Friday, September 2, 2011

Dusti Worley: When schools are bullies

  According to Helena Intermediate School's Fourth Grade Bully Fact Sheet, there are three types of bullying: verbal (teasing, name-calling, mocking, taunting, putdowns, gestures, and dirty looks), emotional (isolation, rejection, ignoring, spreading rumors, and public embarrassment), and physical (hitting, kicking, pushing, slapping, spitting, tripping, choking, stealing, defacing property, and any physical act that demeans and humiliates).

  Today was Zoe's "Book Fair" day. Did you ever go to a school book fair? I loved book fair week! My parents tried to make sure I had a little money to spend then because I loved to read. All three of my kids are voracious readers with very specific interests. I'm glad they inherited this love of reading.

  But this morning, Zoe boarded the bus with a frowny face. She had no book fair money. Why? Well, mostly because I don't have any money to give her. But that wasn't even the main point I was trying to teach her. She has two homes full of books! We're planning on taking some to 2nd and Charles to trade for some store credit so the kids can get rid of what they're not going to re-read and pick up some different material. My inability to provide book fair money to her is also teaching her the harder task of distinguishing between wants and needs.

  I worked as a parent volunteer at the Helena Elementary School book fair from 2005 to 2010. I've seen years and years of school fundraiser stuff come in: gift boutiques, coupon books, fun runs, Kona Ice and Carmella's "fundraisers" for the school. We live in Shelby County. Many people are here specifically because the public schools are so good (I'm not even going into my opinions on school in general--I've been quoted in the newspaper echoing John Taylor Gatto, saying school is "an employment agency for teachers." I have teacher friends who are passionate about their work, and my children have had mostly positive experiences in school). As a result, they are ALL doing these fundraisers, many at the same time.

  They entice the kids with cheap prizes, including flying discs, earbuds, and giant Pixy Stix. Why? Kids aren't allowed to have candy at school, so why are they providing it for home? My kids come home excited not about raising money for their school (which is not the kids' job, by the way), but about getting "prizes." I know the schools need money. Who doesn't know this? Even people without children are aware of the sad state of public funding for schools. How many of you had kids start middle school or high school this year and had to write checks for locker fees, lab fees, P E uniforms, workbooks? No one is unaware of the school funding situation.

  But here's what bothers me the most: the way kids who don't bring money for book fairs (or Kona Ice or Carmella's or whatever other group is doing a special sale that gives a percentage of sales to the school--which I do think is a great thing for them to do) are treated. Last year I saw my worst case ever as a book fair volunteer. A teacher came in with her class and said, quite loudly, "If your mom gave you money to shop, come over here. If your mom didn't give you any money, then go over there." What? How embarrassing! It would have been easy enough to have lined kids up according to money and no money, very discreetly, before they even entered the media center. I've worked in classrooms before and I know things get hectic. But that day reminded me of the days when I was in elementary school and the kids who got free lunches had to carry bright pink lunch cards while the rest of us had green.

  I remember helping out at last spring's H Day at Helena Elementary. Some of the volunteers and teachers had brought extra cash to get Kona Ice treats for kids who didn't bring money (lots of reasons why kids would not have money--their parents forgot, they forgot to tell their parents, their parents don't want them being spoiled by getting a special treat EVERY TIME it's offered, or their parents just didn't have the money to spare). According to my child Alex, the first full week of school brought the Kona Ice truck back to Helena Intermediate School, and small-sized treats were provided for kids who didn't bring money.

  I don't think teachers and school administrators set out to make kids feel bad about not bringing money. But I believe that isolating kids who are "have-nots" is a form of emotional bullying. Helena has grown as a community, bringing in more and more affulent families (or at least families who spend a lot of money--whether or not it's their money or just credit, I don't know). It's a great place to live, and I purposely sought to stay here when looking for a house after my divorce. But school administrators should not assume that every child has parents who can--or even who will--send an extra $10 a month or more to school, drop $30 at the book fair, bring in $250 in donations for the fun run. Some people just don't have the money. And some are unwilling to give in to every whim of their child or the school.

  I wonder if parents or teachers have solutions to this. Clearly, the solution is NOT to get rid of the book fair. And clearly my kids need reminders of how much they already DO have. Maybe your kids need the same?

  About the author: Dusti Worley is a professional volunteer living in Helena, Alabama. She has a liberal arts degree from Auburn Montgomery and is active in community affairs, scouting, and wiffleball.

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