As a novelist, I often write from experience, but when I released by sixteenth novel, Listen, I was shocked to find that I was experiencing what I wrote.
It was mid-February of 2010 and I was busy promoting my newest book, Listen, a novel about the power of words, in which a small town’s private conversations begin being posted on a website for all to read. I had set up a Twitter account to talk about the power of words and a blog to support this same theme. Listen was a labor of love, with an intense writing process that forged in me a passion to help people everywhere understand that words are weapons if they are not used in love.
I never imagined that I’d be dealing with the very topic of my own novel, in the most heartbreaking of ways, only two weeks after its release.
It was February 15th when my son, a fourth grader, came home from school and broke down in tears. After much prodding we discovered that not one, not two, not a handful...but twenty kids had formed a mob against him, and were verbally bullying him daily. As a mother, I was so heartbroken that I couldn’t get a grip on my emotions. I saw the utter pain in my son’s eyes as he said, “Mom, how am I going to go through the rest of my life being this unlikable?” He went to his room and I could hear him crying, and I curled up in a ball and cried on my bed, wondering how so many kids could turn against such a sweet-natured, creative, and unique kid.
I knew we were in a desperate time and that I had to intervene. My husband and I went to his room and tried to talk to him about how loved and liked he was, but he wouldn’t believe us. He had twenty fourth graders telling him differently. You’re stupid. You’re fat. Nobody wants “John germs.” Our voices seemed so small, and as a mother, I’m not sure I’d ever felt so helpless.
I knew I couldn’t send him back to school and told him he wouldn’t have to go. That evoked the first and only smile we got from him that evening. I could see relief in his eyes, and I realized how tormented he’d been.
The next morning Sean and I made an appointment with the principal, Mr. Bailey. He got us right in, and we met with him in his office. We told him we’d made the decision to pull John from school, and I could see the hurt in his eyes. We relayed to him the information we’d gotten from John: that twenty of the twenty-six kids in his class had turned on him. There were five who did not participate but did not stand up for him. Only one child, a girl, took a stand against what was happening.
As we talked, my mind raced through all the scenarios we were facing. Was I going to have to homeschool him? How brutalized was his self-esteem? How was I going to make him understand that everything these kids said about him was wrong?
As I tearfully conveyed the information to Mr. Bailey, he was nodding, and I could see tears in his own eyes. He was feeling our pain. He told us that he believed what we were saying, and that he thought a mob-like mentality had formed. We knew that one kid in particular had started it, weeks ago, and had somehow managed to get nearly the entire class involved. We were all perplexed....we knew most of the students. We knew their parents. These were good kids. How could it have gone this wrong?
We were surprised at how seriously our principal took it. Even though we knew him, and knew what an outstanding principal he was, we figured we’d get a song and dance, and some papers on how to help a kid stand up to bullying. Instead, he immediately called in all the fourth grade teachers and asked them to report what they’d been seeing. Next he called in the school counselor, Mrs. Carmen, and told her what was going on. We could tell Mrs. Carmen was visibly moved by the incident. She sat down at the table with us and said, “I want to do something, but I need your permission.” She explained that she was already scheduled to talk to the fourth grade about bullying on this same day. She asked if she could specifically use John’s name and this incident and talk to the kids about it. Sean and I looked at each other and then decided, Why not? What else did we have to lose?
We were in the principal’s office for two hours, and the compassion and genuine concern we felt from him was almost indescribable. We walked in feeling defeated and broken. We walked out with the hope that our school cared about our child.
The rest of the day we spent with John, taking him out to eat, trying to explain to him how precious and special he was, and that kids are often meanest to the most unique of the crowd. He nodded, but I knew that he was still hurt, and that the rejection from his peers had deeply wounded him. It was all I could do to not cry for the entire day. I wanted so badly to take all his pain away.
That afternoon we sat by the curb, waiting for the kids to be released from school so we could pick up John’s little sister, Cate. John was quiet and pensive. I wanted to hug him and rock him, but he was ten. All I could do was pray. I noticed our van was suddenly encircled by boys from John’s class, and one motioned for him to roll down the window, so I told him to go ahead.
To our surprise, they all had big tears in their eyes. The first one said, “John, I am so sorry for everything we did to you.” The second said, “Yeah, me too. I will never bully you again.” And the third one added, “And we’re never going to let anyone bully you again.” More apologies came and after they were done, John looked at me with his jaw hanging open. I was shocked too. Did that really just happen?
That afternoon the principal called and asked to speak with John. I could see John nodding enthusiastically with the phone pressed up against his ear, and then the principal asked to speak to me. Would I consider allowing John to come back to school? I asked John if he wanted to, and he said that he did.
That evening, the mom of the only child who stood up for John called and asked if I’d heard what happened at school. I said no, that I didn’t, but told her some boys had come up to John and apologized.
She went on to tell me that the counselor had taken John’s homeroom class into her classroom. She began to ask them if they’d ever been hurt by words. Many kids responded and tearfully told of incidents where they’d been hurt by words. Mrs. Carmen set them up perfectly, because then she asked, “Did you notice that one of your classmates isn’t here today? Who is that?” “John,” they responded. Mrs. Carmen said, “That’s because of the words you’ve spoken against him.” She then went on to ask each child if they’d bullied John. One by one, they admitted it. She asked them, “Why do you think you bullied John?” and one boy responded, “Because he’s weaker than me.” Mrs. Carmen said, “The truth is that he’s stronger than all of you, because he took all your bullying upon himself and never bullied back.” These words pierced through their hearts, and most of the kids started crying, understanding how terribly hurtful they’d been to my son. Even after their long discussion in Mrs. Carmen’s room, many of the children who’d bullied John were still crying when they got back to their classroom, convicted of what they’d done, fully understanding the consequences of their actions.
The next day we sent John to school. I felt unsure and worried about him all day long, praying that things would go well. I showed up early to wait for school to get out, eagerly wanting him in my safe care. Suddenly I saw him, the very first kid bounding down the path. Usually he was one of the last kids, and he certainly didn’t bound. He jumped into the van with a humongous grin on his face. “Mom! Guess what?” “What?” I asked. “You know how I didn’t have any friends yesterday?” I nodded. “Well, today everybody wants to be my best friend!” He went on to tell me how all the kids came up to him an apologized. Some wrote cards. One girl wanted to get “John is my friend” t-shirts made. He hugged me and said, “This has been the best day of my life.” I choked up and could hardly believe the turn around I’d witnessed.
I believe John’s story ended well because of the drastic measures the school took against verbal bullying. They treated the incident just as if John had been punched out on the playground. We have seen the devastating effects of verbal bullying in our society. Suicides over Facebook posts and beatings from text messages. Even mass shootings.
We have to get the message out to our children that mean and hateful words are weapons. What once was mostly seen in high school settings has slowly seeped into our elementary schools. Younger and younger kids are now willingly participating in the verbal abuse of other kids. Thanks to one school, a group of kids will never look at words the same way again. And who knows? Maybe they will end up standing up for another kid in the future, a kid who doesn’t have a good home base like John. We’ll never know if the actions of one elementary school’s principal and counselor, and the lessons they taught a group of fourth graders about the power of words, will prevent a future Columbine.
What helped carry me through the pain of watching my child go through this was my faith. I knew what we were going through with the bullying of my son and the release of my book was perhaps ironic but not coincidental. When John was crying in his room and I couldn’t seem to gather my emotions, I asked God, “Why would you let a little one suffer like this?” The next evening, after the “best day” of John’s life, I was tucking him into bed when I felt God’s voice in my spirit. “The reason I didn’t move before is that I wanted John to see me do something big, and if I’d handled it little by little, he would’ve missed My hand in it.”
His mom would’ve too.
And a classroom full of fourth graders.
I am now spreading the word about the devastating effects of verbal bullying, and how we must talk to our children about the power of words, and how they can stop the cycle of violence with simple acts of kindness.
Visit my blog on the power of words at www.renegutteridge.blogspot.com and Listen’s official website: www.listentoyourself.net.
And follow me on Twitter (ReneGutteridge) as I encourage you in your daily word habits.
Let’s not allow this generation to destroy each other with words. Speak out against verbal bullying.