This summer, I’d always get heart palpitations from excitement upon seeing the thin envelopes with my kids’ handwriting poking out of my mailbox. Used to upbeat and positive messages, I looked forward to learning what else they’ve discovered about themselves and camp.
During the third week of their stay, I received a letter from my son that gave me palpitations for a different reason. After telling me what kind of sweets he preferred to choose for snack, he wrote, “I’ve cried twice because [boy’s name] choked me and another time beat me up. I’ve learned to ignore.” He talked about how he felt after the boy made fun of him and swore at him. Instead of writing out the curse words, Andrew drew stars to stand for each letter following the first.
Horrified, I thought, “This is how an 11-year-old speaks?!” However, while I was shocked at the language of this preteen, I was much more disturbed by Andrew’s words. His phrase, “I’ve learned to ignore,” baffled and scared me. “Why doesn’t he talk to a counselor?!” I contemplated the reason as I frantically wrote emails to the camp staff. It was evening, and no one was answering the phone. My husband and I felt helpless and considered driving over to camp to rescue Andrew. We settled on waiting until morning.
While we waited, I answered my own question. I knew why he didn’t say anything. I was him … in the mid 1980s. Spending my summer at a camp for the children of The Kirov Factory workers, where my dad was an engineer, I was a happy camper until a popular girl – a daughter of my dad’s colleague – made sure that everyone was aware of my “nationality,” as Judaism was classified in the former Soviet Union. Soon, I became a four-letter word that starts with a “k” and rhymes with “bike.” Of course, the kids used the Russian version of it to taunt me and two other girls – Jewish twins whose friendship saved me during that month. We thought that the bullying would get worse if we talked to a counselor, so we kept silent.
When the twins had to leave camp for a couple of days, they – unbeknownst to me – shared the news of our anti-Semitic ordeal with their mother, who promptly went to the offender’s mother, her friend at work. Outraged and shocked by her daughter’s behavior, the woman arrived in camp the following day. Since the twins were still away, she asked her daughter to get me so that she could apologize.
When the girl approached me, I felt perplexed and strangely proud. Instead of taunting me, she was friendly, smiling and acting as if the name calling never happened. She said that her mother was waiting for us in the gazebo. Then, she proceeded to act like my closest friend.
Playing with a plastic orange bracelet she wore at all times, the bully nonchalantly asked me a series of questions as we walked. Like a flattered parrot, I answered “We’re buddies, right?” and “I’ve never been mean to you, right?” with whatever response the question’s formulation anticipated. Five minutes later, I repeated the routine with her mother, who seemed dumbfounded at my refusal to acknowledge that her daughter had been a bully.
The next day, when the twins had arrived back in camp, I saw their tremendous disappointment and suppressed rage at me when they learned about my wimpy inability to stand up for myself. They couldn’t believe I would let them down like this. Asking me why I hadn’t shared the truth with the Orange Bracelet’s mother, they weren’t satisfied with my answer that she was being nice, and I didn’t want to cause her any trouble. That day, I made a promise to myself that I would never be manipulated again. I kept it.
Now it was Andrew’s turn to learn the lesson. Since he was suffering from physical, as well as verbal abuse, he had it worse. In the morning, we learned that “the catalyst of the problem [was] going home” and that Andrew was now fine. However, the assertions of the assistant director and the avowals of the camp advisor were not enough to assuage our fears. We wanted to hear directly from Andrew. The director granted my request to have a private phone conversation with my son.
Andrew shared that he no longer felt scared since the bully, who broke Andrew’s bed in a fit of rage, had left. Not interested in dwelling on the abuse, he started telling me about how much he enjoyed kayaking. Ending our conversation with a plea to wrap it up because he didn’t want to miss swimming, Andrew hung up. I thought, this is exactly what I wanted to hear. Saving the lecture for when he arrived home, I made another promise to myself – to teach my children how to deal with bullies.
A week after Andrew’s return from camp, we attended an orientation for sixth graders entering middle school. The first statement out of the assistant principal’s mouth was about bullying. She said that bullies’ parents are often stunned to discover that their well-behaved children can partake in such hurtful behavior, while the victims’ parents show disbelief that their innocent tweens can provoke someone to cause them pain. The assistant principal shared that the school has put together a teacher-staffed “task force” to deal with these occurrences, and to adhere to their zero-tolerance-for-bullying philosophy. I could see all the parents in the auditorium sighing with relief. I hope that when they went home, they all had a conversation with their children not only about dealing with bullies, but also about not joining them. I know that no mother wants to find out that her child was locking himself in the camp’s bathroom to cry in privacy. If you haven’t had this talk with your kids yet, now’s the time. School’s about to start – prepare them for it.
IRINA MISSIURO is a writer and editorial consultant for The Jewish Voice.