Teachers are no strangers to the impact careless words have on tender youngsters. While much of the world calls exchanges between youngsters on the playground or in the hallways at school teasing it often has more sinister connotations and results. Calling a child an unkind name or goading a child for physical attributes can have lasting deleterious ramifications that can last a lifetime.
I work in a school in a small village in Portugal. Like many small villages, most of the inhabitants have known each other for generations and many of them are interrelated. Small villages the world over tend to be insulated against change and conservative in their outlook. Villagers can also be very judgmental towards those they perceive as different or regard as an outsider. Often, the level of literacy is low and people don't seem to understand that each person can be an individual, and behave as such, and still be a valuable and contributing member of the community.
Some years ago I had a particularly shy student who had come to live with his grandparents in the village several years earlier. His parents had abandoned him when each had found a new living partner and there were reports that he had been beaten before being brought to live with his grandparents. He was quite heavy; his movements were very clumsy, but his face was beautiful.
When the rest of the class became aware of his vulnerability and isolation they instantly began to verbally attack him with unkind comments like: “You're so fat.” “You look like a truck.” “You move like a hippo.”
At first, I wasn't aware of what was happening until I noticed that the child was beginning to withdraw as if he was frightened or trying to be invisible. When I finally realized what was happening, I talked to him privately. It took some time, but he finally opened up and told me what was going on. He also told me that he felt so anguished by the other kids’ nasty baiting that he would hurt himself deliberately in order to make the emotional pain go away. He showed me his arms. They were covered in bite marks and bruises. He was turning his rage against his own body! It was the first and only time I cried in front of a student!
School policy does not recognize bullying, so I decided to take matters into my own hands as I was the responsible teacher for this class. I booked an appointment with all the students involved and their parents as well as with this boy and his grandmother because, apart from all the rest, this boy had been rejected by his parents. His grandmother was a very anxious and nervous woman, defeated by witnessing her grandson's suffering. It was a difficult moment. All the mothers and some fathers began to cry; they couldn't believe that their children were being so cruel to the shy new kid in their class. Their children had admitted their guilt during the meeting. I interpreted some of the tears as true pain for the child’s humiliation; but I also theorize that some was a kind of humiliation on the part of the parents who were known to behave in similar ways. Unknowingly, they provided an example to their children who then perpetuated the behavior with their classmates.
Surprisingly, the abusers came from families with higher standards of living and higher levels of literacy than that of the abused. They were the most successful students in the class. Unable to accept anything perceived as difference, these children attack. They belittle others as a way of attempting to establish superiority and as a way of proving themselves and establishing a pecking order.
Sadly, most people seem to think this is a normal and natural behavior, especially among boys. In the animal kingdoms it is referred to as establishing dominance. Young boys are encouraged to be aggressive, to avoid being sissies, to not show or seek affection past a certain age. In all societies, male children are cautioned against too much emotion unless that emotion is anger and expressed in acceptable macho ways. Unfortunately, those acceptable macho ways are usually expressed in beatings either physically or vocally – to put others down to appear bigger in observers’ eyes. This aggression directly contributes to war, the same downfall of our species, only on a larger scale.
Girls have a somewhat different way of establishing dominance; they form cliques, cut out others unlike themselves, segregate those who dress differently or are not as attractive as being unworthy of attention. Such actions can be just as wounding as the boys’ more aggressive, overt behavior.
In the village environment, adults act in similar ways. These are learned behaviors and are passed down from parent to child. That probably explains the reason my school doesn't believe that bullying is taking place. It has become such a frequent occurrence that it is commonplace and, as such, raises no alarm. It has become so much a part of the landscape that it has become invisible. Schools are mirrors of the societies in which they are rooted. Children, too, reflect the behavior they see in their homes, in their schools, in their villages, countries, and planet. To change the world, we must begin by changing the examples we demonstrate to our children. Yes, they hear our words, but it is our actions that they model.
These are times in which many of us prefer to avoid conflict. We choose to bury our heads in the sand, to not become involved, to act like those things that upset or show us in a diminished light don’t exist. We just let the storm take over unless, of course, we are ourselves in the middle of it! Then, we take action.
Children are exposed to many different opinions and examples. They are vulnerable to peer comment, parental comment, and societal modeling. Many times, their opinions of themselves are formed by these influences. Once formed these opinions affect self-esteem, feelings of self-worth, behavior, and relationships for the remainder of their lives.
We have the example of many lives to draw inferences from: Karen Carpenter of the singing group The Carpenters starved herself to death, literally, because she perceived herself as not thin enough; Michael Jackson, after years of hearing that he was ugly from his father and later from the press on every continent, saw himself in their portrayal and experienced shame at his appearance.
This case study illustrates that rage at insensitive treatment at the hands of peers can result in self-inflicted violence. While often perpetrated with knives, this youngster’s violence and hatred of himself was displayed as biting himself hard enough to leave teeth marks and bruising on his arms, visible reminders of his inwardly-deflected pain and the rejection he experienced from his parents and his classmates.
- Have you heard of self inflicted violence before? Have any of your friends done this? If you found out a friend was, for example, cutting themselves, what would you do? Should you tell an adult? Why?
- If you were the boy being teased in this story, how would you feel? What would you do?
- Sometimes when people are obese, there are reasons: for example, obese people may be trying to use their body weight as insulation or as a barrier. Do you think this is true? Why would someone want to do that?
- Did the teacher do the right thing? What would your parents say about this situation?
- Have you seen examples of cruelty in your school? How do you think they should be handled? If you were the teacher or principal, what would you do?
Case Study written by Paula Silva:
Paula was born 1965 in Porto, Portugal. She studied Modern Languages and Literatures - Portuguese/English. Since completing her studies, Paula has worked as an English teacher.