She cried herself to sleep every night in fifth grade, then got up each morning and trudged off to school. She was not lonely at recess: She was surrounded by other little girls and some boys.
They taunted her and took turns to see if they could make her cry. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn't.
I knew my beautiful little relative, "Lulu," was being bullied; her mom and dad talked to a teacher about it. I also dug deep into research on bullying and read a few books on the topic. When I interviewed experts, I looked for information that would help.
I'd have sworn my family was on top of it, but later learned we hadn't known how bad it really was. I was stunned how hard it would be to put an end to it.
Summer ended the cycle and when sixth grade began, some of the old animosities had died. In seventh grade, though, the same girl who had instigated it all circled around for another try. Her attempts to drive wedges were not as successful this time, in large part because, as Lulu said later, she was all cried out. She didn't bother to react. By then, she could see how pathetic and mean it was. It was also still a pain, though.
It turned out the most effective cure was neither our efforts nor the ineffective actions of a school system that can't quite untangle a she-said, she-said world. For us, it was a group of eighth-grade boys.
One of them asked Lulu to meet him outside after school. When she got there, she was horrified to find the other girl was there with a handful of boys she had considered her friends. It felt like an ambush.
One of them stepped up to the bully. "She hasn't been saying anything about you. So I thought you should tell us what Lulu's been doing in front of her so she can respond."
"I don't have to," the girl said. "She already knows."
Even the girl could see that was lame, though she didn't give up easily. The next day, when she started telling stories, one of the boys told a school counselor the whole story. I'm not sure what the counselor did, but that was the end of it.
We were lucky, because our bully — and I do mean "our," since the whole family is torn up by bullying — was not terribly effective once grade school was left behind and Lulu had acquired some confidence and better social skills. We were lucky also that, while we did not know the depth of the problem, we at least knew there was one and could do some countering.
Research shows lots of kids "protect" their families from the fact they're being bullied or they are too ashamed to say anything.
Girl bullying is more likely to go unseen by school staff and other adults. Boys are more physical, typically, while girls are brutally snide and derisive. They post rude comments online and whisper and demean, but the really skilled ones don't leave a trail of proof, relying on taunts and gossip to stab and maim.
Research also shows adults get it wrong often when it comes to girl bullies: If they see a conflict between two girls, they assume that the one who's a bit withdrawn or sullen or acting out is the bully. They punish the victim. Too often, "good" girls are the bullies — so it flourishes.
I'm convinced if we can teach our kids there's a moral imperative not to bully and to step up and confront it when they see it, bullying will stop. It's a social disease that demands an attentive but inert audience. When that young audience takes a stand, the world is changed one kid at a time.
Deseret News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by email at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at loisco.