during class, “Hey, ‘Too Tall’, can I borrow a pen?” They didn’t sound like they meant it in a harmful way, so I didn’t take it defensively. Looking back, I think it was rather clever and, to be honest, I have a feeling that some of those boys were just jealous.
As a mother, I have felt pretty equipped at handling the struggles my kids faced through their growing years. Friends decide they don’t like you anymore. Your closest friend moves away. You don’t get invited to the birthday party when it seems that everyone else did get invited. The boy you have a crush on, also has a crush; on your best friend. These are things I knew how to help my children deal with and grow from and learn. I was caught off guard, however, when I found out that my youngest daughter had been bullied. For three years straight.
My husband and I took our daughter to an anti-bullying community rally. It was a very positive event and she and her friends had a good time and as parents, we felt like we were connecting with her in her own world….the raw, sometimes cruel, teenage one. After we drove her friends home, we went for an ice cream treat. As we sat at the restaurant, the conversation went something like this:
Me: So, what did you think of those talks we heard tonight?
Daughter: They were good. I liked it. It was fun.
Husband: It’s sad what kids will do to each other, huh?
Daughter: Ya, it is. Like when I was bullied in fifth, sixth and seventh grades.
My husband and I were silent for a minute, then: Huh? What are you talking about?
Daughter: You know….when they called me It.
But we didn’t know. It was the first we were hearing of it and she was acting so nonchalant.
Me: I don’t understand. Who called you what?
Daughter: Oh… I thought I told you. Well, in 5th grade, this one kid started calling me “It”.
Me: I’m still confused. Why? What does “It” mean?
Daughter: Remember how I used to dress like a tomboy? (Nothing’s changed in that regard…but yes, okay, I remembered). One day some kid said to me that I don’t look like a girl and I don’t look like a boy, so I must be an IT. Pretty soon, a lot of the kids who were jerks called me “It” when they passed by me. It was mostly at recess so the teacher wouldn’t hear. And then they did it in middle school, too. Remember when I used to be so mad? Well…
Speechless and growing angrier inside than I’d ever remembered feeling, I just sat. I think my husband took over the conversation because the mother inside of me was stunned and felt completely helpless. I knew she had been an angry pre-teen (more so than her older siblings). Why hadn’t she told us? She was now in the 10th grade!! She seemed okay with it now and relayed the story pretty casually, but looking back during those years as she progressed through puberty, it really struck me hard. Her ultra angry mood, her struggle with school work, her social (or rather non-social) skills — it all suddenly made sense. I felt sick inside. Mama bear wanted to time travel back five years, find those kids and go kick some…. But then I calmed down and realized that wasn’t really appropriate at this point.
Since that day, we have spent some time going over those things she struggled through. She has discussed the pain it caused and how it made her question her own identity. Wasn’t it okay that she preferred skateboarding home instead of walking? She had a few close friends at the time. (I’m still so grateful to the two, especially, who stuck by her during those years. They are still two of her best friends and knowing now, what I’m sure they witnessed, I admire those kids so much!) But this was still a dark, painful time for her, a pain that she kept hidden deep inside.
I’ve often wondered why she didn’t tell her parents. We have a very open door policy with our kids, so we thought it would be easy for them to tell us things. Apparently, it wasn’t so easy after all. And, I had to admit, I never told my parents that the kids called me Too Tall Jones, either. I was a little ashamed for some mixed up reason. It was just teasing. And I knew it was just teasing. But this was NOT teasing. Calling someone a name that dismissed their humanness is entirely different. That turns it into bullying. Doing it sneakily so adults don’t hear — that turns it into bullying. And doing it for 3 years, when you have actually graduated to a middle school and introduced this “name” so other kids join in — THAT is bullying.
I cannot go back, and re-teach her to stand up for herself better or to be more transparent with her parents (which, even as I write that is ridiculous. Teenagers do all they can to NOT be transparent). However, I can focus on the positive things from the experience. Are there positive things? I say yes.
My daughter is strong. She’s not at all afraid of kids who act tough. She grew even a little bit angrier before she mellowed out – and probably scared those mean “It” kids a little bit (which makes this mama grin). She has compassion. She doesn’t stand by if someone else is being bullied. She butts right in and tells the mean ones to “back off, or else!” And she means it. She is mature. (Unfortunately, kids who have to deal with cruel interactions as youngsters, often lose some of their innocence quickly.) But in a way, in her case, I think it is okay. Her maturity has already helped her accomplish some great things in her young life. She went through some dark times during all of this, but she emerged through that darkness a secure young woman.
I’m extremely grateful to the teachers who noticed something special about her in middle school. Those who took an interest in her artistic abilities and who saw the maturity that was beyond the norm. They helped shape her from an angry teen to an extremely confident teen. They might have known something wasn’t right (or maybe they didn’t know) and there are a few who I know took my injured girl under their wing and taught her things and nourished her self-esteem in ways that only teachers can.
Bullies follow you through life. We all have them from time to time. Maybe as adults, they aren’t as obvious, but they exist. Hopefully, my daughter’s experiences have prepared her for the real world that, sadly, isn’t always kind.