Can I Sit with You?

An Open Apology to Kirk

By: mom2spiritedboy
Age at the time: 6

Dear Kirk,

I am sorry that I did not stick up for you more in the first grade
I am sorry that I didn’t ask you to come to my house to play
I am sorry that you didn’t get to live with a forever family
I am sorry that the kids at school were so horrible to you
I am sorry that they called you “Kirk the Jerk”
I am sorry that I do not remember your last name

If I could have it all to do over
. . . I would have played with you at recess when no one would, EVERY day, not just sometimes
. . . I wouldn’t have let go of your hand when we were walking home and other kids were coming
. . . I would have shared my Jos Louis with you on the field trip and sat with you on the bus
. . . I would have been your best friend

I am glad that I kicked those boys HARD with my Cougar boots that day they were bullying you after school. I wish that there wouldn’t have been a need for anyone to have to protect you – I wish people could have been nice to you and that grown ups would have made the world a safer place for you.

I think of you often. I feel much shame and sadness for the things that never were and all that should not have been. When I watch my son as he struggles so much to fit in, I often think of you. I will do better by him than what was done for you.

I am sorry and I hope life got better. I hope you found someone to sit with on the bus and who would share their lunch with you.

Cheater, Cheater, Pumpkin-Eater
May 5, 2008, 6:19 pm
Filed under: bully, peer pressure | Tags: , , , , ,

by Sabina Sood
Age 11 at the time

“I dare you to cheat on your math test.” The gentle breeze blows her words away before they reach my ears.

“What?” If my words aren’t enough to portray my puzzlement, my scrunched nose, half-opened mouth, and furrowed eyebrows are. Did she say, “cheat”? How will cheating on my math test make me worthy enough to be accepted into her circle of friends?

“I double dog dare you to write down all the test problems and give them to me,” she taunts. Who does Kristina think she is (besides the leader of the most popular group in fifth grade)? As my flame of hope to join her group is snuffed, I turn around to leave.

“I triple dog dare you. You can’t turn that down!”

My shoes squeak on the dewdrop grass as I pivot to face her. A smile tiptoes across her face as the other girls in her clique laugh.

She knows I know about the unwritten rules that bind every elementary school kid to the social ladder. Every kid keeps this rulebook tucked away in a corner of his mind until the day she outgrows it and passes it on to someone else. One of my friends passed this knowledge on to me when she graduated from elementary school, and during times like these, I wish she hadn’t. This rulebook is the Bible of elementary school and not abiding by it makes losing one’s social life inevitable.

As I ponder her statement, I flip through the pages of the rulebook in my head. Here it is. Page 37, Rule # 182: “If a kid is dared to perform a task, she has the choice to accept or refuse it. If a kid is triple-dog-dared to do something, she must complete the dare or risk public humiliation.”

If I refuse the dare, then word of my sin will spread like wildfire throughout the school, and no one will ever speak to me again. If I accept the dare and cheat on my math test, I will jeopardize my elementary school career … but that will only happen if I’m caught.

The next day, I enter my math classroom, my heart pounding and my mind searching — searching for the courage and reassurance that escapes with every breath. I accepted the dare and there is no turning back. My face tingles as shivers dart up and down my spine. Sweat trickles down my arm as I focus on one sustaining thought: I accepted the dare and there is no turning back.

Mr. Walshe reads the directions of the math test. Time creeps by. Tick…tock … tick…tock. After what seems like an hour, he finishes his speech with, “You have forty minutes to complete the test. You may begin.”

We turn the page. One student taps his pencil on the desk in a rhythmic pattern. Another accompanies him as she hits the desk frantically with her shoe. Tap … tap … bang … tap … bang. As the other students scribble on their scratch paper and fill in the bubbles on their answer sheets, I grab my pen, turn my left hand over, and jot down the first problem on my palm. “If 3x+5=…” The sweat from my hand smears the ink. “If 3x+5=…” My hand quivers, causing even the prettiest handwriting to be illegible.

I cross out my mistake and find a clean part of my palm to begin again. “If 3x+5=20, solve for x.” I glance up to see if anyone notices. Mr. Walshe types on his computer. The other students rustle their test papers and answer sheets. I look at the next problem, but I hear something as I bring the pen to my hand.

“Sabina, what are you doing?” Although he whispers, Mr. Walshe’s deep voice penetrates the classroom. His tone drowns the paper rustling and shatters the pencil-tapping and shoe-banging harmony. As he stands by my desk, his shadow devours me. My heart sprints to catch up with my embarrassment. The blood from the pit of my stomach rushes to my head as my face boils. He grabs my test and tears it in half. My classmates murmur. I can’t swallow and can barely inhale enough oxygen to stay conscious.

“Let’s go talk in the hallway.” I can’t move. My feet are glued to the ground. Guilt desiccates every drop of saliva in my mouth. It chains me to my desk. I struggle and finally break free from the shackles. The water that disappeared from my mouth now crowds my eyes and streams down my face. As Mr. Walshe crosses the classroom, I try to run, but my feet are anchors, maliciously enjoying every student’s glance that pierces my ego and follows me out of the classroom like a shadow.

As soon as the door closes, I ramble, trying to say anything that will save me from the punishment. “ThereisKristinaandtherulebookandshetripledogdaredmeIcouldntsayno.” I hate him. How can he embarrass me like that? It isn’t my fault that I cheated on the math test. It’s Kristina’s fault for daring me. It’s the rulebook inventor’s fault for writing Rule # 182. It’s God’s fault for giving me dreadful cheating skills. Why should Mr. Walshe punish me?

“This is your first and final warning, Sabina. I’ll give you a second chance to take the test, but I will have to call your parents,” Mr. Walshe explains. He returns to the classroom, leaving me alone in the hallway to think about what I have done.

The following day, I walk onto the playground and sit on the tanbark. Kristina and her group spot me near the swings.

“I heard Mr. Walshe caught you cheating,” one of her friends snickers.

“How embarrassing,” says another.

“Even though you failed miserably, having the guts to cheat makes you worthy enough to join my group. You can sit with us during lunch tomorrow,” Kristina scoffs.

I turn around and walk away as her offer hovers in the air, waiting for the wind to blow it away.

My Right Toe
November 11, 2007, 4:56 pm
Filed under: peer pressure, popular crowd, self esteem

by Eric Thomas
Age 12 at the time

Steve Ramirez was cool. Even as a sixth grader he could dance and play any sport well, make people laugh, and talk to girls without nausea. In other words, he was the polar opposite of me.

He broke his toe playing football in his front yard with other cool kids, and was in crutches for a few weeks. At school, his injury made him shine even brighter. Teachers and students alike wanted to carry his books while he crutched from class to class. Everyone asked him how he hurt himself, when he would get the cast off, did it hurt or itch.

I wasn’t jealous of him. I didn’t dislike or resent him. I liked him as much as everyone else.

A few weeks after Steve was off the crutches, I lay on my stomach on the floor of my room, kicking my right toe against the floor as hard as I could stand. I was trying to break my own toe. I kicked harder and harder, but stopped when it was clear that I didn’t have the will to do any real damage.

As silly as it seems now, it seemed like a reasonable sacrifice to make in order to make a few friends.

Please, Sit With Us
November 5, 2007, 8:01 am
Filed under: "Can I Sit With You", peer pressure, special education PTA

Do have a seat. We need to tell you why we’re so pleased with ourselves and with you, so stop fiddling around this instant and give us your full attention.

We met our goal. We published a schoolyard story every single day during October. Our book will be ready to go in less than two weeks. And this is all thanks to you: our esteemed readers and writers, our survivors and encounterers of schoolyard confusion.

If you consider that only six weeks ago Shan fell off the coffee wagon and called up Jen, blathering on with caffeine-induced, hallucinatory intensity about her newest idea: a project called Can I Sit With You? that could both share schoolyard stories to help some of our kids and raise money for our special ed PTA to help our other kids oh please pretty please? then our success is even more remarkable. (As is the fact that Jen agreed to do it, given her talent, schedule, and how much her skills are worth in the open market.)

In general: yay!

We’re going to be in book production mode for the next ten days, and so will only publish two or three stories during that time. In the interim, here are some of our most popular stories, just in case you missed them:

The Real Meaning of Might by Amanda Jones
Love Hurts by Sarah Glover
The Sound of Musicals by Michael Procopio

The book will be here before you know it. There will be more trumpeting at that point, in addition to reminders that it will be the perfect holiday gift for every person you’ve ever known. Please stay tuned, spread the word, and comment. We’ll always save a seat for you.

From the Bleachers

by Els Kushner
Age 13 at the time

In 7th grade, I got a crush on my French teacher. A huge, yearning, painful crush. On my female French teacher. It hit me like a truck, and it was terrifying. Particularly so because I read a lot and knew exactly what it was called if these sorts of feelings for people of the same gender continued; I had it on good authority that they could be Just a Phase, and I hoped fervently that they were.

See, all those advice books for adolescents — the ones with questions supposedly from Real Teens about things like menstruation and pubic hair — always included a question from some poor soul along the lines of “I think I have a crush on my best friend, s/he’s a girl/boy and so am I, does this mean I’m gay?” To which the answer was always something like, “Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being gay. But don’t worry [emphases mine] about your crush on your friend; it’s perfectly normal for heterosexual teens to have feelings like this…” and blah blah blah. It was supposed to be reassuring but was actually confusing: if there was nothing wrong with being gay, what was there to worry about, with the crushes on friends? Why the need for reassurance? Anyone would smell a rat.

In 8th grade, I tried to put the whole emotional mess behind me and concerned myself with the standard teenage-girl nerd things: reading the Foundation trilogy, writing in my Notebook, and trying not to get beat up by mean kids.

The mean kids were really, really mean. Especially Noelle Johnson, who was constantly threatening to beat me up because I was so bad at volleyball. Noelle was one of those girls who were mysteriously allowed to spend every gym class sitting on the bleachers, gossiping and making obnoxious comments. (And you have to wonder: why did she care about me? I wasn’t even on her team!)

One day Noelle ventured down from the bleachers again. I figured she was going to give me yet another hard time about how my inability to spike the ball was going to lead to my imminent demise at her hands. Instead, she stared at me, hard, and demanded accusingly, “Are you a lesbian?”

My jaw dropped. My first impulse — honestly, I was this nerdy — was to say something like, “How am I supposed to know if I’m a lesbian? I’m only thirteen! No one can know if they’re a lesbian when they’re thirteen! All the books say so! I’m waiting to see. Ask me again in a few years.” But even I knew that that would’ve been a Big Mistake. Though, in retrospect, maybe not worse than what I did say, which was (after a few seconds during which all the above thoughts flashed through my mind) a bare and unconvincing “No!”

As it was, she stared at me for a couple more seconds, while all her friends went “ooooooh!” with that rising inflection indicating a fight’s about to start. But nothing happened. She made a few more remarks about how dumb I was and went back to the bleachers.

I went back to the volleyball game, shaken. How had she known to ask? How??

Now I think that she probably just randomly picked the most damning accusation she could come up with. But at the time it was so scary and creepy, like she could see inside my thoughts. If she could do that when I wasn’t even sure how I felt, what would happen if I decided that I really was gay? It was too terrible to contemplate, so I put it all firmly out of my mind.

Or rather, I did the best I could. A year or two later, in unrequited love with my best friend and trying to decide what “counted” as being in love, I remember writing something like this in my notebook:

“Am I gay? I know I’m in love with Z. But does that mean I’m a lesbian? I’m really too young to decide something like that! When I’m maybe 20, if I still feel like this about girls, then I’ll decide I really am. But I can’t know now.”

And that’s more or less what I did: I waited until college, when nobody I knew was threatening to beat anyone up, and it didn’t matter how good anyone was at volleyball, and I didn’t feel like my whole world would come tumbling down with one simple “yes.”

In the decades since then, most people in my life — my friends and family and even the people I work with — have been just fine with who I am and who I love. Even my daughter says that no one at school gives her a hard time about having two moms. I know it’s not like that for everyone, and I feel really lucky.

At times I wish I’d had the courage to come out sooner, at least to myself. Sometimes, now, I wish that when Noelle Johnson asked me that question, I’d said “Yes!,” swept her into my arms, and given her a big smooch in front of the whole gym class. It would have made for a much better story, even though I probably would’ve gotten suspended and beaten up.

And at other times I think I was right and smart to wait until it felt safe for me. Life isn’t just a story when you’re living it, after all. It’s easy for me now, safe in my grownup life, to wonder whether it’s worse to get hurt, or worse to live scared that you might get hurt. Some kids who come out as teenagers did and do get hurt, in real and lasting ways, and I escaped most of that.

But you know what’s weird? No one ever did actually beat me up, even though they spent much of 8th grade threatening to. I didn’t even exactly know what “beaten up” meant, even though I spent most of 8th grade being afraid of it.

I do wish I’d been able, somehow, to not be so scared of something that hadn’t even happened to me. And to let myself decide for myself what I felt, and what it meant, and what counted as real.

A Misled Superhero
October 19, 2007, 7:01 am
Filed under: advocacy, best friends, bully, peer pressure

by Cindy M. Emch
Age 10 at the time

In fifth grade I started public school. My mom was a public school teacher in our small farm town. I marched with her on the picket line when I was in second grade. We didn’t tell the other marchers that I was enrolled in the teeny tiny Catholic School in town. I was precocious to put it kindly. I was super-geeky and couldn’t get my head out of novels heavier than I was — that’s another way to put it. After watching my brother bored, antsy, and getting into trouble in our local public school, my mom decided to give our people, the Catholics, a shot.

I got a good education in books at Catholic school, but not in socializing. It was one of those places where when I arrived somehow everyone was paired off. I paired off with a book and played with my friends after school, fascinated by their stories of what sounded like paradise: The Public School.

After four grades of begging and pleading, my parents gave in for fifth grade. I got to go school shopping for clothes that weren’t uniforms, and started Latson Road Elementary in Mr. Greate’s Fifth Grade Class. I felt so fancy and East Coast in my orange sweaters and brown jeans. I was a tiny fashionista after following my neighbors’ clothes for all those years. I was beside myself with excitement. The only trouble was that I was entering a complicated social structure with no handbook, and all of my public school pals were a couple of years older and so were already moved on to Middle School.

I found some girls that were pretty friendly and nice enough that by 9 AM on the first day of school, we were the Three Musketeers. Total Best Friends. I was always a sucker for charming girls who could hold a conversation. I have always trusted easily. What I didn’t yet know was that I was about to get a first hand education about “Best Friends.”

When lunch came we ran around the yard, climbing and swinging and testing our daring by hanging upside down on the swings as we pushed each other higher and higher. Caroline said she’d be right back and skipped out of sight. Daphne and I didn’t stop our dangerous swinging contest. We tried to see if we could twist the chains of our swings together to make the plastic and metal spin really fast and still flip upside down. It wasn’t really working since we couldn’t stop laughing long enough to wrap our legs around the chains once the swings separated.

Caroline ran back out of breath and upset. “THAT BOY! THAT BOY! THAT BOY IS MEAN! HE JUST PUSHED ME!”

My breath stopped. Someone was being mean to my New Best Friend. This wasn’t OK. This was what I heard about at home, when people talked about how men hurt women. This was sexism in action! This was like those men that were rude to my mom sometimes and talked to her like she was dumb! This was Injustice! This was someone being a Bully to my New Best Friend!

“Which one?” I asked her. I felt like my whole destiny rode on this. No one would pick on my New Best Friend. I liked to play football. My brother was a state champion wrestler. My mom was a gym teacher. No one would challenge or hurt someone under My Protection.

“Over there in the middle of the tire ring,” she said. She looked upset and yet strangely proud. “What are you going to do?” she asked me.

“Tell him that it’s wrong to bully!” I said, and stomped away. I was full of a ten-year-old’s righteous anger. I was going to Fight A Bully. I was going to Protect a Friend.

“Hey!” I yelled at this small fourth grader with sandy brown hair. “Hi!” he said, smiling and waving at me. “You shouldn’t push girls” I said, grabbing his hand. “It’s not right!” I said, louder and full of bluster. I pulled and swung on his arm, tossing him around in a curve. “Hey Stop It! What are you doing? I didn’t. I didn’t push anyone!” he said.

He sounded so confused. I pulled him up and closer to me. “Don’t LIE to me. You pushed my friend. You’re a bully!” I yelled. I started to slap him on the arms and back. Whereever my hands could reach, I was smacking him. He smacked back and tried to push me down. “You’re MEAN!” I shouted, palms still flying. He was crying and I was too mad to think. My head was fuzzy with anger, and cloudy with wondering how this had gotten out of control. I didn’t want to be hurting this kid. And why did he look familiar? There were about twenty kids gathered around at this point as we pushed each other, him falling down and getting back up. Both of us holding our ground.

“Stop it you kids! And on the first day of school!” Mrs. Elliot barked as she pulled us apart. There wasn’t enough bad in either of us to fight a teacher.

A few minutes later we were sitting outside of Principal Park’s office. “Why did you start picking on me?” Jason asked me. I recognized him now that I wasn’t Caroline’s avenging angel. He was the kid brother of my brother’s best friend. We had run farm fields together. Gotten in hay bale fights and fed pigs together, laughing at their eagerness. He always let me brush the black horse because he knew it was my favorite chore. I felt so dumb. So shamed.

“You pushed Caroline. The girl with the pink headband. You hurt her. I thought you were being a bully.” I told him.

“But I didn’t — she came over and kicked my ball away. I just chased after it.”

I was so confused. The fight was over. I could tell he wasn’t lying. Had I been completely duped by my new best friend? Had she just lied to see what would happen?

Principal Park called us in. He knew both of our families. I had known him as Greg ever since I could talk. He was always hanging out with my folks and saying hi when we were in town. “Cindy, you just started school here. I know you weren’t a problem at St. Joseph’s. Why did you beat up Jason?”

My superhero ego deflated. I couldn’t explain to him how I was fighting for the good of the downtrodden, standing up to the bully hierarchy of the schoolyard, defending the rights of all poor little girls everywhere who got hurt, trying to prove that girls weren’t weak and made to be pushed around. It all rang so false now. I had been played. Manipulated. Tested. I was duped into self righteous superhero for the amusement of a charming liar with a pink ribbon. “I thought he had bullied my friend. I was wrong. I am sorry.”

Principal Park asked me about the bullying and I told him what Caroline had told me. Knowing it wasn’t true, and saying that I knew now Jason hadn’t done it. He still lectured Jason about bullying. He lectured us both about fighting. I defended Jason. Jason defended me. If I hadn’t been crying so hard it wouldn’ve been really funny. He called our parents, who were as confused as we were at that point as to why two friends who played so well out of school had just gotten in a legendary fight in the schoolyard.

When I walked back into class and took my seat in between Daphne and Caroline, I looked at Caroline accusingly. “Wow, I didn’t think you’d start a fight. Why’d you do that?” she whispered. Her eyes sparked at me, daring me to get upset. To call her on it in the middle of class and interrupt Mr. Greate and just get in more trouble. I swallowed something bitter. “I thought he was a bully.” My words sat there on the desk. I looked to the front of the room to hear the teacher. It was going to be a very different sort of school year.

A Non-Catholic Upbringing
October 18, 2007, 7:01 am
Filed under: elementary school, peer pressure, popular crowd, religion

By Lea Cuniberti-Duran
Elementary school years

I was born in Italy in the year 1967, just a year shy of the rising of the Student Movement and the beginning of the political rising, which in Europe, led to the blood stained 70’s. Italy, at the time, was very much a Catholic country; kids were named after saints, and prayers were taught in school.

I was born the odd kid out: my mother is Jewish but was raised Catholic, in an attempt to escape the brutality of WWII, and my father was a Catholic turned Atheist. It was decided that I would not be baptized. The official line was that I was “given more choices”, and I would be able to pick my religion as an adult.

In the mean time, my dad forbade me to go to church. I guess he did not want me to cloud my judgment or give in to peer pressure. Never mind that for the vast majority of people being part of a group is some sort of security blanket, and for a kid, blending-in is key.

Blending-in for me was never very easy. For one thing, my name is Lea (can you find a name that’s a bit more Jewish, please?), and then there was the fact that I was not baptized and I didn’t attend church.

I don’t remember anybody giving me too much grief about not being baptized until I hit grade school. Enter Mrs. Renata Manzoni, the woman who was going to be my teacher for a very long four years. Mrs. Manzoni was one of those human beings that takes it upon themselves to straighten out others. As an extremely devout Catholic, she could spot good from evil, and saving souls was high on her priority list.

It didn’t take long for Mrs. Manzoni to find out that I was not Catholic. At the beginning of the school year, she called me to the front of the class introducing me to everybody: “Class, this is Lea. She is not baptized and she is going to hell.” Whispers spread across the class. Suddenly I was not viewed as just one of the other kids, but more like a newly discovered alien species.

The news spread quickly to the playground, and I immediately felt like a celebrity; but I was not the “she can jump double-dutch” playground celebrity, I was more “here comes the she-devil” kind. It goes without saying, that being six years old and pointed to as the “spawn of the devil” is no fun; and although I felt that I was like everybody else, I was told that I was different.

I don’t remember being teased because of my lost soul, but I do remember being shunned by some of the kids at school. One time I was having an argument with another kid, when we were interrupted by one of her friends who came to her rescue and shut me up by saying, “Don’t talk to her, she’s not even baptized.” I remember feeling stunned, then livid, my ears red and burning. I watched their group as they walked away, gazing back at me, looking and then whispering and giggling.

Some other kids talked to their parents about my impending damnation; I guess that Mrs. Manzoni had struck a chord with some of my classmates. Some of those kids told me that I was not actually going to hell; rather, I’d be in limbo, where non-baptized, innocent souls spend their eternity. To me, the limbo deal seemed very much like a technicality, and not much of a consolation.

My parents, of course, were doing a ‘bang up’ job in letting me know that “hell” is merely a form of social control enforced by the church, so I ended up not worrying too much about it.

As every major holiday and religious celebration came and went, I felt deeply alienated from the rest of my community. Although I attended a public school, we went to mass as a class a few times a year. Many of the social and community activities rotated around church; it was the major catalyst. At a certain level not being able to be a part of it, made me almost not be a part of the community at all.

I felt very lonely; I was literally the only one that I knew who was not at least baptized, even within my immediate family. If my parents had belonged to a different denomination, I could have had at least a few people that shared our same beliefs, but being the only one raised Atheist was one of those things that forge one’s personality in ways that I am still discovering.

A few times I snuck out behind my father’s back (with my mother as an accomplice) and went to the after-church activities with the other kids. I really craved feeling, experiencing and seeing what everybody else was doing on Sunday. I remember hearing all about the after church programs on Monday at school, and to me, watching a movie, buying some candies, hanging out while some of the older kids played foosball, sounded nothing short of fantastic.

One time, I was invited by my friend Bruna to join her and her family after service. I was thrilled; it kept my mind occupied for several days. Finally Sunday came, and everything was just as I expected: religious movie and the opportunity to buy liquorices and marshmallows. After the movie was over, we all exited the small room, which was outfitted with benches and an old projector. To my absolute terror, I spotted a priest who knew of me; I really could not escape his look of disapproval. He looked at me as though I had just stolen something. I felt so humiliated and ashamed.

When it was time for first communion, it was clear that I was the only one in the entire school (read: in the entire country) who was going to skip it. I lived vicariously through the other girls, listening to their descriptions of their white nun-like dresses. Some of them would give me that look of “ugh, what does she want?” if they realized that I was eavesdropping.

Others didn’t say anything, I think they felt bad for me and didn’t know quite what to say.
I stayed up late thinking about how it would feel to be part of that–to have that dress, to go to the rehearsals– to feel like I belonged. My best friend mercifully didn’t talk about the whole thing, and tried not to make it too much of a big deal.

After First Communion Mrs. Manzoni gave a gift and her teary-eye congratulations to every one in the class.

Except for me, naturally.