By first grade the other little girl usually only cried through first period at school. By then she was attached at the hip to the only kid at school who had been kind to her: my daughter. Which set BOTH of them apart from the other kids who still didn't want to be around the strange wet-faced child. By this point I knew the little girl's parents and understood that she had a really rough home life. I recognized how emotionally needy this kid was and I knew in my heart that as long as Mindie was friends with her, it would keep Mindie separated from the other kids because this kid wasn't going to miraculously start fitting in. But what was I supposed to do? Encourage my kid to be as uncaring as the other students? If Mindie had the capacity to be kind and supportive of this girl I wasn't going to discourage it.
At this point Shannen had started kindergarten and was experiencing her own social isolation. She was naturally introverted which probably didn't help matters but the bottom line was that a little girl in her class had taken an instant dislike to her and made it abundantly plain that she was going to make Shan's life a living hell. If other kids came over to play with Shan at recess, this girl would grab them by the hand and drag them away to play something with her. Before school and at lunch the girl could be heard across the room imitating Shannen's habit of brushing her hair back and speaking in a most unflattering manner. I spoke to the kindergarten teacher and she agreed that the girl was being incredibly mean to Shannen but asked what she was supposed to do about it? Students needed to learn to work these things out for themselves.
In this way things rocked on until last year. The pattern of bullying and social isolation became increasingly worse for both girls. New kids would join the class and be told "Don't be nice to THEM! If you're THEIR friend nobody will like you! They're WEIRD!" When Mindie was in fourth grade a new girl joined her class. The new girl was extremely shy and in a lot of emotional disarray from her parents' impending divorce. This girl had been homeschooled until fourth grade. Again Mindie adopted a hurting, lonely girl. The two were friends all through the fall term and Mindie and her little blonde friend (still awkward but no longer crying daily) listened to the new girl's confidences of how rough life was right them. They comforted her and worked tirelessly to cheer her up. The lonely duo became a trio as the new girl was isolated by association. Then over Christmas break the new girl went back to homeschooling. At the start of the next year the new girl was back and apparently determined to make some changes. She snubbed Mindie and her friend and went out of her way to ridicule them in front of peers. She had become part of the social majority but she was better at it than most of her classmates. She was downright witchy to Mindie, while most of the other girls in the class had been content to ignore her. Soon the boys joined in tormenting Mindie. They refused to use classroom resources like chalk or globes after Mindie and the teacher played along without comment. If anyone accidentally brushed up against Mindie they would make groaning and choking noises as loudly as possible while rushing to grab a classroom tissue and "clean themselves off." It became a classroom game to try and get Mindie or her friend to touch someone else's supplies to "contaminate" an absent or inattentive classmate. It was behavior Shannen had already been experiencing for two years, since she was in second grade. Teachers watched impassively. Aides looked away at recess as my girls and Mindie's friend were teased and shoved.
At this point my kids were coming home in tears daily and I felt helpless to help them. I'd been subjected to much the same treatment when I was in school and still had no idea how to make it stop. I talked to teachers and was told the same thing over and over, "If we catch anyone being bullied we try to stop it but we can't be everywhere. And being mean isn't the same as bullying anyway. Your kids just need better social skills." How were they supposed to develop those if nobody would even TALK to them in a civil manner?? At the time the school didn't have a principal. The superintendent did double duty so I talked to him. He acted shocked and very concerned and promised to look into it. Months of inaction later I checked back in. He once again acted shocked and concerned. This became a pattern at the school. Teachers knew what was going on but administration never had a clue, no matter how many times they were informed BY ME.
By the end of the 2009-2010 school year I'd given up hope that the school was willing or able to fix anything. There are no private schools in the area but lots of other area schools. I looked into all of them. All were worse than the one my kid went to in terms of academics and several had reputations for being more cliquish and bullying. I spent all summer trying to "homeschool" the girls in hopes of taking them out of school. But the time wasn't right yet so they marched back off to misery in the fall of 2010. That year things were marginally better for Mindie. She had returned to being ignored by her classmates instead of actively persecuted. By then it was a relief to be invisible to her peers. The highlight of the year for her was when one of the girls in her class told her that if she would lose weight and grow her hair out she would almost be pretty. It was the nicest thing said to her all year. Nothing was better for Shan and by the end of the year it was clear that it was crushing her. Luckily I was learning about unschooling by then.
This year Shan didn't go back to school but Mindie's still there. It's a small school and people do notice things. A couple of weeks into the school year, Shannen's lead tormentor walked up to Mindie at lunch and asked where Shannen was. Mindie told her Shan was being homeschooled because she was sick of being miserable and bullied. The girl looked Mindie dead in the eye and said (according to Mindie, who imitated her voice with a fluttering hand motion), "Oh, it wasn't because of mEEEEE was it?" Mindie just looked away and returned to eating. A couple of weeks later Shan ran into the school to tell Mindie something one afternoon and ran into her old nemesis. The girl said, "Everybody's saying you left because we were mean to you and bullied you." Shan, with great dignity, told her, "It doesn't matter now. It's in the past." The girl responded, "It was me, wasn't it?" while looking at the floor. Shan repeated her first answer and strode away. I think it was cathartic for Shannen. It's probably the closest she'll ever get to an apology and Shan reported that she wasn't sure how to take it. She felt torn between it being sincere remorse or possibly being the opening to a cruel trick (it wouldn't be the first time the girl had been emotionally manipulative to get a deeper jab in at Shan).
Meanwhile, Mindie has finally been making new friends at school. The "new girl" who was extra witchy to her has been making friendly overtures along with another girl that has been in the class since kindergarten. In the "Teen Leadership" class that Mindie's enrolled in the teacher makes them all write letters to one another. The only rule is that the letters can't be mean, they must be encouraging in some way. Today Mindie got two letters. One was from an upperclassman in a similar class. The girl wrote that she didn't know Mindie very well since they rarely spoke but she had always seen how kind Mindie is and that it always made her smile to see Mindie and Shannen together at school because they were so kind to one another. It was sweet but it made me want to scream at the same time. Of course Mindie and Shannen were kind to one another. It was the only kindness either of them got at that place. If they weren't nice to each other, nobody else was stepping in to fill the void.
The other letter Mindie got today was interesting, too. It was from the witchy girl. Basically it said, "Dear Mindie, I'm sorry for being so mean to you. I thought if I was nice to you I wouldn't have any other friends. Now I see, though, that the other girls aren't real friends anyway. They're the worst kind of people who are nice to everyone's face but mean behind their backs. You're twice the friend they'll ever be. Please forgive me for how I treated you." Every word is true and understandable. I've never been in that situation but I can understand how she felt and thought. But the mama bear in me wants to roar, "Sure, NOW you say that. The day AFTER Mindie tells you that we're planning to take her out of school next week! Great timing, kid!"
I asked Mindie, when she showed me the letter, if it changed her wanting to be homeshcooled. She said, "Not really. I mean, it's nice to have friends but I have friends who don't go to this school anyway. And it's not really the friends thing that makes me want to come home. It's the school thing. I don't think school is good for me or right. I'll be kind of sad to leave some maybe friends behind but I still want to leave so I can really learn things right."
Twists and turns, my friends, but the road is still going to the same place. It still leads right back to our home and our hearts. Ben's still being cagey. But then, he was cagey about Shan up until about five days before school started, too. It's just how his head works. He mulls and mulls but once he reaches a decision he acts on it quickly. He admits that a big part of what's holding him back is how strongly opposed to homeschooling his mother has been. But as we talked about that last night he reluctantly admitted that what was best for our girls was more important. And his eyes are being opened more and more to how harmful this school is to our kids.
He was shocked to discover that Shan, who has never fallen from the A honor roll at school, has no idea when to start a new paragraph when she's writing. He was even more dismayed when he realized night before last that neither of them had any idea how to neatly write a math problem on a sheet of notebook paper to work it because the teachers never wanted them to show the work; they just wanted a neat, clean answer sheet full of nothing but answers. He's been confused for years how Mindie can keep having such trouble in math when she gets it so instinctively. Finally the other night I handed her math homework help off to him and he realized that she was transposing numbers and losing track of what she was doing in the middle of the problem because she kept erasing and working algebra from memory to keep her (half-page) answer sheets neat. The "sloppy, lazy" mistakes she was making suddenly made sense to him. As I cede more and more of the public school stuff over to him (partly because he has the time this year and partly because I *don't* anymore) he's seeing the holes and gaps that I've been complaining about for years. And it's bringing him more and more to my way of thinking. I wish I'd known so much of this sooner. I wish I'd known that I could educate them without SCHOOLING them. I wish I'd known how to show him what was wrong. I wish I'd known they could have friends and normal social interaction by getting away from school and the weird, not-at-all-normal social interaction there. Most of all, I wish I'd known that if *I* don't stick up for them, who the heck will?