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Parents’ Alert

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Not so long ago, a friend of mine found her son in front of his laptop, in bitter tears and literally afraid for his life. An older boy from his school was sending him threatening and hurtful messages over a social network, on behalf of himself and a bunch of his bullying buddies. Her son was not only afraid to leave the house, but sat there as if paralysed in front of the screen, his fists clenched so firmly that his knuckles were white. No amount of consoling, coaxing or even threatening helped my friend – her son would simply not reveal the real name of his abuser, masked behind a clipart avatar and a fashionably misspelled username. But most mothers whose children are attacked don’t just back out, and very few obstacles manage to slow them down. Single mothers even more so, and my friend is one.

Like a proper lioness, she gave her son a chocolate bar, some cocoa and a pep talk, gently stroked his hair and put him in bed, playing his favourite music really low till he fell asleep. She acted calm before the storm. Then she sat at the desk and opened her son’s profile. A couple of hours later, having done some online detective work she had never deemed herself capable of, she had the bully’s full name and surname, his home address and his private cellphone number. And she hadn’t even broken any laws. The problem with bullies and all criminals is their ego; they are never really ashamed of their actions and always secretly want the whole world to know them for their deeds. So they leave a trail of breadcrumbs one only has to follow. She did exactly that. Looking at her son twitch and sweat in sleep, mumble defensive phrases in his nightmare, and unconsciously cry despite his early teenage years and strong body, she grabbed her cellphone and typed in the bully’s number. Before tapping the call button, she left her son’s room and closed the door behind her.

She phoned the bully. He answered. She introduced herself and then, with all the raging storm she had in her, she spoke her mind, letting the bully know she knew who he was and where he lived, ordering him to stop contacting her son, and threatening what she would do if he didn’t stop. I don’t know exactly what she said, and I guess neither does she any more. Protecting loved ones, especially children, brings out the best and worst in us, and controlling that is usually impossible. The point is – she succeeded. She never spoke to the boy’s parents about this. It turns out she knows from the neighbourhood; they are exactly the behavioural matrix their son so loyally copies. She never told her son what she did. But he is not bullied any more, sleeps well and goes out with his friends, like all happy children should. She is not happy. She is alert.

What would you do? There are so many options for parents in this case, some depending on the laws of your country, some on the culture and tradition you come from, but what it all comes down to is your definitive parental decision. You are the one who chooses to act and faces the results.

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Would you tell your son to ‘take it like a man’ and fight back? Battle a group of bullies, bigger and older than him, all alone and empty-handed? Would you resort to violence yourself, get a gang of thugs and beat the boys’ senseless and their parents as well? Would you go to the press or the Internet and make the story go viral, dragging you and your son through the merciless scrutiny of the public eye, which only seems to feed on the negative and rarely offers any real help or solution? Would you tell your child to talk to friends or call a helpline, washing your hands of the responsibility?

You could choose not to act. Just sit tight, waiting for the whole thing to pass on its own. It seems easier to do anyway. But it isn’t easy, and it won’t pass. Dirt piled up under a rug doesn’t go away, it doesn’t dissolve, and nobody else comes to clean house. Sooner or later, you or your loved ones stumble over it and fall flat on your face. Unresolved bullying only gets worse, spreads to more people, leaves your child out there like an open target, a sitting duck, with an invisible ‘open season’ sign hanging over his head. And your child remains a victim. Or, for better or worse(which do you think?), becomes a bully himself, vindicating his own suffering by tormenting others.

You could do exactly what my friend did – go directly to the source and deal with the bully. You could get lucky, exactly like she did, the word ‘lucky’ used very loosely here, because there is no win-win situation where violence is concerned. She could have been in trouble though. The bully could have told his parents, they could have attacked her, they could have sewed her for contacting their underage son without their knowledge and threatening him. They could even have won in court, depending on who had the money for a slicker lawyer. Her son could have been badly hurt by the bullies for having his mummy come to the rescue. But if you weigh all those options before your parental instinct kicks in, you are probably late already.

You could contact the school authorities. It is their duty, after all, to handle such issues on school premises. They have trained professionals for such situations. It would take time, you would drag your son and his friends through questioning, the bully’s parents would be contacted, and then it would be just like a trial all over again. Or maybe not. Maybe the whole team of adults involved int he problem really would work together in the best interest of all the children, and the bully would get help and stop being a bully, whereas the bullied would relax and heal, and future similar situations would be prevented or, at least, reduced. Well, you never know until you try, right?

What would you do? What do you do?

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ACTIVE VS. PASSIVE – I accepted a duel challenge from Marcia Weber

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ACTIVE VS. PASSIVE

I had travelled to the city for job interviews (don’t ask – only maybes, nothing  promising), and I’d just missed my buss home. The ride back would take three hours, and the next bus was in an hour. The last of my money was gone, just about covering the return bus-fare, leaving me with enough for this no-good, chocolate-covered donut which was now soothing my unemployment stress and lulling me into believing the best. I descended the steps next to the river bridge, and strolled along the cobble-path. It was empty, working hours still lasting for the blessed/cursed employed and school-kids. I liked the quiet, city noises in the background reminding me of reality.

A big manmade stone would serve well to relax. The job-hunt, family finances gripping tighter than an 18th-century corset, kids sick and hubbie laid-off… talk about a headache, right?

The stone was not empty. There was a book on it. I looked around for a possible owner. Nobody. Wiping the donut grease on a mother’s must-have wet hankie, I let curiosity shorten my wait.

No book. It was a leather-bound diary. The letters were neat, appearing like print from a distance. I swallowed my embarassment like a pill, read a passage, then skimmed. I unbuttoned my jacket a bit. Air grew thicker, my heartbeats louder, palms sweating.

‘Peter is unhappy. John is not around to talk to him man-to-man, and he won’t be back. Damned plane crash! Peter is only ten. I don’t know what to do. He won’t talk to me. His friends… Nobody knows why. ‘Moody teenagers,’ teachers said. My boy is pale, distant, quiet… I have to do something. Have to get back to work now. Think about this later.’

‘Peter forgot to lock up the bathroom. Had no idea why he locks himself in. Now I know. Oh the bruises! The scars! My hug hurt him. He pushed me away, sent me outside. He was hysterical, so I left. He wouldn’t talk at all. He let me tuck him in with cocoa. He tossed and turned, talked in sleep. Norman-something was mentioned, tears, screams, fear… The babysitter arrived. Time for my night shift.’

The lump in my throat seemed stuck in there and wouldn’t budge.

‘He made excuses about falling. Norman is 15, he said. Rough and tough. Nothing to worry about, he said. I skipped work to visit school again, talk to counsellor and teachers. All surprised. Yes, they know Norman, they would look into it. No, I couldn’t get his parents’ address. Peter came home with a busted lip. Locked himself in the bathroom. I shouted, I begged. My boss called, laid me off. Only the night job left now, cleaning public toilets. Who cares! I called some people and found out where Norman lived.’

‘Oh good, she’s going to talk to the mum,’ I thought.

‘No mum around. Norman’s dad was home. Drunk, high and armed. I twisted my leg falling down their stairs. Went to the police. Nothing they could do. I couldn’t file charges – no damage done. But they would look into it, they said. I asked friends to help. Nobody would. ‘Just tell Peter to stay away.’ Friends turned out to be acquaintances. Back to school. Teachers annoyed, warning me to stay away from Norman for my own good, not complicate things. I walked Peter home that day. Quietly.’

This was all beginning to sound familiar. My son had gotten quiet, too. A nasty bug started gnawing inside me. Today’s entry next.

‘I am desperate. Need work to get food. Need to keep Peter happy. Did the worst possible thing yesterday, after night shift. Got drunk. Peter left to school by himself, leaving a note. ‘I’ll be fine. Went to school.’ Some mother I am! Showered, dressed, called teacher – refused to talk to me, busy she said. I called the police – someone will look into it. Cleaned Peter’s room to calm myself down. Notebooks ripped, filled with threats. Trousers shoved under the bed smelled of urine, fresh blood stains around the zipper.’

I was choking on my own tears. Next passage, same date, last entry.

‘I am sitting by the river, thinking about everything. I was never a scholar. No ambition, just looking to get married. Did so, had a baby, husband died. Two jobs, low pay, no prospects, but had my son. My jewel! The only thing I did right in life! And now this! No friends, no connections, no money, my fault… I can’t help him. He’d be better off without me. Some family would adopt him, live the way he deserves, good school, away from Norman. Yes, better off without me…’

I dropped the diary and jumped up, scanned the water, thinking the worst. Nobody around.

Then I saw two boys coming under the bridge. The bigger one pulled the scrawny one by the rucksack, dishing insults learned without comprehension. The smaller boy tried to run away, but couldn’t. I rocketed towards them, to give Norman a piece of my mind and save Peter.

A woman’s silhouette appeared, fragile, skinny, plain. She stopped in front of them and said nothing. They stopped. Peter hid tears and shame in his jacket, falling to the ground. Norman stood, ready for a fight, spite masking fear. I froze, ready to jump in at any time. The lady said nothing.  She unclenched her fists and turned her face from Peter to Norman. She spread her arms wide and hugged Norman. Awkward, firm hug. She wouldn’t let go. She whispered something to Norman. His arms relaxed. He hugged back, tears washed his face. She let one hand reach Peter’s hair and stroked him gently. He rose. Norman fell down to his knees, crying. She kneeled and hugged both boys.

My mobile alarm vibrated. I hurried to catch the bus, go home, hug my son. And talk to him. Really talk.

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(This story is my response to a dueling challenge sent to me by author Marcia Weber. I couldn’t help it, so I linked it to a worldwide anti-bullying project I have been involved with for over a year now, called Inner Giant, but also to the character of Emma in a novel I have been working on for the last 3-4 years. I hope I have more to tell you about both projects by next year.)

Anita Kovacevic

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