Back-to-school brings scissors, pencils, cliques, and other sharp things

It’s mid-August, finally, and many schools in our country are back in session. In my neck of the woods, however, we still have a month to go before that first bell. There are beaches to visit, day trips to take, ice cream to scoop, camp-outs to plan, and all kinds of lazy days spread before us like a month of red-checkered picnic blankets.

Still, it’s mid-August, and while that means the summer’s last hurrah for the next few weeks, for many parents, it also means thinking ahead to the upcoming school year. In my house, we have summer reading (and notes) to finish, as well as math homework (yes, you read that right, we have math worksheets). Amid all the catalogues and online ads and social media posts of faraway friends’ kids having first days of school — first weeks even — there has been this gnawing thought.

What will this year look like for my kids?

Honestly, I’m not concerned about academics. It’s not that my kids are so brilliant. It’s just that I can handle helping them with schoolwork. It’s neat. It’s predictable. Sure, it’s often a challenge at one time or another, but it’s manageable.

What I wonder is what the year will look like for them socially.

talking behind backUndoubtedly it’s my own baggage that makes me feel this way, year after year. I had some struggles in middle school, sixth and seventh grades in particular, when both years found me an outcast for some alleged insult to a friend. (Yes, both times a friend heard a rumor I’d said something that I didn’t say, and suddenly no one in the grade spoke to me for months.) I remember this keenly, and have always been on the lookout for my kids. Are they happy? Making friends? Being a good friend? Enjoying school? Enjoying after school?

It’s usually a case of “so far, so good.” I don’t care about popularity and I don’t care about numbers. I think it’s okay to not be friends with everybody, but I try to teach my kids to be kind to everyone, even if they don’t want to foster a friendship. What I do care about is that each of my children has one or two good connections, true connections, honest and mutual friendships, to count on.

This year, I’m not so sure what to expect. This year, I have my doubts, and also my fears, about what back-to-school will mean for one of my children in particular, because for the first time, in the last few months I have witnessed some genuine Mean Kid behavior. Straight out of a Disney Channel movie.

The first incident happened at the end of the school year. My kids and I were walking to a nearby soccer field for someone’s game. Our route took us through the neighborhood across the street, a neighborhood filled with families and kids, many of whom are friends on some level with my kids. We rounded a bend and I saw them, the three peers of my child, stopped a distance away, chatting. My nerves got edgy; these kids are only peers, not friends, though they friends were at one time. But not any more, as far as I could tell by the sudden lack of phone calls. The were No Longer Friends.

We walked on. The trio walked as well, but stopped every once in a while to chat, or look at a phone or a flower. They saw us; I saw them recognize us. Yet no one spoke, not them, not my kids. Finally we were near enough when I could use my Mom/Teacher voice to say, “Hey there, Name, Name and Name!”

No one answered. By now my blood was a little hot. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined any of these kids (I know their PARENTS!) ignoring an adult. But ignore me they did. We closer still, until we were a few steps behind, and we all finally had to turn onto the single-file path through the woods, a cut-through to the fields. One of my kids was on a bike, and wobbled slowly just behind the ahead-walkers, and still no one spoke. As the path widened, my bike-rider shot past them, as did my kid, the peer and former friend of these three, and still not one spoke. Not to that child or the siblings, and not to me. And I thought, “What the what?” and “So it begins.” whisper1

Fast-forward a few weeks, to summer vacation, the local pool. Neighbors, friends, peers swimming, enjoying the hot July sun. They were there again, peers of my child, though not all three, but some, with another in the mix. At one point I gave the kids money to get some overpriced treats from the snack bar. Kids’ peers were perched at a picnic table, slurping on Italian ice. My kid walks past them. One says hi to my kid, brightly, friendly. My kids says hi back, equal in tone. Once she’d passed entirely, with back to them, that peer turns to the group, says something, they all laugh, harshly, glancing at my kid before laughing some more. Again, I was caught off-guard, again I was shocked, embarrassingly so, because one new group member, I’d thought, was my child’s friend. I wondered when that had changed. And how.

Fast-forward to today. Same pool. This was not witnessed first hand, but told to me by one of my other kids. Above scenario, almost to the detail, except one or two of the Other Kids had been replaced by one or two more. Same hello. Same whisper. Same laugh. (Apparently, my child who shared the story spoke up, called the Other Kids out, and basically got a “whatever.” Same child hugged his sibling, and said the Other Kids were a bunch of jerks. I had to kiss them both.)

My child shrugs off these incidents when they are mentioned. My child is kind and forgiving. My child calls them still calls the Other Kids friends. My child is an optimist, always able to see the good side of any situation, of most people.

And even as my child shrugs, I see the ghost of confusion in the corners of the eyes. Even as my child is too proud to acknowledge the insult, I see the flash of hurt, quickly replaced by a smile. Even as my child would never say something bad about a peer, I see the slash, ever so slight, in the layers of the skin.

We talk, and we don’t talk. I speak in circles, mining for the heart of the matter, edging closer. I have to be careful; the ground is very unstable. Too much, and it will all cave in, closed off forever. This is how we progress. Talking, listening, subject changing, whispers in the dark of things that are too raw to say in the light of day.

School starts in a month. These peers, and others, will be omnipresent; it is a small town.

I wonder what September will bring for this child. Re-connecting with true old friends? Finding new friends? Real Friends? I don’t know.

But I will bring all that I have, including the sized-for-the-soul Band-Aids that, for the first time, I fear my child will need.

band aid heart

 

 

 

 

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Why kids won’t get to see “Bully”, why they should, and what you can do about it

Sometimes, I am absolutely, completely, mind-blowingly befuddled by the total insanity of well-meaning parents.

At the end of March, a documentary will be released to select theaters around the country, a film that could contribute tremendously to the fight to end the epidemic of bullying in our society.

Unfortunately, the people who most need to see it — kids in upper elementary and middle school — won’t get to.

Recently, the MPAA slapped an R rating on the acclaimed movie, “Bully,” because of language concerns.

Filmed over the course of one year, the documentary follows five families suffering the pain, violence and, for not one, but two families, the tragic results of bullying — the suicide of each of their sons. The film shows students at school and on the bus tormenting each other with words and fists; kids tell their stories and how they feel; and adults are presented in both the best and worst light.

I imagine that a few f-bombs might get dropped here and there, especially in the scenes where kids are whaling on and screaming at their victims. But apparently such language is inappropriate for kids to see. (Since the rating was limited to language only, I guess the brutality of the bullying is less disturbing than some cursing. Who knew?)

MPAA ratings are determined by what amounts to a focus group of typical American parents, culled from communities around the country, who decide how most people will feel about images. They are not connected to the film industry. According to the MPAA site, “Their job is to rate each film as they believe a majority of American parents would rate it, considering relevant themes and content.”

A quick scan of the ratings of last year’s R-rated titles shows that almost all of the ratings were given for reasons such as “strong sexual content,” “extreme violence,” “bloody violence,” “disturbing images,” “drug use,” “graphic nudity.”  Hardly any movies are given the dreaded rating for language only — other than “Bully,” some of last year’s big language offenders included “Carnage,” “Evil Things,” and “House Arrest.”

And, in case you didn’t know, here’s the explanation of what an R rating means, according to CARA (The Classification and Ratings Administration): CONTAINS SOME ADULT MATERIAL. PARENTS ARE URGED TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE MOTION PICTURE BEFORE TAKING THEIR YOUNGER CHILDREN WITH THEM. GENERALLY, IT IS NOT APPROPRIATE FOR PARENTS TO BRING THEIR YOUNG CHILDREN WITH THEM TO R-RATED MOTION PICTURES.

The MPAA ought to reconsider the decision, and give the movie a PG-13 designation. The R rating virtually ensures that most parents will not even consider showing it to their kids, and no school in America could get approval to use it as a worthy teaching tool in their classrooms.

CARA defines PG-13 as: PARENTS ARE URGED TO BE  CAUTIOUS.  SOME MATERIAL MAY BE INAPPROPRIATE FOR PRE-TEENAGERS. Films such as “Batman,” “Captain America” “Cowboys and Aliens” “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” have garnered that somewhat more family-friendly PG-13 ratings, making them more appealing to parents.

Surely there are things more terrible than hearing a bullied 12-year-old drop a few F-bombs after he’s been brutalized on the bus for the 30th morning in a row?

On the other hand, a tortured 12-year-old is a pretty terrible image. Sadly, it’s one that a lot of kids see each day.

(I’m pretty sure a few of them have also heard an F-bomb or two. I mean, we hear “Moves Like Jagger” nine hundred times on the radio every day, and it’s pretty clear that all my kids know what that bleeped out word is, even if they don’t understand what it means or why it’s naughty.)

Okay, we all want our kids to NOT swear. I don’t curse in front of my kids, and they know better to even think about letting one slip out of their own mouths. But in the context of the bigger message of this movie, I could overlook a few inappropriate words.

Because, in the end, it’s about who should see this movie. Grownups can benefit from it, sure, especially those who shrug off bullying with phrases like “kids will be kids,” and “I was bullied and I survived, whatever, suck it up.” Others, who would do anything to stop the torture, will weep for these children — as we do whenever we read the newspaper or when our own children come home in pain — and perhaps become doubly inspired to effect change in their communities.

But the real audience for “Bully” is kids — those who will identify with all the players, from the victims to the bullies to the onlookers who ignore what’s happening.

Kids know who in their world is bullied. Maybe a movie like this would show them they are not alone, that they can make change, that what they experience is not a solitary, inescapable existence. That it doesn’t have to be like this. That the next time they walk past a bully terrorizing another kid, they should do something other than look the other way.

This movie won’t eradicate bullying, any more than having an entire elementary school student body hold hands and sing Kumbaya will. But a movie like this can start an honest conversation between kids and the adults in their lives;  witnessing real people in aching, and sometimes all-too familiar situations, can empower kids far more effectively than a study guide or once a month health class can.

A concerned teen in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has drafted a petition to ask the MPAA to reduce the rating from R to PG-13, so that more kids will be able to see it. When I signed it, over 130,000 people had also added their support.

Check out my links and see if you agree — if you do, why not sign the petition?

I appreciate the MPAA parent group who act as watchdogs for our families. But this time, they would do better to care more about our children’s bodies and souls than about the effects of swearing on their tender ears.