Today I start a series of pieces about an important collaboration I am involved in. People, particularly those who have a vested interest in children, have asked me a lot about the work so I thought I’d tell my version of the story. Today, I begin with some context.
Way back in the dark ages of cancer treatment, I participated in a training program called the Feminist Leadership Academy, founded by Mary Pierce Brosmer as a part of Women Writing for (a) Change. We learned and discovered quite a bit about how systems work as a whole, through studying history, current culture trends, and the writings of some impressive thinkers. Our culture’s institutionalized imbalances came to be of particular importance to me. You can watch Mary speak at TedX about bringing balance into leadership here. The screenshot makes her look a little crazy/ranty – trust me when I say she’s not and it’s well worth your time.
I imagined I’d take the lessons I learned at the FLA and apply them in all sorts of exotic ways — perhaps in the development of my own writing circles, in leadership at Women Writing for (a) Change, and in this new world I was creating in the wake of cancer. Never did I think they’d become so important to me in something as bourgeois as the PTO.
My fourth-grade son was on the margins of bullying. He was a bystander by definition who tried to figure out the right thing to do and brought story after story to me. I knew his friend’s family and after hearing painful stories for months, I decided to take action. Action, by the way, means visiting the school, not trying to mete out justice on my own. I’ve seen plenty of cowboy justice out there, in all kinds of situations. I say, “Enough.”
Our school’s principal was extremely responsive to my concerns and helped my son to be part of the solution, for as much as this could have been solved. Over the following summer I volunteered to chair a new PTO committee to address bullying. My first move was to contact the principal and psychologist.
Side note: If you haven’t figured it out by now, I am not a fan of black and white thinking. A life-long educator recently explained to me how parental relationship to school has pivoted since the late 70s, from schools being the authority to which we demure to schools being utterly incompetent. (I blame Reagan for that, but that’s another story.) The person I spoke with opined that neither is the right approach. I agree.
I made it clear from the first meeting that I was not there to try to tell anyone how to run anything. As our principal says, the school staff is not the ultimate in authority, but knows different parts of the story that parents may not know. And vice versa. I was confident that the committee was receptive, that we were beginning a true partnership.
Thinking that our committee had a narrow focus, we immediately looked for programs to address the problems of bullying. There are a lot out there, most notably, The Oleweus Program. The best programs I evaluated espouse changing the entire culture, to value every member of the community. The worst of them are angry, ostracize those labeled bully, disempower those labeled victims. While I think there is value in saying what is really going on in a situation, pointing fingers, laying blame, and codifying labels does not help lay the groundwork for healthy solutions.
I met with Mary, who reminded me of a workshop she offers, Working with not on girls. It can be difficult or impossible to address the needs of our kids while we still have so many unresolved problems of our own. As I parent, I try to be aware of times when I project my own troubled youth on my children. Believe me people, it happens all the time. No one is immune and the absolute best we can do is stay conscious to times we are doing so; to re-evaluate our course before we taking action.
Most of all, Mary reminded me to keep our focus on real solutions, not on feel-good quick fixes that allow us to pat ourselves on the back and say, “Look! We did something!” without regard to whether it is the best solution, or even a solution at all.
All of this reminds me of a brilliant, pragmatic William Stafford poem. I try to keep this one close.
A Ritual To Read To Each Other
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.
And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.