Saoirse and Ula have a favorite story they are forever asking me to retell. It is about my first encounter with bullies in my kindergarten year. It goes like this: At the end of each day, my older brother and his best friend would pick me up from my classroom, and together we'd walk to our babysitter's house in town. And each day, the moment we were off school property, a group of three bullies waited for us. They made threats, and we just kept walking. But the afternoon eventually came when fighting ensued. Each of the two older boys took on my brother and his friend. They instructed the youngest to "get the girl."
I stared at him coming at me. Then I dropped my backpack off my shoulder. It held a metal lunch pail. I kept the strap in my hand. As soon as he was close enough, I closed my eyes and swung in a circle, clobbering the first thing that came into contact with the lunch pail and bag, which was the boy's head. Golly, did he let out a wail. The cry was loud enough to break up the other two fights, and the three bullies went home to tell on me. No trouble ever came of the incident, and we were able to walk safely to the babysitter's house after that.
The story is one of my most vivid childhood memories, as it was the end of my fear of bullies. Oh, how innocent it all was back then.
Flash forward to my early twenties, when I was working as a high school English teacher in Japan, with 600 students. As an adult, I never saw the bullying. But one of my students wound up committing suicide over it. Naturally, by the time I had children of my own, the idea of childhood bullying struck me as horrific. And while bully avoidance wasn't the reason I chose to homeschool my kids, I was perfectly happy to sidestep that part of Saoirse and Ula's growing pains.
It turns out I didn't sidestep it as much as I thought.
Saoirse was recently invited to an overnight sleepover party at her best friend's house, where she and three other girls spent the night outside in a tent. I picked up a smiling, rosy-cheeked girl the next morning, full of laughter and spirit. A few days later, when we had an opportunity to have lunch alone together, I asked her to tell me all about it.
"It was really fun, Mom," she effused.
"I'm so glad to hear that," I sighed with relief. "Because, to be honest, I always get a little nervous when girls your age socialize in groups."
"Sometimes they can fight and bicker with each other, and feelings can get hurt. I don't know why. Once girls are grown up it isn't usually that way, but I remember things like that from when I was your age."
"Actually, since you brought it up, there was something that happened."
I leaned back and listened to her story. One of the girls in the group was older than the rest. And during the afternoon, Saoirse found herself in a game with her in the tent. The older girl would zip up the windows in the tent, and Saoirse would unzip them before she could finish.
"I was having fun and we were laughing," Saoirse told me, "I don't know what I did, but suddenly she got right in front of me, right in my face, and said 'MOVE OUT OF MY WAY!'"
"I don't know why," Saoirse went on, "but it was the way she said it. It wasn't friendly at all. So I told her 'no.'"
I waited for her to continue.
"And then she asked me if I wanted to die. As a joke, I pretended to give it some thought, and then I said 'umm, not particularly.' Then she told me to move again, and I wouldn't do it. She pushed me up against the tent, and told me that if I didn't do what she said, she'd pull my hair. Well, I figured that Ula had pulled my hair lots of times, so I told her to go ahead and do it. So she yanked it. Really hard."
"What did you do?"
"Nothing. I eventually moved. It was all kind of weird. But there was no sense in making a big deal out of it."
That's not how I felt. I wanted to call my friend, the mother who had hosted the party, and find out about who this other child was. While technically this doesn't fit the formal definition of bullying (as the power dynamic would repeat itself over a longer period of time), I wanted to take measures to make sure that these two never saw each other again. Then, the pugilist in me came out.
"You just moved out of her way?"
I don't know what, exactly, I was hoping she'd say—that she'd decked this brat, maybe grabbed her by the shoulders and told her to mind her manners in a menacing tone that let her know my kid wasn't going to take any crap. But I silenced my inner beast.
"I'm not happy that happened," was all I could think to offer.
"Actually, Mom, this is going to sound kind of weird, but, umm, I kind of liked it."
"You what?!" I found this comment extremely disturbing.
"Well, it's just that–" Saoirse paused for a moment and searched for her words. "It's just that I realized I wasn't scared after all. I always figured that if something like that happened, I would be. And I wasn't. Not at all. And that just feels, well, good. I realized there wasn't anything she could really do to me. So it didn't bother me to back down. I mean, it was a birthday party, after all."
It is at times like this when I am thankful that my children are better at acting like grown-ups than their mother. While I wasn't on-hand to judge who was in the wrong to begin with, in the end, Saoirse did the right thing. She backed down at her best friend's birthday party, avoiding more conflict and embarrassment for everyone.
But what struck me most was the glow around Saoirse as she told the story. She hadn't hurt anyone. But she had recognized that she could be strong in her own way, that she didn't need to be fearful of another kid pushing her around. I was reminded of a story I once read about a champion fighter who climbed onto a city bus one night with his friend after an evening out. A short way into the ride, a belligerent drunk came on board. Seeking someone to harass, he began insulting and pushing the fighter, unaware of the man's background. The fighter did nothing. He ignored the drunk, who eventually lost interest and settled down. When they got off the bus, the friend said, "You're a champion fighter. Why did you put up with that?"
And he replied, "It's because I'm a champion fighter that I put up with that."
When we know our strength, it becomes less necessary to show it. Saoirse recognized that the other girl, who was acting menacing, really couldn't do much to trouble her. She walked away from the incident more aware of her own personal strength. And as she sat with me over lunch, she radiated joy at her discovery.
This has become her story. Ula asks her to re-tell it over and over again. And each time she does, I see an important idea enter more deeply into her consciousness: I do not have to be afraid. She appears to bear absolutely no resentment toward the older girl whatsoever. She talks about the fun they had at the party, and says only kind things about all the other kids.
As a parent and a former teacher, I am too keenly aware of the dangers of these power plays. But as a former kid, I see how overcoming them contributed positively to my own self-esteem. And I can see how surviving this bout has done the same for Saoirse. I guess I'd have to admit that a little childhood conflict here and there can be a good thing. The trouble arises when the stakes are higher, where more coercive weapons and means are involved than pulling a little hair or clobbering someone with a lunch pail.
In the end, as I consider these conflicting ideas in the balance, I know that my protective nature as a parent will ultimately win out. I will naturally seek to prevent these types of interactions from happening to my kids. But I am reminded this week of how my efforts to protect my girls will only go so far.
Sooner or later, they find themselves on their own, confronting any and all circumstances that I have tried to shelter them from. I can only hope they will prevail in their hearts and souls the way Saoirse did, that they will discover their own inner power. I feel quite proud of my little girl this week.