I did a lousy job getting my kids ready for the "real" world. I left small town America when my kids were little and somehow I never realized that big metropolitan areas were filled with mean kids. Tough kids. Worldly kids.
Oh, sure, I suspect our little area had lots of mean kids, too, but it was different when we moved from a little rural town of 12,000 to a major metropolitan area. Before that I think I simply embraced the June Cleaver way of life with supportive friends and great neighbors as a given and nasty kids as an anomaly.
After we moved things got rough for a long time.
And when we had our Granddaughters and I became "Daycare" I made a firm vow to add my two cents to preparing them for the world of "meanness".
My Granddaughters and I have a loving, open relationship and talk about a lot of things. If they ask, I do my best to answer. And when the oldest, Julia, was getting ready to start pre-school we had simple little talks about kids being mean and how their "meanness" reflects their unhappiness. We talked and talked about the fact that no matter how wonderful and smart and sweet you were, there would always be someone that didn't like you. And that you couldn't make people like you if they were determined not to.
We talked about bullies. We talked about name calling. We talked and talked. We role played. We talked about being non-reactive with bullies. We talked about sticks and stones and broken bones and how words can actually hurt you.
And some of that started to pay off a bit when she entered first grade. Sadly she entered a classroom without even one friend from Kindergarten in the same room. She was in a tough class with a harsh, un-loving teacher in a room full of little girls who ostracized her. She had a miserable year. She had no-one to play with and no-one to talk to and she just radiated stress almost every day of the school year. It made me sad and sick to my stomach.
But sometimes I would talk to her and she would say in a small, solemn voice "Grandma, I just tell myself they are unhappy and picking on me. There is nothing wrong with me. Right?"
And those little self-questioning "rights?" just ripped my heart out.
Being a Grandma can be tough sometimes because we want to intervene and go to school and demand the child be moved to a different teacher when it is that awful. But our hands are tied. So we shut up and do our best to be extra supportive of the child.
Second grade was a lot better for Julia.
She had friends. She had kids to play with at recess.
But now third grade is looming and the anxiety is starting to surface again.
Last week she told me we needed to practice the "mean stuff" just in case third grade is a repeat of first grade.
So we did.
"Julia, your hair is stupid and you are ugly," I told her.
"Thank you," Julia said and pretended to walk away.
"Julia, you are dumb and you can't play with us," I said in a mean voice.
"Thank you," said Julia.
"Julia! Red hair is ugly!" I said.
"Thank you," Julia replied, and pretended to walk away.
Finally Julia said, "Grandma, what about the girls that say I HATE YOU! What do I say to them?"
And I asked her, "What do you want to say?"
And she replied, "I want to say I HATE YOU MORE!"
I asked if she wanted to try it.
I said, "Julia, I hate you." The word came out of my mouth like poison.
Julia replied, "Grandma, I hate you MORE!"
And we looked at each other with horrified expressions on our faces and started crying.
We started hugging each other and telling each other we were sorry. It made me sick to even have said those words to her.
It hurts my heart even today, a week later.
She told me she was surprised how terrible those words made her feel and that she thinks she will just say "Thank you" if someone tells her they hate her.
I hope she doesn't have to.
I hope nobody tells her they hate her or that she is stupid or that she is a freak because she has red hair and freckles.
I hope they don't.
But I know someone will again...sometime.
And it will be someone that doesn't cry after she utters those horrific words because they are "practicing meanness" with her.
It will be someone who is actually mean. And small. And unkind.
Julia's first day in Third Grade is today. And I am excited for her and hopeful that she gets a good teacher this year with mostly nice kids in her room.
And I hope those mostly nice kids in her room have had someone that loves them "practicing meanness" with them, too.
Because maybe then they will be aware of how much it hurts to say ugly things in an ugly voice.
Maybe then they will learn that words cannot be undone and unsaid. And that words used as weapons can leave nothing but wounds behind.
And maybe then they will really find their way in practicing kindness.
I think what I am really hoping for is that today some little girl will say to Julia, "Wow, your hair is neat! Do you want to play with me at recess?"