10 January 2011


On January 6, 2011, the governor of New Jersey signed a new anti-bullying law into effect.  The law, which was sponsored by my local state senator, requires public school personnel to be thoroughly trained to spot bullying, and it mandates the establishment of a "school safety team" to investigate complaints about bullying and to take action against bullies where warranted.  It has been hailed as the strongest anti-bullying legislation in the nation.

In the mid-1970's, when I was a student at the local public elementary school in my hometown, my older sister and I were bullied mercilessly.  In the beginning, my sister took the brunt of it.  (Dear sister, I hope you don't mind that I am sharing this.)  Back then, there was a pervasive blame-the-victim mentality about bullying.  If you were hurt in school and had the audacity to alert an adult to the situation, then your parents were called in to meet with the school psychiatrist to try to determine what it was about you that made you a target for bullies.  Perhaps you weren't athletic enough, or you wore uncool clothes, or you had a weak personality, or you were unnaturally interested in academics.  Steps would be taken to make you more acceptable to your peers.  In extreme cases, you yourself would be called in for counseling, and if that didn't help, your parents might be advised to enroll you in a private school for your own safety.  Under no circumstances were there ever consequences for the bullies.  Bullying was considered normal social behavior for young people.  In fact, I admit that I would have given anything to be accepted by the bullies and to join them.  I seized every opportunity to pick on someone else.

My sister was run through a battery of academic and psychological tests, and it was determined that her uncoolness was the result of superior intelligence that could not be accommodated in the public school.  She was immediately enrolled in a top-notch private school nearby, and her life improved.  Instantly and significantly.  My parents were roundly criticized in the neighborhood for failing to support the local public school system.

Things got worse for me as soon as my sister, a primary target, was removed from the scene.  By the beginning of seventh grade, I was threatened daily (by peers whose parents were friends of my parents; two of them were actually in my Sunday school class), and once I was physically beaten up.  The girl who struck me informed me, shortly before my beating, that the outfit I was wearing that day - comprised of recognizable hand-me-downs from a cooler girl - was "gay."

I feigned illness in order to stay home from school, which worked for a short time.  My mom is a lot of things, but she's not stupid, and the repeated negative mono tests finally made her suspect that something else was up.  She quizzed me about what was going on at school, but I refused to tell her.  My uncool clothes and my penchant for reading were not things I could change easily, and I knew my parents could ill afford to have two daughters in expensive private schools.  Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, I refused to believe that this was my fault, and I did not want to be counseled as to how I could make myself cooler.  I spent a lot of time in the library at the middle school, where I befriended the librarian.  I sat within her line of vision at every lunch hour and read things like David Copperfield and a biography of Golda Meir that she had recommended.  As long as I wasn't on the playground, no one could hurt me.  This strategy, of course, made me nerdier and less athletic, but at least I still had all my teeth.

And then, miracle of miracles, as if by answer to my prayers, my dad got a job at a private girls' school in Manhattan.  A prestigious, academically-demanding sort of place, where everyone wore uniforms and there were no boys.  With the help of my librarian friend, I did some research about this school.  It sounded like a good place, a place where I could thrive.  I raised the possibility of applying at dinner one night, and to my great shock, my parents did not dismiss the idea as nonsense.  In fact, they were intrigued by it.  I took the entrance exam and scored well, and by eighth grade, I was commuting to work with my father every day, and my bullying problems were over.  My younger sister followed in my footsteps the next year.

How different would my life have been if I had grown up in the current era of outrage against bullies?  I suspect I would be a completely different person.  For one thing, I would not suffer from my deep-seated suspicion of public schools, public school teachers, cheerleaders, and PTA presidents.  I know that my approach to child-rearing would be very different.  I watch my children closely for signs of bullying or of being a victim.  I intervene when necessary.  My Girl Scout troop had three members who emerged, around fifth grade, as the bullying type.  I came down very hard on them.

There will always be kids who are different, or uncool, or quirky.  Those of us who have survived such conditions, with the support of our parents or other understanding adults, owe it to today's kids to make things better for them.  New Jersey's new anti-bullying law is a great first step.  I look forward to seeing it in action.


kathleenarlin said...

I had no idea that you two went through all that and I'm sorry.
There are many good teachers out there - fighting for and loving ALL kids. Your story also confirmed why I will continue to be a proud public school teacher - doing anything in my power to prevent what you survived.

Donna said...

What a great piece, and I am glad things worked out in private school. I wouldn't say my son was bullied on a regular basis, but one particular [older and quite larger] student decided he needed to beat him up one day. Ironically, it was after the shuttle bus moved the students from their middle school to the elementary school drop-off point. It happened on school property, but since it happened on the elementary school property, the middle school principal did not want to get involved; conversely, since he was not attending the elementary school at the time, that principal would not get involved. So I had to take matters into my own hands, seek out that student, and threaten repercussions should he decided to use my son as a punching bag ever again. Incidently, the reason he beat him up was because my son was not athletic, and considered a geek. Now that he's majoring in Comp Sci after being the Robotics Team programmer for 3 years, perhaps some day he will be that kid's boss. Here's hoping!

Helen said...

I knew, because Nana told me, that Patty had gone through a difficult time, but I had no idea you were a victim as well.

I remember only too well the cruelty I endured as a youngster because I was considered a nerd - in fact, my classmates dubbed me "Mortimer Snerd"
It took years to overcome the stigma.

Thanks so much for this wonderful piece.

tdock said...

I didn't know it was so bad. Carol Nixdorf spit on me one day when she caught me alone in the stairwell. It was GGGGGross. But I was always a tall girl, so she could only go so far what with being little and wall-eyed. (Is that wrong to say? lol) I'm sure my height protected me cause I was nerd extraordinaire, too. And btw, I liked that club.

Shel said...

Ah, Jennie, your writing brings tears to my eyes. Not just because it is genuine and from-the heart, but because it captures so much that I have experienced. Thank you for giving voice to these feelings.

By the way, at Tuesday night's Board of Ed meeting, Mrs. Laudicina gave a presentation about the new anti-bullying legislation. As part of her role as Assistant Superintendent, she is going to be the compliance officer. The Board has a full implementation plan for all of the schools.

Here's hoping....

Ludicrous Mama said...

I was bullied in Middle School and High School, but the worst was Middle School. A girl would physically attack my friends and I who were in the 'gifted' program. She's slam doors in our faces, trip us, push us, etc. The teachers and principal would do nothing about it... Until one of my friends' moms came in and said she would call the police and press charges against this girl. Well. Then the school bent over backwards to protect us. The girl was not allowed within 100 feet of any of us, and she even had to switch classes one semester when she had opted to take the same class as me. At the time, I was shocked at the hard-line my friend's mom was taking, and thought she was way over-reacting. And I was one of the victims she was trying to protect! But now I know - you HAVE to be extreme for people to take this kind of thing seriously.

Sally G said...

At my 25th HS reunion, two boys (men, by then) came up to me and apologized for making my life so difficult in junior high school.
It is a fine line for a parent, knowing when to intervene and when no help is needed.