School – It's All About Bob

It's more than a little personal. It's what I grew up with. I got bullied every single week at church from just a few weeks after I started kindergarten (when “Bob” moved into my ward), until I was a teenager. I got bullied until the day I realized that I didn't have to put up with it and I refused to go back to church.

Bullying at ChurchIn my case, it was mostly Bob and those he rallied to silence if not to his side. But sometimes it was the girls, doing the “girl thing.” You know, inviting everyone else to join the Clique Claque Club or passing notes about how they didn't want to be my friend anymore. Probably nothing out of the ordinary. And eventually one of the moms made them invite me to join the club. Probably after seeing me sit on the grass a few doors down staring longingly at the house during every weekly meeting. (How did I always know when and where the meeting was held?) Mostly it was that even my “gang” of friends never defended me from the Gang of Bob.

Yes, I got it from the same group at school, but for some reason I expected it there. At church, it was a constant source of confusion. The lessons we got, the answers they gave. The disconnect between knowing and doing was like the chasm in the Grand Canyon. Even the simple things like, “Be nice to the chubby girl with red hair and glasses at school” suddenly got really complex when the girl was sitting next to you in Senior Sunday School.

As far as I could tell, everyone knew. Bob wasn't very slick in his methods of torment. I had rocks thrown at my head at the bus stop. Names like “fatso,” “four eyes,” “fireball,” “ugly” occurred about as often as I was within 18 feet of him. And he didn't whisper. If he had to pass something to me, he would act nauseated. If he passed me in the hall I would get tripped or kicked or at least have some really hilarious insult thrown my way.

Then there were things like the pronouncement in front of the entire fourth grade when I was up to kick during the grade-wide kickball tournament that “Me and the boys all know you wear a bra, so don't try to hide it anymore!!!” Not the biggest deal now, as an adult. But horrifying to the nine-year-old who was only the second girl in the grade to bear the signs of maturation. (My full sympathy goes out to Jill, who was the first.)

Or maybe it was the declaration that he'd rather miss the dance festival altogether than have to dance with me. (How in the world could the teacher have paired us up out of 100+ kids?) Then, when he didn't show up and I had to sit on the curb, partnerless, during the festival we'd rehearsed two months for, he told everyone his family went on vacation that week just to prevent him from having the absolute humiliation of having to touch my hand during the Virginia Reel.

You know, stuff like that. For seven years straight. Until we got to junior high and the school was big enough that I could avoid him a good deal of the time during the week if I planned a careful, convoluted path to class and as long as I was careful on the walk home.

I Don't Have to Go to a Church with Bullies!

One day it dawned on me that I didn't have to go to church. No one could make me. I mean, I figured my parents could ground me or something, but I seriously doubted they'd drag me by my hair, kicking and screaming, into the chapel.

When I decided never to go back to church — where avoiding him was still impossible — only to face three hours of crap-under-the-auspices-of-gospel-learning, my very bright mother (who had tried to deal with the problem over the years) suggested I go to class with my big sister. After some consideration, I agree. I went with her for almost a year. The kids, all four years older, were so nice. At least that's my recollection. Truth is, the fact that they said, “hello” instead of “hi ugly pig” meant, to me, that they were an amazing group.

When I was baptized and was going to be confirmed and presented to the ward, I pretended to be sick. I was sure that when they asked for the sustaining to accept me into the ward, that Bob would vote to reject me.

The autumn day that he was sustained as a deacon I was stunned. Behavior had nothing to do with it and I realized that no matter what he did, he would continue to move up the ranks, but because I was a girl, I could not. I was hopeless even to God.

When I learned they were going to split our ward when I was in junior high school, I prayed every night that, somehow, he could be in the other ward. And when it happened, I sat there on the folding chair in the back of the cultural hall and cried.

Grown Up Reflections

Years later I lived briefly in my “home ward” after college. I was called to teach and was attending a teachers' fireside when an adult (who had been one of my teachers) briefly acknowledged some of the things that had happened.

Five years ago when I created the web site for our 20th high school reunion, one boy who had grown up in my ward wrote in his bio that he had stopped playing the piano because Bob had teased him so mercilessly about it. I privately responded, “Wow. You stopped playing piano. I competed in beauty pageants.” The ex-piano player responded that he was sorry for what I had gone through and any part he had played.

The treatment, apparently, wasn't a secret.

So, why did it go on so long, completely unchecked? I have no answer for that.

Parenting a Bullied Child

In light of my experience, and realizing that I haven't figured this out at all, I'd still like to share a couple of situations that I saw clearly resolved by strong leaders. Perhaps you can learn from their wisdom as I did.

Problems in Florida

In Florida I served in Young Women. Our Laurel class had about 18 girls, I think. Approximately four were various Hispanic, eight were Haitian, the rest were Caucasian. Amber and I started noticing some self-imposed segregation among the girls and it got more and more distinct. Then they started speaking in different languages so that the other girls couldn't understand.

I was fussing and fuming and worrying and fasting and praying and giving special lessons and messages to help the girls “understand” stuff they already completely understood and were conversant about.

Finally Amber took matters into her own hands. She walked into class one Sunday and said, “What is this??? Black. Brown. White.” she said, pointing to each group. “That is unacceptable. Now mix it up!”

They did and it never happened again when I lived there. She didn't muss and fuss. She didn't make a racial tolerance magnet to stick on their lockers. She directly and clearly pointed out the problem to the offenders and told them it was unacceptable. Period.

Problems in Utah

When we moved to Eagle Mountain, my bubbly, outgoing nine-year-old was targeted by one particular girl in her class. It happened the first week we were here. There was no history.

We tried all the things I knew; all the things I had been told as a child:

  • Ignore her and she'll get tired and stop.
  • Say something nice.
  • Say something funny.
  • Be self-deprecating.
  • Reason with her.
  • Use “I” language.
  • Be friendly.
  • Make other friends.
  • Smile.
  • Tell a leader.
  • Steer clear.

Nothing worked and she did not get bored. (Which in hindsight shouldn't have been surprising, since those things never worked for me, either.)

Over the years the situation grew. Every event became more painful — and Bobette was recruiting all the new move-ins to join along. Everything was fair game. Her height, her weight, her intelligence, her talents.

I had mentioned it to a few leaders, but nothing changed. I did not approach her parents because I was afraid doing so would only make it worse, as often happens. Either the parents deny the situation and then friction comes between the families or the child is disciplined and then the punished child retaliates against the other child. (My bully's parents were informed. It didn't help.)

One day last year, after living here for four years, my then 13-year-old daughter left mutual an hour early in tears after a series of degrading pictures were drawn of her and rude comments made.

My poor bishop happened to call our home to speak to Sam after I'd spent about 30 minutes consoling my daughter. I happened to answer the phone. He got an earful. Mostly he heard that the ward was unsafe for my children. They had moved here as happy girls who loved to bear their testimonies. After the 50th rejection, after being openly mocked for their testimonies, and after being treated cruelly so often, they were different children. He had long known about the “issues” with the Young Women (as had the previous bishop). And I asked him why I was supposed to require my children to attend church meetings and functions when no one was requiring decent behavior.

When I finished blubbering I gave the phone to my husband. The bishop promised that action would be taken.

A couple of weeks later, the same daughter (by far my most sociable child) was home early again. Swearing never to return. “Bobette” had not only continued the usual round of nastiness, exclusion, and ganging up, but she had threatened to “beat the crap out of” my daughter, about three inches from her face, and about two yards from the chatting circle of Young Women leaders — who said nothing at all.

When she got home, we were beside ourselves. Sam called one of our daughter's leaders who had been there and left an intense voice mail, asking why nothing was done.

This particular incident was so blatant that, unbeknownst to us, some of the usually silent bystanders actually complained about the situation to the leaders. (She had been mean to a number of other girls that night and they were indignant. My daughter's situation made the best case against the bully.) The response was, “You mean she was serious?” They had been assuming all these years, that no child would really be that mean in front of the leaders. It must have been a joke.

DaNae, one of the leaders who had heard the whole incident (and brushed it off as a joke), drove immediately to our home. (She hadn't even gotten our voice mail.) She asked about the incident. She asked about past incidents. She asked about the duration. She was stunned. She had no idea. She borrowed my copy of Odd Girl Out.

We talked until after 3:00 am. She wanted to take action I was worried about the outcome. She took full responsibility for both the past behavior and the resolution even though she had officially been released the week Sunday before. She would, she said, resolve it.

The next day she went met personally with the mother and father of the main bully and laid out the situation. She confirmed what had been happening and made it clear that the behavior would not be tolerated. Then I got a call from the mother. When I saw her name on caller ID, I was so scared to answer it. But I did, and she wanted a meeting. She didn't sound happy. I wasn't either.

A couple of days later, the girl, the mom, and the dad showed up for a dual-family meeting. The girl burst into tears and apologized. The parents said they would not allow it to continue. They were also enrolling her in anger management classes. They apologized themselves and told us that they had not known about it at all ?and that they wished I had contacted them sooner.

Bullying Miracles – Seriously

The real miracle part of the story, I cannot explain. Somehow these good parents not only accepted responsibility for their daughter's behavior, but they taught her in a way that changed her heart. Immediately, her public and private behavior toward my daughter made a 180 degree turnaround. And church changed from a dreaded experience, to one that my daughter looks forward to with great anticipation. A year later the two could be considered, at least, distant friends.

Thanks to these parents and a Young Women leader who was willing to take direct action, my daughter's life was completely reversed.

I commend those leaders who take bullying seriously and deal with it without equivocation.

Addendum #1

It's July 29, 2007. All this discussion has brought back painful memories, not all of them when I was the target. I am publishing a letter I wrote five and a half years ago to someone I could have helped, but never did.

Please read Dear Joanne.

May we all be courageous enough to act on what we know.

Addendum #2

It's February 28th, 2014. My fourth daughter, Monica (16), was featured in a Mormon Message that went live today. (She is the blonde bullied girl.)  It's called Bullying – Stop It and  uses Dieter F. Uchtdorf's General Conference talk “The Merciful Obtain Mercy” as the narration.

As my dear childhood friend, Kimberly, said:

Alison, I just watched this message. Wow! It was just beautiful, and you must be so proud. This is such an important reminder for all of us. I can't help but see the beautiful irony that your talented daughter stars in this message on bullying, a cause which is so profound for you. Full circle, my friend.

Amen. Please, watch and share this video with those you know. It can change lives.

Addendum #3

It's March 16, 2014. As I type, the video has over 530,000 views on YouTube. Inexplicably, I have been surprised by how this subject has touched so many.

Because of this, I created a simple Family Home Evening about bullying. Check it out if you are interested.