"If you have a choice of schools, ask what they do about bullying and if they say they don't have a bullying problem at their school, choose a different school," a teacher with twenty years experience once told me. "All schools have bullying problems. The ones that acknowledge the issue and have a policy for dealing with them have fewer problems."
That is some of the best advice I've ever heard on the subject of bullying. And there is a lot advice out there, but much of it is ineffective precisely because it is focused on making things look peaceful and happy on the surface.
As a girl, I was once the new girl at school. In class, I was treated well, if coolly. The school was a good school with high standards. But there was no policy or way of dealing with bullying. I went to the bathroom during a break and three other girls came in after me. They wetted down hunks of toilet paper and threw them over my stall door, jeering at me and laughing as they splattered me with the sodden paper.
No adult ever saw these things and I was far from the only one to face them alone. I knew from a lot of experience that if I told teachers about the incident, it would be dismissed with a bit of sympathy or the teacher would freak out and demand to know who had done it in front of the class, which would result in far more ostracism.
So, I never said anything about that incident. The cumulative effect of bullying can be quite severe, impacting a child's ability to learn and causing psychological and relationship problems that last a lifetime. If a child faces only a little teasing or bullying and it isn't addressed, they will often feel that it is "just the way life is" and thus they will become a perpetrator at other times. Every child in our schools has experienced either bullying or being a bystander, feeling helpless while another child is bullied. And many have been bullies and may feel defensive shame that actually contributes to perpetuating further bullying.
The problems seem intractable, particularly considering how much violence and injustice children observe in the adult world. However, anti-bullying programs have shown over many years of trial that there are methods that schools can use to mitigate bullying and vastly improve outcomes. The methods involve mediation and bringing students, teachers and parents together to discuss divisive issues.
But you may ask what you can do if your school isn't yet open to such holistic anti-bullying programs.
Even where such programs exist, children need to build the confidence to speak up about harassment and have a measure of trust in the program. Where formal programs don't exist, there are still many skills that an individual child and her parents can employ to improve a situation.
The healing purpose of the new book in the Children's Wheel of the Year series Shanna and the Pentacle is to highlight a real, contemporary and truly problematic bullying situation and offer a functional model for dealing with it. Unlike many anti-bullying books the end result is not a school with no bullying problem and a bunch of kids drawing rainbows. It is a realistic end, in which Shanna, who faced bullies, comes to understand the situation better and learns to stand up for herself. She gains friends among children who are open to differences. Because problems among children are often rooted in the attitudes of adults, this is also addressed and children can see that adults make mistakes and that these mistakes can be addressed through a respectful process.
This book and others in the series can be used to give children confidence in a solution as well as to bring comfort in the knowledge that they are not alone. Every child is different from the norm in some way and many have experienced the pressure to shave off any of our protruding corners--to hide those parts of us that are not perfectly "normal." Healing stories give both children and adults the understanding of our differences as gifts and the knowledge of that many others have been through the same difficulties.