In this personal account, Dipti Gupta discusses her struggle to respond to the bullying of her daughter and the lessons she learned along the way that reinforced her belief that “othering” needs to be confronted right away and become a regular part of our conversations in the classroom.
A few years ago, I was part of a dramaturgical exercise – the writer was working on a play on conjugal violence and the dramaturge was attempting to understand the complexity of human behavior. We were a group of about 20-22 people. The dramaturge gave each of us a situation where we, each in pairs, had to act upon a scenario – a fictitious one – where a couple was in an argument. The dramaturge then placed a plastic cup filled with water on the table and said that each one of us had to tip the cup when we felt that the argument had gone to a level where one of us was so angry that we felt we wanted to react violently and hence we tip the water instead of acting on our violent desires. At the end of the exercise, we all learnt that each of our thresholds were so different. Some tipped the cup as soon as they heard a word spoken harshly to them, while others continued through several lines of argument without having the desire to tip it over. Some were able to verbally calm the other person, while in alternate scenarios the anger kept mounting to a level where it became impossible for the other to respond or react, and the situation became rather violent.
I start my story with this example in order to point out that we address situations of discrimination, bullying and violence within various thresholds; unfortunately, when it came to the bullying of my daughter, I realize that my threshold of tolerance at the time was not operating on zero tolerance when in such matters it should.
Early in high school, my daughter came home and told me that a couple of students had spoken rudely to her. My response was likely a common one. I comforted her and asked her whether she had spoken to anyone at the school and whether any teacher was made aware of the situation. She replied in what is so often the case that the incidents usually happened on the way to the class or in the locker area where no teacher was around to witness it.
In the following days, my daughter told me more. She would tell me about the behavior of some of her peers who were making fun of her – particularly of her ethnic background, her food preferences, and her height. I later learned that there were a number of students who were targeted in the class due to their ethnic identities. I called up the school and the school disciplinarian was made aware of the situation. He took matters in his hand and the students received detention and certain punishment. One of the students sent my daughter a note expressing that he was apologetic for his behavior, but little changed. This punitive approach carried on for some time but I doubted that this really was the way to handle the situation. I wanted the students in question to understand their behavior and the role they were playing each day.
For my daughter, I focused on equipping her with the strength to face her bullies with boldness, with integrity and with her head held high. But wasn’t I asking a lot from someone who was being crushed every day emotionally? Reflecting on this situation several years later as I write this article, I realize that I had reacted in a passive manner – almost waiting for things to get worse before I tipped my cup of water. I realize that my threshold was not operating on zero tolerance when in such matters it should. My daughter obviously felt the same way, and one day came to me with words she knew would wake me up: “Mom please do something, these kids will never grow up to be good citizens.” With those words, my daughter had given me a challenge.
The next day, I went to her school and talked to one of the disciplinarians. His answer to me was: “Boys will be boys – they often poke fun at girls.” With this not even coming close to addressing the problem, I realized that the person in charge at the school was not really equipped to deal with the situation. This response was even more striking given that several recent cases of bullying, which had tragically ended with the suicide of the victim, had been receiving a lot of media coverage. I tried to keep my cool and told him politely that I would like to meet with the parents of the children – that I would prefer if the school did not reprimand the children who were the bullies but rather inform the parents of their behavior. The teacher was taken aback with my approach. He was not sure the parents would meet with me. I reassured him that, as a teacher at Dawson, I deal with varied situations where students are homophobic, racist or discriminating towards their peers. I stressed that one has to be very vigilant in every classroom situation and that, at the college level, we cannot call on the parents, but hope that we can create an environment that will permit a healthy debate or conversation about such practices.
Over the next weeks I waited to hear from the parents. When no response came, I took it upon myself to bring the issue to a higher level – the vice principal of the school – who agreed that a more positive approach was needed. I proposed to her that she should start a “campaign of change” in the school. I had heard of an off-island school where students had collected pennies in a jar every time a student made a nice gesture and had stood up against any wrong action in class or the school grounds. The vice principal accepted the suggestion and all the students at my daughter’s schools were asked to bring in pennies from their homes. Once each class collected a substantial amount of money they could choose a charity they would like to support. It became a sort of competition in the school. This carried on for over a year and the students who had been doing the bullying were now acting responsibly. While a few students took longer to join the momentum, most became busy collecting pennies for their positive roles. This positive approach worked far better than the earlier punitive one. Real change was happening and the situation for my daughter had changed considerably. Students were also become more aware of the issues of diversity, ethnic identity and race as the theme of the “other” was integrated more explicitly into certain classes. The school had responded very favorably to the situation on different fronts. It was the concerted effort of the teachers and students that made things turn around.
I too learnt an important lesson. My threshold for reacting to bullying had been much too high. I had fallen into the trap of trying to give my daughter the tools to cope with the bullying, rather than trying to stop it in its tracks. I learned that discrimination, bullying and violence need to be stopped at once before they gain traction and that it is never too early to develop an understanding about the “other.” There needs to be a consistent, constant ongoing dialogue in our teaching and every day exchanges. I realize that, even if it takes a few minutes of my classroom to address these types of issues – including those we read about in the media or hear of in the corridors, as teachers we need to devote some time in every class. This all helps in creating a safe environment. We cannot wait to take action only when an incident occurs but rather create an on going awareness at every level.
In my own teaching practices, I am conscious that our students learn by example and experience. So, when the debate over the Parti Quebecois’ Charter of Values took center stage in Quebec, I decided to not be bullied by this and wore a headscarf as protest in my classroom. This definitely created a debate in my classes, and I received reactions from my colleagues at the college, as well as from other colleges and universities in Montreal. Some commended my approach, while a few were nervous of my stance. So, as a teacher, one is reminded that one has to choose the battles that are important to each one of us. It is impossible to react on every issue but one can at least choose a few so that we each can leave a mark in our own small way.
I am reminded of the poignant verse by Robert Frost in his poem (Stopping by the woods on a Snowy evening):
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Cinema/Communication, Dawson College