May 4

Anti-Bullying Day

 

“I swear to God, it’s like Kirk was taking notes during your presentation.”

Benjamin noticed how Mr. Byrn was wearing his compassionate-listening face. He was being careful not to agree or disagree.

“Okay,” Benjamin said, correcting himself, “maybe Kirk didn’t need to take notes. I think you got all your examples from his playbook.”

His meeting with Mr. Byrn was a follow-up to the school’s anti-bullying presentation earlier that morning. Byrn, along with the guidance counselor, brought two full grades together in the auditorium, and presented scenarios that helped define bullying. All hypothetical and rare, apparently. All things Benjamin experienced everyday.

Pushing him. Taking things from his desk or locker. Nicknames that compared his nasal voice to a cartoon character (usually SpongeBen or Bugs Benny). Cruel taunts or threats whispered just out of earshot from nearby adults.

“Kirk’s the worst offender,” Benjamin said. “You said we should come to you if we need help, and that’s what I’m doing now.”

Mr. Byrn opened a notebook on his desk, as if planning to take notes, but he didn’t write anything. “I’m just surprised,” the boy’s teacher said. “Kirk’s an exemplary student. We’ve never had any complaints about him.”

“That’s the main reason I’ve never come forward,” Benjamin said. “All you teachers like him, but Kirk hides his worst side from you. If you watch, if you really watch, you’ll see.”

Byrn looked down, as if thinking things over. An uncomfortable pause filled the teacher’s small office. Benjamin suddenly felt foolish. He should have know the anti-bullying presentation was just for show, a check-box item intended to be forgotten as soon as the session was over. Mr. Byrn couldn’t possibly know what it was like to be bullied — how every moment held the potential for belittlement and cruelty, how the school felt unsafe and unwelcoming.

Then Mr. Byrn smiled. “When I was your age, I was bullied by other students. It’s a terrible thing. Terrible. It felt like the world was coming to an end, every day.”

Benjamin couldn’t believe it. His teacher actually did understand what it was like. The presentation actually meant something. Things were going to change.

“Then I realized something,” Mr. Byrn said. “I was the target. There actually might have been something about me that attracted the bullying behavior. To fix things, I made new friends. Do you have any friends, Benjamin? I also changed the way I dressed. And the way I talked, Benny. Do you think you can alter your voice a little bit, so it’s less like a cartoon character?”

Wait. This wasn’t the kind of solution they offered in the presentation. And when Mr. Byrn called him “Benny,” a kind of smirk floated across his face — as if he’d been thinking “Bugs Benny” the whole time.

“Honestly, you can learn a lot from our better students.” Now Mr. Byrn lifted his pencil, jotted lines in the open notebook. “I’ll ask your teachers to adjust the seating charts. Going forward, you’ll be spending a lot more time with Kirk. I’m certain you’ll benefit from the extra attention.”