Around him in the schoolyard, the other kids are moving in a blur—yelling, teasing, shrieking. Joey’s at shortstop, but the game isn’t going his way. He’s been playing hard but the world seems against him.
All he can do just now, when the ball bounces to him, is to cradle it in as if its his, and then, seeing that the teacher on yard-duty is distracted, kick it high and far away—over the playground fence.
Last night, Joey’s parents were a blur of yelling too, which ended with an object hurled, a door slammed shut. And now with the ball out of reach, his fellow players unite against him—“No fair!”—and troop away for a game of tag, from which he’s barred.
Did Joey behave like a bully? It’s hard to say. His determined kick was a one-time thing, not a pattern of behavior. It wasn’t directed against any particular individual. His “intent to harm,” if any, was vague. But according to some legal definitions, he has bullied the other kids by ending their game.
Are the other kids being bullies? They’ve ostracized Joey, banned him from their play. They may do so again tomorrow, if they think he’ll spoil their fun. And why should they “play fair” with a classmate who refuses to play fair with them? Away from their game of tag, Joey may be hanging his head—but maybe Joey’s just a sore loser.
Are Joey’s parents behaving like bullies, arguing loudly, imprinting upon him a style of “conflict-resolution” that he himself acts out? But what if his parents’ parents had the very same style? Who is to blame?
What about the teacher? Shouldn’t she have intervened? She’d been observing the shrieking and teasing—though none of it had escalated to name-calling. Maybe there was some letting-off of steam, but that’s what kickball is for.
And even if a problem had been apparent, well, who and what started the problem? And then just for an unfortunate moment, she’d bent to help a child, by tying a shoe.
After hearing me out on a tale of woe many years ago, an old friend—a grizzled buddy from high school, managing to flash his familiar, wicked smile even though he was newly unemployed, his marriage rocky—leaned in and said: “Marc…” (pause; eye-twinkle) “…life is tricky.”
What hope is there for any of us, in this tricky world?
And the trickiness overflows like a magician’s closet when we turn our prejudices into categories, labels, sweeping diagnoses. In our families and schools, if something isn’t “Aspergers” it’s at least “on the spectrum,” along with myriad other things on spectrums: attention; picking up on social cues; bipolarity. It’s not that these problems don’t exist, or don’t cause pain; it’s that we don’t address them in their particularity, or in depth.
Years ago, a Gunn parent at Back-to-School Night buttonholed me, her son’s English teacher, during the 5-minute crush between the 10-minute “class periods,” wanting to discuss her boy’s A.D.H.D, then instantly answered her phone, lifting a frantic finger at me to “Wait!” (I might mention that her son, a smiling and eager boy, was in the habit of raising his hand and waving it desperately in class.) Amid the press of other moms and dads, she started up a phone conversation.
Another time, at the home of a friend, also a mother with an A.D.H.D. son, an adoptee, dinner was in the works when her boy suddenly compared a paring knife, visible at his eye-level in an opened kitchen drawer, to his penis. (“Paging Dr. Freud!” you may say.) Sadly, she pretended he’d said nothing.
The boy had found a clever, spontaneous way to broach one of the most puzzling matters of his life, to talk it over with the most important person in his life—but she couldn’t respond, not even to say, “Sweetie, that’s important, and we’ll talk about it when our dinner guest is gone.” So I ask you: whose attention was deficient?
Or if a toddler attempts the feat of clambering onto a sofa (an Everest for her!) and the parents giggle at the “slapstick” spectacle of repeated stumbles, how can the girl ever feel comfortable about efforts to learn? Or what about our “Joey”? Does he have an attention problem with sports, or simply a far more difficult problem waiting at home?
Amid the fact-finding of the Office of Civil Rights, with regard to the bullying of a Palo Alto middle-schooler based on a disability, the most poignant finding is the last one set forth. The report says: “OCR’s investigation revealed that the Student and the family had lodged complaints about the Student’s Aide,” claiming that “the Aide had been mean to the student.”
But the school principal “discovered that the Aide had a condition which made her hands shake, which could have been perceived as anger,” and once the student was informed of the aide’s condition, the student “felt much better.”
Here is the whole tangle of our human miseries, in a microcosm. A frightened student who feels threatened by a teacher. A teacher with a disability—a “condition”—hired despite that trait by an employer who either had found someone especially skilled, or believes in equal employment opportunity, or believes that those who have afflictions, themselves, may offer special sensitivity to others also with afflictions. The school official who reports on the matter like a Holmes or Poirot. And the gracious, gracious student, who, perhaps through empathy with the aide, lets go of a fear and a misimpression.
So: what hope is there for us in this crazy, tricky world?
Our only hope is that this student, touched by random kindnesses as life goes on, listened to by caring people, enabled by luck, grows someday into an adult who—through some alchemical miracle of personhood, some feat of self-transformation not unknown to the human race—has re-molded the sufferings of childhood into a mature forgiveness, a generous understanding, that eases the sufferings of many.