Wednesday, May 2, 2012

It's A Girl Thing

I grew up with a brother, and three male cousins lived next door to me as a child, so it should be no surprise that I was quite the tomboy. Being a late bloomer only lengthened the phase so that well into my teens, despite being one of them, I understood nothing about girls or their mysterious obsessions with makeup and dresses, boys and gossip.

As a result, I felt ill-prepared to rear girls, and was very thankful to have had two sons. It made me feel more equipped to handle the things that would come their way, without the drama of girls and all their intricate complexities. With boys, you know where you stand. 

Beginning in early January of this year, my middle-schooler, Jacob, worked very hard for many weeks with his drama club at school. In March, we got to witness the club's wondrous stage production of Fiddler On The Roof. During rehearsals, the mom of one of the cast members had taken head shot photos of the cast, and they were posted--8"x11" black-and-white-Broadway-Playbill-style--outside the auditorium for attendees to see. This terrific idea became a source of pride for the cast members, and the photos were left in place even after the show had closed.

Then one day, Jacob came home to tell me that he was outside the auditorium and saw a crowd gathered around his photo. As he approached them to investigate, he saw that his photo had been defaced and maligned: red marker had been used across his face and a vulgar word had been written across the top. Jacob was crushed.

He reported the incident to the administrators who promptly took the photo down, but told him that because no one had witnessed the incident, nothing more could be done. When Jacob told me what had happened, I hugged him and we talked about it, and later I contacted the administrator for any other details. There were none, so I told Jacob I supported him, how sorry I was about what had happened, and that I would try to contact the photographer to get another copy of the photo made.

I should mention here that Jacob has always been drawn to art, theater, music, anime and manga, and is a real culture- and academics-loving kid. As such, he proudly calls himself a 'nerd' and has a group of like-minded friends that have formed a club, of sorts. They call themselves N3RDS, and are united against bullying. They've all experienced it, and do their best to speak up if they see others suffering through it because they know how painful it is. So, although it hurt, I'm sad to say that harassment was not new to my son.

Why, then, was it hitting me so hard? Harder, it seemed, than it was even hitting Jacob? Being the only female in the house had never been an issue for me. Until now.

Suddenly, I was emotional. Protective. Angry. Sad. As the next few days went by, I found that I could not even let myself think about the incident for any length of time. Whenever I did, I feared I would burst out crying. I'm embarrassed to say that I’m not sure what bothered me more: my son's situation or my (seemingly) irrational, emotional inability to handle it. I felt like a big crybaby. For god's sake, I was behaving like a GIRL.

To think about how Jacob must have felt to have been targeted, singled out so maliciously; how he must feel to have to walk by the auditorium every day and see the empty space where his photo used to hang, while all the others remain, unscathed; how hurt he must be that someone in his own school and age group could be so cruel, thoughtless and at the same time cowardly with such a pointed, yet anonymous, attack; how frustrated he must be that nothing could be done, broke my heart with sadness. 

What if he was being harassed every day and just not telling me? What if he was silently suffering because he didn't want to upset me by telling me about it every time it happened? Every subsequent day that I sent him off to school, I felt sick with fear and worry that something would happen to him. When my husband asked why, I cried, with visceral certainty, "Because this is how it starts!"

Bullying has been in the national news for years. We read almost monthly about the sweet, quiet, talented kids who finally snap after years of abuse at the hands of their tormentors. These victims end up feeling alone, friendless and with no escape from the pain. I know Jacob has the support of his friends, when they are around. But after seeing this act of singling him out, I couldn't help thinking that this is how it starts, that every bullying story with a tragic ending had--at some point in time--a beginning, and that it likely looked something like this.

Surely this is what fed my fears. That is not to say they were unfounded, but I began to wonder how much of my own emotion I was projecting onto my son who, to be honest, seemed fine after a couple of days. Maybe, I thought, the problem is mine. Maybe it is a girl thing, this emotional reaction, this drama that I never knew how to handle in others. Maybe I need to stop trying to protect him.

I decided to do my best to stop stewing, and to take my cues from Jacob.

Then a few days ago, Jacob came home with something in his hand. He told me it was hanging in place of his missing photo, among the other cast members' pictures. He held it up for me so I could read the 8"x11" note, hand-written in neat, blue marker:

"Don't let haters tell you different, Jacob, you are the N3RD NINJA." 

It had a picture of an anime character underneath, from the Soul Eater manga and anime series. Jacob is going to play the main character, 'Soul Eater Evans', in a video he and these friends are in the process  of producing. The four friends signed their characters' names on the bottom. Friends, I came to find out later, who are all girls. Girls with heart, emotion, sympathy and understanding. Caring girls who were there for him where I couldn't be.

Jacob had on a crooked smile, and was obviously proud to have received the note. "Jacob, that is so great," I told him as I hugged him, and he explained about the friends and the video.

"But don't you want to leave the note up where it was, so others can see it? Maybe even the person who ruined your picture, so they can see what great friends you have?" I asked him.

"Nah," he said. "I don't want anything to happen to it."