Bullying #4: Rebecca and the Rich Kid School

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FANCY 4EVA

Some cases of bullying are person-to-person. Some are small groups in-fighting. But sometimes, an entire class decides to torment one individual. This was one of those cases.

For kindergarten through second grade, I attended the most affluent public elementary school in Tucson. Canyon View Elementary was right next to Sabino Canyon, where tall, kept women jog each morning at dawn before their latte and spin class. It was the kind of school where half of the girls in my class had horses, and if they didn't have a horse they at least had a private pool. They didn't just have American Girl dolls, they also had all of their accessories including Samantha's Old-Fashioned Ice Cream Maker (about $150, which was more money in the 1990s).

Wealth was assumed, and while we were too young to put our finger on it specifically, we knew what was normal. A new backpack every year, filled with Lisa Frank notebooks and Lip Smackers, was normal. Rebecca was not normal.

I'm not sure how Rebecca's parents got into the Foothills School District, but she joined our class in the middle of first grade. Her hair was ratty. Her clothes looked old and dirty. Her food smelled weird. She was, in a word, poor.

Almost immediately upon her arrival, we all started confirming with one another:
"I don't like Rebecca."
"Me, either."
"She's gross."

I don't know if any of us knew that she was poor, specifically. Certainly that wasn't one of the words that was tossed around to describe her. I wonder if someone had sat us down and told us that some families are needy, etc., would it have changed our behavior? But no one did, and we were brutal.

Rebecca wasn't allowed any friends. At that age, we all played together, sometimes boys with girls, sometimes segregated by sex. Our friendships changed daily based on who liked jumprope or who preferred the monkey bars. We were easy-going and happy to include anyone, which must have made our universal snubbing of Rebecca particularly cruel from her standpoint. Anything might change on any given day: your worst enemy might become your best friend, the bossy kid might follow the rules introduced by the shy kid, the prissy girl might get into a sand fight. The one constant was that Rebecca was never to be included.

At lunchtime, we sat as a class on a bench with our teacher at the end. We might share Gatorade or a fruit roll-up, passing it down the row for each classmate to take a portion, but not Rebecca. Whoever was sharing would always include the dictum 'don't share with Rebecca she has germs.' So the delicious food or beverage would be partaken by 19 children with grubby hands, and skipped by one. Did the teacher notice? Did she care?

I don't remember feeling badly about any of this, and when we came back to school after summer break and entered second grade, Rebecca was gone. I must have had a fit of conscience at some point about the whole thing, because in the second grade I approached a girl in the library with unkempt hair and started apologizing to her about how mean we all had been. She demurred because, as my friend who giggled hysterically behind me pointed out, that was not Rebecca.

In the preschool classroom as a teacher, I would sometimes have students tell me, in front of the class, "I don't like ___," and the entire class would nod emphatically. "He's bad."

To me, this is the same kind of thoughtless dislike of a child by a whole class. Preschoolers and early elementary students don't have the skills to critically evaluate whether their ostracism is fair or kind, but they do want to ostracize someone. It's almost an animal instinct.

So, what to do? I don't tell kids "You have to like everyone," because they don't, and that's an unfair request. I usually say "hmm, that's odd. I like ____ a lot! He has trouble following directions sometimes, but I think he is good." Or "if someone said they didn't like me, I would feel sad. That would hurt my feelings. Do you think ____ feels sad when he hears you say that?"

Luckily, the same shortcomings that cause bad behavior in preschool usually also cause a complete lack of social awareness, so the feelings talk is more for the benefit of the other kids than the problem kid himself, who is typically destroying toys in the corner or running around hysterically. But seeing a child being picked on is heart-breaking, and I don't understand how teachers can let that kind of behavior slide. I hope that with all of the bullying awareness and prevention trainings going on, future Rebeccas will be safer, and students will become more self-aware of how their behavior can make another child miserable.

Marina Gafni

Marina Gafni is a 28-year-old speech pathology student. She lives with her husband in San Jose, CA.

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