Thea tells us that the only goal she has for fourth grade is to not be bullied.
She doesn’t care about learning how to read better. How to strengthen her math skills. How she will do more science, learn more geography, create more beautiful art. How to do the work that fourth graders are supposed to do.
She cares about being safe. About being liked. About not sticking out so that “others will pick me on, Mom…” as she hides her new glasses and tells me she doesn’t really need them after all.
Her actions speak louder than her words right now. One moment happy and carefree, the next riddled with doubt about what lies ahead. The questions tumble from her, will I have a friend? Will my teacher like me? The uncovering of the hurts that were perpetuated against her continue. They told me I was stupid. They called me gay and I knew they meant it as a bad thing, Mom. They told me no one liked me. That I shouldn’t come back. That school would be so much better without me.
And I hold back my tears and I put on my brave face, because damn it, what do you say to your kid when she would rather believe the awful lies her fellow students told her than the truth from her parents?
So we speak louder through our actions and our words than those kids could ever hope to do. So we spend time simply being together, getting ready for the year ahead. Telling her that this year will be better. That this year will be different. That she is awesome. That she is funny. That she is smart. That this year she will find another friend. That this year she will blow everyone away. That this year she will feel safe. That this year will not be like last year because how can it be? And we try to piece back together what the kids who bullied her tore down so easily.
I think of her as I get ready for my own students to show up. That while some may be dragging their feet simply because school is not fun, others may be downright terrified. Others may lie awake at night wondering what this year will bring? Whether this year they will continue to be picked on, picked apart, punched, pushed, and abused, all by those kids we tell to stop and “Be nice.” Do they worry that we will not protect them? That our nonchalance and our quick fixes will do nothing to actually change anything?
And what about their parents? The ones raising them? The ones who send them our way with the hope that we will see the very miracle they sent us? Do they lie awake at night, like we do, wondering if the words we say will actually be true once the year gets started?
Thea has her first day of school outfit planned, aid out in her room, waiting for the moment next Tuesday when we wake her up, kiss and hug her and send her out the door with our love as her protection. It took a long time to get it just right, what my seem small is now so large, because, who knows what will happen on the first day of school?
We hold our breath and expect the best. After all, this is a new year, a new start, and for this kid it has to be. So this is a reminder that it’s on us; the adults. The parents, the caregivers, the educators, the staff. That these kids are coming to school to feel safe. To feel accepted. To learn in an environment that will protect them no matter the child they are. No child deserves to be terrified. No child deserves to wonder whether this is the year, they will once again be bullied.