Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Antelopes of the Serengeti


A while ago I faced down a pack of second-graders. It was definitely the most terrifying thing I had ever done, in a life that includes regularly scraping the scuz out from behind the toilet in the back bathroom, which I mention to point out I am not a timid soul. But my apprehension was self-generated: these kids were polite, generous, attentive, and more than willing to overlook my flaws as a public speaker.

I went to talk about Tourette’s – specifically, my daughter’s Tourette’s – and to answer any questions they might have. The idea behind it was to give her an easier time and maybe defuse any bullying by confronting the situation directly, giving them information, and showing them how to be helpful. That was the idea. I’m something of a skeptic when it comes to human nature, so to me the idea seemed like dissuading hyenas from following the wounded antelope blood spatter by blowing a kazoo. But like I said, I think it went pretty well, and maybe with any luck the next kid who feels like getting mouthy with her will feel the tiniest bit of public pressure not to behave like that. In my head, that will play out like this:


So, yeah. From what I know of non-adult interaction, social violence is kind of a zero-sum game. If your child isn’t on the receiving end today, that’s just because all the bullying happened to flow in another direction today – sort of like the brave citizens diverting the lava flow with concrete traffic barriers, or something. I am enormously heartened by the education about bullying that has gone on in the last few years, but that’s mainly because I think it has given bullied kids a vocabulary to express what is happening to them, not because I think for one minute it has stopped or ever will stop the bullying. As a writer I tend to think vocabulary will save the world. I certainly couldn’t have imagined myself at age seven saying what my daughter said to me last week, which was Mom, I got bullied today.

Where I’m from (that would be the 1980s) if you got bullied, it was a source of shame – YOUR shame. You didn’t talk about it, and you certainly didn’t tell anybody. That would be to validate what the bullies said, to make it true. We didn’t even have the word “bully,” or if we did, it was some sadly hilarious word adults used to talk about people who pushed you in the lunch line, which was how people behaved in public school. Bullying was certainly not a recognized category of behavior in the rarefied confines of my private school, where you quickly learned the thousand artful meannesses that were invisible to the adult eye: how to survive the jugular-slicing jabs, how to avoid them, how to deflect them on to someone else, how (even, yes) to deliver them. The snide laugh, the averted eye, the studied coldness. We were all of us masters and victims of these arts.

I can remember in my first year of teaching, looking at the faces on the other side of that podium and thinking, wow, what GOOD kids these are. They’re so kind to each other, so considerate, so sophisticated.

Not remotely like the kids I went to school with.

Not remotely like me.

Of course, I saw what I wanted to see. The haze of adulthood had blinded me to the subtle cruelties of their world, it’s true, but part of it is that by spraying the pesticide of our anti-bullying campaigns on the landscape of schools, we have mutated the bullying, driven it further underground. Now, it reaches its tentacles into their facebook feeds, their texts, their e-mails. Now, your de rigueur smartphone means you get to carry your bullying with you, wherever you go. Now, wherever you go, you can feel small. You can feel awkward, less than, fat, ugly, gay, too stupid, too smart, too tall, too short, too poor, too dull, too slow.

Teenage Portable Self-Hatred Device (TPSHD)
 With this device, you can constantly measure yourself against The Rules:

Don’t be fat.

Don’t be gay.

Don’t be ugly.

Don’t be weird.

Be smart, but not too smart.

Be knowledgeable about sex, but not slutty.

To the extent that you can, be white.

Those depressing rules have changed very little since I was trying to live by them, but what you might have figured out – what you figured out as a teenager, if you were lucky – is that only the very most boring person in the world could possibly follow all those rules at once. And the thing is, I wonder if the chinks in the wall are opening up, precisely because of that constant technological presence we adults like to decry. When you are plugged into the wider world – and yes, that wider world comes to you courtesy of your smartphone – then you become aware that the world is absolutely full of smart, fat gay people who are even occasionally slutty and are almost always the most interesting people at the party.

I rest my case. 
You can glimpse other ways to be, ways that unexpectedly validate your own particular strange way of being. If technology is a window that lets in danger, it also brings us news of the outside. All dictators know that technology is the enemy, whether that dictator is Hosni Mubarak or the bitchy girl in fifth period, because all dictators are the same. And all victory is the same too, and it all looks like openness.

But back to those second-graders.

At one point when I was in the middle of explaining exactly how Tourette’s Syndrome works, neurologically speaking, the school counselor drew one of the little girls onto her lap and gently stopped her from pulling on her Velcro sneakers. Snap-snap-snap that Velcro had been going, for five freaking minutes. The counselor stilled her with a hand.

“We all do little things like that, don’t we?” she asked. “We might tap a pencil, or wiggle our foot. But I can ask you to stop, and you can. We don’t ask someone with Tourette’s to stop, because they can’t, and because it might embarrass them.”

They nodded solemnly. Embarrassment was something they all understood.

“Sometimes we might fidget like that because we’re tired, or because we’re nervous. Or sometimes we might fidget if we’re a little bit bored,” she continued.

The young boy sitting nearest me glanced my way in covert horror. “I wouldn’t say we’re bored,” he said. He turned to me. “This is all really interesting,” he said stoutly. Belatedly, his classmates caught the hint and nodded, some more convincingly than others.

I expect that kid will become a better liar with time. But a kid who would worry about a grown-up’s feelings is also a kid who is not going to make my kid feel like a freak on the playground – or anyone else’s kids, for that matter. So maybe this is what progress looks like: one kid at a time.