Last week, my husband picked our seven-year-old daughter up from school to find a note stuck to her back that read, "Kiss me I'm legal!" Naturally, he ushered her through the hoard of Frozen backpacks, salted snow boots, and restless energy, and straight into your office. After all, someone had just put a very inappropriate note on our young daughter's back. Perhaps you remember this encounter? Though maybe you don't. The flippancy with which you met this complaint indicates that it's not something you spent much time considering.
You said you could take a closer look at the handwriting but that there was little action you could take since we didn't know who had written the note and attached it to our child. Ultimately, you weren't quite certain what we wanted you to do.
What do I want you to do? For starters, I want you to be upset that a student in your school thought it was funny to make a sexually based joke about a seven-year-old girl. I want you to be alarmed and disheartened and maybe even disgusted. I want you to deeply consider how a young boy's early male authority figures influence the man he becomes and the way he treats women, and I want you to evaluate your role in that delicate process. I want, later in your day, for you stop in the middle of whatever mundane evening task you are doing and think, "We need to be kinder to each other."
I want an incident like this to ignite a fire in you, to remind you how critical it is to open the bullying dialogue with your students and to reopen it often and whenever they need it. I want you to tell them, "I don't know who did this, but this is not who we are. This is not the way we treat each other inside these walls." Because the way you respond to these minor offenses dictates the freedom with which these young people will explore their darker impulses and petty peer-pressured "jokes."
What do I want you to do? I want you to acknowledge the diverse and nuanced set of actions you could take to impact your students' mindsets, rather than give one smartass kid one isolated punishment. I want you to understand that words are actions and your responsibility is to use them with steadfast authority and invigorating compassion.
But, I'll humor you for just a moment and pretend that's what this note was about. Is it OK, then, to bully my daughter on the grounds that her father is a "foreigner?" You are living and working in a small town, but you do not have to teach these children a small-town mentality. What do I want you to do? I want you to empower our children to be global citizens. I want you to show them that this melting pot is exquisite and that people can look different and sound different and smell different and believe different things and still be neighbors and friends. Don't teach them that the world is large. Teach our children that the world is smaller every day, and that they are large within it.
This incident is minor, I know, and children all over the country are subjected to much harsher and more lasting bullying. I want you to honor it anyway. Even if my complaint seems laughable in your eyes, an eyeroll-worthy overreaction, I still want you to respect the parent who stands before you, concerned.
As you walked my husband to the door, you shook his hand, apparently satisfied that your transaction was complete. You patted him on the back and said, "You sure you don't want me to call in the SWAT team?"
What do I want you to do? I want you to never, ever belittle a parent's concern in regard to bullying ever again. I want zero tolerance to extend to your patronizing sendoff. I want you to understand the impact of your words when a parent feels his or her child has been threatened and to know the weight of the distrust you have planted and how it grows and grows. I want you to know that this wink-wink "Boys will be boys, eh, sports fan?!" attitude was both an insult to my husband's instinct and ability to nurture his child and an unflattering window into who you may have been when you were a student. And who are.
What do I want you to do?
What do I want you to do? I want you to see her as a person, to tell her through your actions that she didn't deserve to be the butt of a joke that she doesn't understand. I want you to make absolutely certain that school remains a place that is fun and safe for her. I want you to be an advocate for every student who walks through your doors. I want you to look at my daughter's face right now and acknowledge that she deserves more.