For the first time since the fourth grade I have found my days filled with lunch lines, long division, spelling tests and 4-square feuds. My current work has me spending weekdays at public elemetary school and a Boys and Girls Club for disadvantaged youth. My job requires me to participate in art projects, assemblies and recess, and I am suddenly a firsthand witness to the bliss and the agony being an upper-elementary student. I listen in awe as gifted teachers explain math concepts that (I blush to admit) I never understood until this week. I cringe as adults mete out arbitrary punishment on kids with a history, but nothing save accidental proximity bloodying their hands.
Watching the intricate social web of a dodgeball game was my reintroduction to this long-forgotten culture of childhood. I saw a scraggly-haired tomboy bite her lip to keep from crying after a vicious head-shot, shooing a concerned huddle of girls away, glaring steadily at the bully who'd hit her. I saw her brother (who had spent his game going after her at every opportunity) take out her slayer with unequalled wrath when he next got the ball. I watched as an everchanging gang of eleven and twelve year-old boys made alliances and broke them, ignoring the easy targets of elbow-height kids a few feet away. I watched these same mite-sized kids, many the youngest of multiple siblings, take their elders off-guard with perfectly aimed, powerful assaults. When a shot would land with a satisfying thud on the back or shoulder of an older boy, I cheered for the little one as they grinned at the floor and darted instinctively back to safety.
As weeks turned into months, I began to notice other details: Herds of pre-teen girls, still round with baby fat, wearing alarming shades of pink and mouthing off with distain and indifference to harried adults. Circles of boys, varying in size and age, swapping YuGiOh cards behind the bleachers and then stealing them back from the overstuffed pockets of their peers, undetected, during snack time. Skater teens giving up their slice of pizza to a smaller child at the back of the line who would have gone without. The requisite crybaby who burst into tears at every opportunity, to be surrounded by a new set of concerned faces each week, until the sobbing trick was learned and new sympathies required. And then I started noticing the bullies.
I don't remember any bullies from my childhood. Perhaps I was exceptionally fortunate that way, or perhaps I was just far enough outside the social norm to avoid their attentions. I was shocked, then, when I discovered both their existence, their ferocity, and their relative exemption from adult intervention. Shocked and infuriated. They seemed to exist in a bubble of protection, intimidating some adults that tried to intervene, turing icy indifference on others. Their actions seemed to stem from a malicious streak that went beyond the occasional punch and scuffle of the gangs of dodgeball boys, or the push-and-shove incidents at the skatepark. I began to watch their movements, their associations. I began to hate them.
I know that school bullying has been something of a touchpoint in the last year or so. The movie Mean Girls, the slew of Pop-Sociology books, the prime-time TV specials and myriad of anti-bullying posters that line the halls of the elementary; each new addition has added to public outcry and hysteria. Having no contact with children whatsever at the time, I was oblivious. Now, I was angry.
Unlike the bullied-child's parent, however, I watched from a distance. I had no particular stake in the immediate politics of the playground. Though technically an "adult," I have no authority over any of these kids. Most of them don't know this, but because my daily interactions don't only involve whistles, time-outs and exasperated directions, I have begun to gain their trust and their voice. First, I asked in round-about ways about the bullies, of relevant adults. Then I talked to the bullied kids about their associations, their movements. I coached them on avoidance tactics, only to see them pushed around again the next day. Worse, to watch them virtually gravitate to the far corners of the playground where they were most likely to encounter a problem. I talked to the ininvolved kids about their perceptions of the 'situation.'
This week, on accident, I started talking to the bullies. My morbid curiosity came into play, I suppose. Or my penchant for amateur anthropology. I forgot that putting a face on a stereotype often renders it powerless.
One bully went out of his way last week to play a game of chess with a younger, outsider kid, and graciously let his opponent win. Another has taken to typing up elaborate fantasy stories, developed in tandem with peers, that astounded me with their detail and subtlety. I don't know what to say about them anymore. Their behavior is not excusable, yet I see environmental excuses for it every day. I always assumed bullies were the dumb jocks, eager fur lunch money and a cheap laugh. By all accounts, these bullies are too smart for age-appropriate social interaction with their peers, are ousted, and cope poorly in the shadow of adult indifference.
What haunts me is that these rough-edged kids remind me of the male street-walkers I used to work with; guys who make bad decisions with nearly every breath by the time I notice them, yet with a lifetime of indifference pushing them into the dark with an inconceivable force. In light of this, all my easy definitions are smudged to grey.