That’s what my 13 year old wants to know. He came home in tears yesterday. He explained what had happened at school and then asked if he could write on his blog instead of practicing the piano. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I knew that if I was dying to get something out in writing, I would not be able to focus on anything else until I had. Instead of relaying what happened, I’ll let you read it yourself. This is what he had to say about the situation:
My son has dealt with his share of “bullying” through the years. I use bullying in quotes, because a lot of it is just the result of people saying stupid things…not intending to be hurtful. Most of it has been because of his size. He’s small for his age — he’s always lagged about 2 years behind his peers. He’s starting to catch up, but people have always made comments. Even grown ups. I remember once when he was six, I met a friend of a friend at a playgroup outing. Jake was standing next to me and the woman asked me, “Oh, is your son three?”. “No, I replied…he’s six”. Her response floored me: ”Oh wow…he’s so small. What’s wrong with him?” She was genuinely curious to know why he was so small. But, she obviously had no filter and I was way past worrying about people’s feelings when it came to this issue. ”Nothing”, I said. ”His ears work perfectly fine, too”. And, that was way nicer than the “Nothing, but clearly something is wrong with you” reply that I wanted to give. She was clearly embarrassed, and she should have been. I hope she learned her lesson. And, by the way, it’s not just small kids who deal with this ignorance. I have a friend whose son looked three years old when he was one. He didn’t walk yet and certainly didn’t talk. And, people constantly were wondering if he was “slow”. Contrast that with my 12 pound one-year-old who was walking and that freaked people out, too. The point is, you can’t judge a book by it’s cover. And, kids come in all shapes and sizes…it’s best not to try and guess how old they are. Just ask the child, “how old are you?” and be done with it.
Truth be told, my son was pre-mature and born with a heart defect. Both of which contribute to his small size. But, I don’t like to use that as an excuse because it makes no difference. Nor does it change anything. I don’t think people should have to make excuses for how they look. My friend who had the giant one year old didn’t say, “Well, he was full term…” Now, when Jake was younger, he sort of had a preemie “look” about him and I would often tell people that he was 7 weeks early. When I was feeling especially feisty I would deliberately try to make people feel stupid for their insensitive comments by telling them that he’d had 4 heart surgeries by the time he was 8 months old. But, he’s 13 now. He leads a normal, healthy life. He shouldn’t have to defend his stature in that way. It’s not like his dad and I are big people. Part of it is his genes. And, I maintain that it doesn’t matter and you can’t change it anyway so just let it roll off your back. And, he has done that. Even when presented with the opportunity to take growth hormone, he declined because he was, in his words, the way God intended him to be. (Now, in his case, the growth hormone was not because he has a deficiency…it was simply going to help him get to his adult height quicker, not give him more height. So, this is not a commentary on people who choose that for their child).
The other contributor to the “bullying” is that he marches to the beat of his own drum. He’s not afraid to be who he is. He spent an entire year in a Scooby Doo costume. When you are 6, people don’t really make a big deal out of it though. When he was in 3rd grade, he played Wolfgang A. Whale in “A Whale of a Tale” and insisted on wearing a Mozart wig. It was perfect for the role (and if you really know Jake, it was just perfect in general). He continued to wear it after the play as well….once donning it for a piano recital. It was just HIM and it was refreshing to see a kid just embrace his quirkiness.
Oh and then there’s the drama thing. People tend to lump men who act into one category: Gay. Some of them are, yes. But, take a look at some of Hollywood’s leading actors and you will see a much different picture. George Clooney. Sean Connery. Brad Pitt. Leonardo DiCaprio. These are men who undoubtedly were teased for being gay at some point in their lives. And, they aren’t. But, it brings up a point that Jake himself made a couple of years ago: Who cares? Why is calling somebody “gay” an insult, he wondered? It should be as benign as being heterosexual. He’s right.
Fifth grade brought a new level of bullying (notice the quotes are gone). Mama Bear had to go grizzly when a kid in Jake’s class started calling him a midget and gay. It’s hate speech, plain and simple. And, luckily, the administration handled it swiftly. And, things seemed to tame down as he got to 6th grade and started to find his own niche. Admittedly, he doesn’t run around with the “popular” crowd, but that doesn’t bother him. He came home last year and asked me why popular kids were (air-quotes) popular when lots of people didn’t actually like them. Great question, right? I still wonder that.
And now, here we are again. Yesterday, he threw his hat across the room and said he wasn’t wearing it again. I told him that just means the bullies win. If you want to wear it, I told him, wear it. Those people don’t define you. Them telling you that you look stupid does not make it so. Don’t give them power because these are people who, if they don’t have your hat to make fun of, they will find something else. And if they see that,even after yesterday, you are wearing it….they will move on to something else. Bullies only attack people they perceive to be weak. When you show them you aren’t weak, they will lose interest. But, sometimes it takes a while.
I promised him that this won’t last forever. I told him to focus on the people who thought the hat was cool….because when I asked him who they were, it turns out they were his friends. He got the point. I told him that so many kids his age are afraid to express themselves because they are desperate to “fit in” and that the truth is, when you are 13, everyone questions whether or not they fit in. And, yes…I told him that he can’t hit someone with his backpack because even though it felt good and the kid deserved it, it’s not worth getting into trouble over.
And intellectually, he gets all that. But, he doesn’t understand why people are deliberately mean. And, I don’t either. It’s hard not to care about this stuff when you have a heart of gold and you genuinely like people. It’s easy to SAY to just ignore them and let it roll off your back, but it’s often hard not to believe the things people say.
On Saturday, we were walking around DC on inauguration weekend and Jake was wearing his hat. He got lots of positive comments from complete strangers on it. And, at one point, we happened upon the Reverend Jessie Jackson who shook our hands and commented on the hat. I reminded him of these things. I told him to hold his head high and be himself.
Today, I drove him to school rather than making him deal with the bus (although he was willing to). And, I was super proud of him as he walked in to the school with that Screech hat on, not because he was being combative, but because he is okay with who he is.
He’s showing a ton of character and courage. But, as his mom, I wish he didn’t have to.