Dear Staff at the Antigonish Education Centre in Nova Scotia, Canada,
I need to tell you a story.
About a month ago I was attending a conference where a woman who works with schools in Alberta to help eradicate bullying, said something that really triggered me. It was simple. We have to stop putting the pressure on our children to end bullying and start putting the pressure on ourselves, as adults, to help children feel safe. So simple, yet so true.
My ten year old son, Cole, first experienced being bullied during his grade one year when we moved to Cape Breton. It kept him up at night and when I saw the child responsible, this ridiculously cute primary student, I found it amazing that someone so small could wreak such havoc. Small or not, this child was strangling Cole in the playground and throwing rocks at him when he wasn’t looking.
My son is very sensitive and empathetic to others and he told me, “Mom, I wish he would just stop.” I went into the school the next day and stood at the front desk and waited for the principal. When he came up to me he said, “How can I help you Cara?”
“Well,” I responded, “We have a bit of a bullying situation. One of the children is bullying my son and I need to see what we can do about it.”
The principal looked concerned, “Can you give me a name by any chance?”
“Yes,” I replied, his name is Justin.”
The principal then glanced to the man who had been standing next to me for some time.
“Cara,” he continued, “I would like to introduce you to Justin’s father.”
Yep, it was definitely a moment of awkwardness. It was obvious that my son was not the only child to have issues with Justin.
The principal decided to call the kids to the office. My stomach turned as I tried telepathically to send Cole a message that he was not in trouble, something I knew he would be thinking.
When they arrived their innocence was so apparent and although my son was tall for his age, I couldn’t help but notice how small they both were. Their shoulders just a foot above the desk; their eyes filled with fear.
The principal began by asking them if there was anything happening on the playground they would like to talk about? Of course both children were silent and nodded, “no” simultaneously. Next he began to explain to them the importance of friends and what helping each other out means, not only as members of the school, but to each other. They continued to nod intently, glued to every word he spoke. Then he became more direct with his questions.
“Justin, do you like Cole?” he asked with an empathetic tone.
“No,” Justin responded truthfully.
“Why,” he continued to inquire. Justin without missing a beat responded, “I just don’t.”
The principal then turned to Cole and asked the same question, to which Cole responded with the same answer, “No.”
When the principal asked why, Cole’s answer made even the father sitting next to me shift a little in his chair. It was simple.
He answered, “Because he hurts me.”
Looking at both of the young boys the principal asked, “Well, what do you think we can do to make this situation better?” This time it was Cole who didn’t even hesitate when he held out his hand to the primary student and responded, “We could be friends.” Justin then shook Cole’s hand. It was one of those moments in life that so many people take for granted, but I never forgot it, because with that small conversation and mediation between two children, they changed. Cole forgave Justin and things were different from that moment on. Justin smiled when he saw Cole, he treated other children better, and he waved and hollered, “Hello” any time we saw him downtown.
I wanted to share that story with you because that was the first time Cole was bullied but it wasn’t the last.
Our family, like many families, faced several tragedies close together. My son was amazing at adapting to difficult situations and new scenarios, but I could tell that with each difficulty a little piece of him grew frustrated and afraid.
I find it common, especially with older generations, to continually hear sayings such as, “Kids are resilient,” or, “Kids just need to learn to cope.” I find this interesting for many reasons, but one of them is this: how many of us are in therapy, or healing from all the things in our childhood we were left to “cope” with? What would have happened if we had more adults standing up for us instead of leaving us to sink or swim?
I understand that the term, “Helicopter Parents” exists, but beyond that, think of how great is it when our co-workers stand up for us, or our friends and family when things get difficult? I don’t know about you but I feel as if I could conquer any adversity. So why do we leave our children to fight these causes on their own? How many children will we lose before we realize that if we don’t heal our own inner child and take responsibility for the world in which these kids have been born into, history is just doomed to repeat itself?
This is where you come in. This where I want to thank you.
When we moved to the other side of Canada it was difficult for Cole. He had to leave his friends, and his family and start fresh. He has his mother’s optimism and tried to make the best of it starting at a new school. Then one day I found out something awful had happened.
His new school had a bad reputation, especially for bullying . Children were playing a dare game that involved beating up other children. I am in no way criticizing the staff at this school because truthfully, they were fantastic and did everything they could to intervene. These problems, as you know, are hard to eradicate especially without help from parents.
One day, when Cole was in grade three, a group of grade five students began picking on his friend. They then surround them and pushed the two of them together, telling them that if they did not fight each other they would find them later and kick their asses.
Cole leaned into his friend and whispered, “It’s okay, you can hurt me,” hoping to get them out of the situation. His friend hit Cole and was devastated because in his fear he had to succumb to the pressure: He never wanted to hurt Cole.
One of the grade five students then picked Cole up by the T-Shirt and began strangling him. When he finally dropped him Cole and his friend saw a window to run and get help. The principal of that school was amazing, and she called in all the students and the parents and gave them out of school suspensions.
For a little bit, Cole felt safe. Then it continued. His glasses were being pulled off his face, things were being said behind the teachers’ backs, and I started to see my son totally change. His legs hurt, he had headaches, his stomach hurt, and he couldn’t sleep. Then he began running after my car, hyperventilating and begging me not to make him go back there anymore.
He was in therapy and programs for confidence, but nothing was working. Cole, who was an A student, was missing so much time at school I began to get concerned he would fall too far behind. I made the difficult decision to pull him out of school and homeschool him.
The principal, who was always so supportive and only wanted the best for my son, told us he was welcome back with open arms whenever he was feeling better.
Over the months, his anxiety began to decrease, but home-schooling was a nightmare. I worked an eight hour day and would come home to teach four subjects. I am a very intelligent person, but let’s just say I did not excel at teaching grade four curriculum, and I would definitely fail horribly at that old game show, Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader.
I called the Public School Board representative to ask for a boundary exception so my son could try again at a different school. She shut me down completely, and told me that they would not give me the exemption because they cannot base the need on my feelings that he needed the exemption. She even responded with, “How do you know he won’t get bullied at another school?”
“I don’t,” I responded, “but this will be his third time trying to go back to this school, there has to be something we can do for him.”
There was nothing.
I continued, “So you mean to tell me that my options are, move houses, home-school or send him back to his own personal hell?”
She answered, “Unfortunately, yes.”
There is was. Our options.
Driving home from soccer one night I brought it up to Cole.
“Honey, I know you don’t want to go back to that school but you owe it to yourself to get a solid report card.”
The tears immediately formed in the corners of his eyes, and his lip began to quiver.
“Mom, I know I have to start a different school in September, and somehow you will make that happen…but…I can’t go back to that school.”
He paused for a few minutes, then continued, “I do have an idea, but it probably wouldn’t work and you will probably say no.”
I am always interested in what my son is going to say so I eagerly asked, “Babe, what is it?”
He got excited and said, “What if…I went back to Nova Scotia and finished my last two months there. I could see Nana and Papa, I would have friends and I would get the marks I need to pass.”
I was so surprised by his request but not as surprised as he was when I responded, “Baby, THAT’s BRILLIANT!”
That was on a Tuesday; by Monday he started at your school. A child who was not even a resident of the province was able to start right away on the other side of the country, yet we couldn’t get an exemption for him to attend a school two streets away.
You welcomed him with open arms, you helped him catch up, you let him sit in the office and do work when he felt anxiety, and you even coached him out of the car on one of his bad days. What you did for my son changed his life.
You reminded him that he is smart, funny, and a good student. You all helped him to breathe when it felt like too much. You listened to him when he needed to be listened to on a very deep level.
He called me last week with his report card. Mostly A’s and a few B’s spread across the paper and he beamed. I told him I was proud of him, not because of his grades, but because he took the leap of faith he needed to overcome the difficulty he faced and make things better for himself. For that I am so proud, but he couldn’t have done it without all of you.
I wanted to write this letter/blog to the staff at the Antigonish Education Centre because I learned a lot of valuable lessons these past few years that I needed to share.
I see that we need to change the way we approach eradicating bullying, and to stop leaving it to the teachers and the students. We need to work collaboratively as parents and educators to listen to the needs of the children and to let them know we support them. As parents we also need to step up and realize that all children are capable of bullying and all are susceptible to being bullied, but if we can emulate the patience and support that your amazing school has shown, maybe someday kids can learn in safety.
Thank you again for helping me get my son back. It’s nice to hear his joy again.
A Grateful Parent.