Thursday, January 13, 2005

Stupid talk

Had a bad moment yesterday during the 6th-grade reading group I lead at my daughter's school. As I've mentioned before, I have a group of five boys, and although the conversation does sometimes get rambunctious, I generally like these guys. We were discussing the book "Skinnybones" by Barbara Park, about a scrawny boy who's picked on by a bigger boy who's a superior athlete, and doesn't quite triumph in the end, but finds his own kind of success. I asked the boys at my table if they'd had any experience with bullies, and a number of them mentioned a boy that I happen to know of -- he was in my son's special-ed class when they were both three years old, and although they've been on different tracks since, his sister went to my kids' school and I had contact with the family there from time to time. I really don't know much about the kid; I do know he's physically big, and according to the majority of boys at my table he's a big bully. Hearing him mentioned with universal disdain set my "picking on special-needs kids" alarm ringing, and I should probably have taken the opportunity to change the subject quickly.

If I'd been a little faster with the redirection, I wouldn't have had to hear this comment from one of the boys: "He's mean. He always calls people stupid. He's in special-ed, and he calls other people stupid." My soft mama's heart wounded, I jumped in then and said, "Hey, I have kids in special-ed. Let's be nice." What I should have done was turn it into a teaching moment about how making judgments about people is bad, even if they're making judgments about you. What turns someone from a bully into a victim, and vice-versa? In a book we take delight in seeing kids turn the tables on bullies, play little tricks on them, make them look foolish. But in real life -- and when the kid in question has learning disabilities or language disabilities that make appropriate social interaction difficult -- to what extent does picking on the bully become bullying? My daughter and I are reading "There's a Boy in the Girl's Bathroom" by Louis Sachar right now, and it's on pretty much that exact topic -- making us feel sympathy for the kid all the other kids hate. Maybe I should suggest that one to the book group.

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