When They Don’t Want to Go to School
Twenty-five years ago my oldest daughter was in junior high school. I sensed something wasn’t just right because she didn’t want to go to school. The school nurse also frequently called me telling me that my daughter was in the clinic claiming to be ill. I’d turn my schedule upside down in my own classroom where I was teaching to go and pick her up only to realize with a mother’s instinct that she really wasn’t sick at all. She just wanted to come home.
Finally one day, even though she tried to continue to mask her situation, her secrets exploded at home and the truth came out. Some girls were targeting her at school. On the day that she couldn’t take it anymore the bullies had gotten her locker combination out of the counselor’s file drawer where they worked as ‘aides’ to the counselors instead of being assigned to study hall. They used the confidential combination to open my daughter’s locker, and then dumped all her books and belongings in the restroom sink. Then they turned on the water and left them there for others to discover as the sink overflowed. Someone came to find my daughter and asked her why all her belongings were being flooded in the girl’s restroom. They assumed she caused the flood. That’s when she broke down at home. She was afraid she would get in trouble for the restroom flood. She was afraid if she revealed who really did it, they would pick on her more.
She sobbed as she told me this story. But at the very same time she pleaded harder for my silence and made me promise not to go to school and talk to anyone about it. She swore that administrators and teachers loved these girls. They had everyone fooled. She was sure no one would believe her. If I went to school and “told on them” they’d know my daughter had told someone their identity and that would only escalate what they would do to her. Unfortunately I knew that this was (at that time) probably true.
These tormentors were the original ‘mean girls.’ They preceded the internet by fifteen years. Imagine the trouble they could cause cyber-bullying today. Clearly they showed one personality to adults or they wouldn’t have had access to the counselor’s files. (Of course, this isn’t at all professional and they were probably sneaking to do this). But their true identity was revealed to their peers, especially to those who felt powerless to stand up to them. To the masses they were the ‘popular’ girls.
What Did I Do About It?
The first thing I did was toss and turn all night. I lost quite a bit of sleep trying to figure out how to handle this situation. She’d made me promise her I wouldn’t go to school or tell anyone. If I did, would the situation escalate? She was certain it would. Would my daughter ever trust me again if I broke my promise? Would she be willing to share her problems with me in the future?
What did I do? I went to school, of course. To my credit I didn’t take a weapon. As I tossed and turned I remembered that I had formerly taught with the assistant principal’s mother in another school district. She and I were no longer in touch, but it was at least an opening. I sneaked into that assistant principal’s office when I knew my daughter would be in class. I told him I knew his mother and how I knew her. (That shouldn’t have made any difference, but somehow it made me feel better). I then told him that my daughter had made me promise that I would not come to school and let anyone know what she was experiencing. I demanded his promise that she would never find out I had come. He said he would honor that request.
Then I described what was happening. I told him I couldn’t figure out how to handle it. If I called these girls’ parents, would that make it worse? Probably. The girls would deny all of it to their parents. I’ve known of parents who do this, but it never felt comfortable to me. I told him I saw it as a school problem and I asked him what he was going to do to solve it without my daughter knowing I had come in. But I let him know in no uncertain terms that I expected it to be solved quickly and discreetly.
We brainstormed together. I wanted to make sure he wasn’t going to do something that would put my daughter in a more uncomfortable situation. He came up with a wonderful idea which became the perfect solution.
What did he do? He sought my daughter out in the cafeteria. He told her one of her teachers had told him what a great gal she was. He asked her if she could help him with a project. In his role as assistant principal in this school he also served as athletic director. That put him in charge of all athletic functions. He immediately put her in charge of a concession stand. She was surprised to be sought out and valued by the assistant principal. He would talk to her frequently in the halls and the cafeteria just being friendly. She began going to all the games and functions. She had a talent for this and wanted to live up to his confidence in her. Soon she took on more and more responsibilities. He had other students report to her putting her in a leadership role.
What happened to the bullies? They saw the assistant principal talking to her frequently. He was well liked by the students. When they saw that he valued her, they stopped making her a target. It was a subtle but perfect solution. She stopped hating school. She felt accepted and valued at school both during the day and at after school functions.
Did she ever find out that I went to school? Eventually. But let me tell you how it happened. When my daughter (yes, the same one) had her own preteen daughter attending the same junior high school, she talked to me on the phone one day. This is what she said. “The school nurse is always calling me telling me that my daughter is sick. I know she has been having headaches, but I think something else is going on. I just don’t think she feels comfortable in this junior high setting. Every morning she pretends to be sick and tries to stay home from school. I just don’t know what to do about it.”
I paused a long time and then I said, “Do you want to know what I did about it when I had that same problem?” There was a long silence on the phone. She didn’t know what I was talking about. I reminded her of the situation she encountered in junior high and confessed to the promise I had broken. She was astonished, but by then, of course, not annoyed at all. The next day she marched right into that junior high, asked to see a guidance counselor and said, “My daughter doesn’t want to come to school. She just can’t seem to find a place to fit in here. How can you and I help her? Before she left the school, the guidance counselor had promised to seek her out and make her a photographer for the year book committee.
My granddaughter called me that night. She was all excited about this new responsibility. We bought her a digital camera and she was off to all the games and school functions. This time there wasn’t a specific bully that we knew of. I think we solved the problem more proactively before she became the target her mom had become.
When kids feel connected and valued, it goes a long way toward taking the power away from a bully. I’m glad for all today’s bully hot lines. and the anti-bullying workshops and strategies taught currently. These are long overdue.
But I am still continually amazed at the power of one teacher, one peer, one administrator, or one role model. When I approached that administrator he knew exactly what to do. He had the sensitivity and the influence to turn it all around very quickly. Adults within our schools have a lot more influence than they would ever believe. I’ve built wonderful friendships with students in the schools where I’ve taught who were never assigned to my class. You can build positive relationships with kids in the hallways, standing duty, at athletic functions or walking through the cafeteria.
I challenge every teacher to pick at least a dozen kids in the school building that you don’t have in class and focus positive attention on them. Don’t seek out a ‘star.’ Choose a kid who appears to be on the sidelines. Choose someone who looks like they need a friend. Choose someone dressed differently. Smile and speak to them consistently. Can you imagine what a positive difference we would make in our buildings if we all committed to this strategy? Why not try it? What do we have to lose? A bully?