Thursday, March 8, 2012

Your Child's Rights

As I get ready to revise my book for parents of children with Asperger's Syndrome, I find that a lot of wounds have been reopened. A few parts of the book deal with the horrendous bullying that I endured, particularly in middle school.  I relate stories about being humiliated in ways that boggle the imagination. In addition to being taunted, I had clay thrown at me in ninth grade ceramics class. I was also hit, kicked, shoved, and, in one case, even strangled. While other kids worried about who they were going with to the next dance, I worried about whether I could get through just one day without being abused, both emotionally and physically. A few times, I told my parents that I wished I was dead (which I didn't mean), and a few times I told them that I wished I hadn't been born (which I sometimes did mean).

The most painful parts of these memories deal not with the humiliation itself, but with my parents' responses to the humiliation. Like many girls with Asperger's Syndrome, I was (and still am) a tomboy. Between the ages of 13 and 17 I wore my hair back almost constantly; between the ages of 13 and 15 it was literally constantly. I wore T-shirts/sweatshirts and jeans to school. I liked the way the clothes hung off of my then-scrawny frame; I liked looking like a tomboy-- it was who I was. When forced to dress up in skirts and blouses for the holidays I felt very uncomfortable, but at least those episodes were over in just a few hours. My parents responded to the bullying by telling me that I needed to learn to look-- and act-- more feminine. What they did not know was that this was not an option for me any more than was writing with my left hand. The idea of taking my mother's advice and wearing skirts, form-fitting jeans and low-cut shirts-- or "boob neckline" shirts, as I jokingly call them-- was terrifying to me. When I say that I was a tomboy, I don't mean that I was a girl who liked to play with boys' toys (my toys were more gender-neutral, if anything) or that I was a girl who liked to play sports (I stunk at them). I mean that when I declared myself a tomboy I made a very emphatic and firm statement about my gender identity. To add insult to injury, there was another tomboy at school who dressed similarly to me and never got bullied. When I tried to cite this as evidence that my clothes weren't causing the bullying, my parents just brushed it off.

I was left confused and shaky by my parents' advice-- which they did not just dispense once but literally every time I was bullied or shunned in some way. I felt like my summers at left-leaning Camp Negev-- where I had friends and there was a lot of talk about gender identity-- were my only salvation. (Today I compare it to Harry Potter going to Hogwarts.) First of all, it is profoundly naive to think that the bullying would have suddenly ended had I started dressing in skirts, form-fitting jeans and "boob-neckline" shirts, especially since the way I dressed was the one thing that was rarely criticized in school. Secondly, why the hell would I have wanted to be friends with people whose friendships were contingent on the way I dressed? Third, and most importantly, the message that I was getting was that I was bringing these problems on myself-- that I was the problem, not the bullies. I wanted to be accepted for who I was, and I constantly got the message that this expectation was unrealistic. 

My parents, who have since realized the huge mistake they made by giving me this advice, had no idea how tormented I was by their criticisms about my taste in clothes. To this day I still have dreams about fighting with them about it which cumulate in my waking up screaming. However, one of the people who is reading my manuscript (a relative of mine), who generally makes criticisms on my book that I agree with, made comments that basically implied that I should have taken my parents' advice, even wondering why I wouldn't change my style of dress to stop the bullying. Yes, he still believes, as my parents did, that this was the reason I was bullied. 

No matter what reason your child is bullied, you cannot tell her-- or imply-- that she is bringing the bullying on herself and that she needs to change, even if you think doing so will improve her own safety (if she wants to change, that's a different story). Schools are funded by your tax dollars which are not just paying for your child's education. They are paying for the staff to create a safe environment for your child. And you may have to go up to the school and complain to the teachers (which my parents did, despite their criticisms). If it falls on deaf ears, then you must go to the principal. If that doesn't work, then go to the superintendent. Keep pushing until something gives. At any rate, if the staff cannot create a safe environment for your child, then they have shirked their duties and have quietly sent the bullies the message that what they are doing is okay; trust me, bullies can tell when a teacher thinks another student is weird. If your child's safety is contingent upon her making some change in her personality and appearance that causes her great discomfort, then that is not justice! It is not!

Today I am happy and well-adjusted, but had I gotten the message from my parents that I was okay, then their support would have made handling the bullying that much easier. Had the school actually made a concerted effort to create a safe environment for me, then I would have never found myself wishing I hadn't been born. 

No kid should have to think like that.