I decided to use my best weapon, my brain. I thought I could avoid attention yet push my school to deal with bullying. I tried to convinced myself that this would improve my situation.
The school had asked students to sign an anti-bullying pledge in the fall but there was no assembly or discussion about it in class. Really? The pledge was just handed out with a bunch of other health forms and permission slips. And on the first day of school every student was also given a daily planner filled with information about bullying. Most of these planners were tossed into lockers, their pages blank and the information unread. What a waste.
In the next semester, bullying was actually covered in ninth grade health class but the few lessons devoted to it weren’t taken seriously. Everyone rolled their eyes and looked at their phones.
Then there was the infamous decorated cardboard box in the main office. We were told about it in health and in gym class. Students were encouraged to leave anonymous messages in the box. It was supposed to make kids feel safer about reporting bullying.
I combed through the school website but couldn’t find a clear policy against bullying. I did research online and found that some schools added more supervision at lunch and recess or more monitors in the school hallways and bathrooms, areas known to be hot spots. Some school districts even mounted cameras and others created committees where staff members, parents, and students met regularly to develop a strong prevention program. A few schools used anonymous student surveys to reveal current bullying. I discovered that the Department of Education in California had even created a publication called Bullying at School. My school basically did squat.
So one night, I decided to print out a couple of sections from the Department of Education’s document and highlight some areas. Then I wrote an anonymous letter to my school principal, attached it to the highlighted pages, and left it inside the cardboard bullying box in the main office. My letter politely asked our principal to review the information and create a real policy.
A week later, I checked the box in the main office and was stunned to see my letter sitting there. Are you kidding? I went back to the main office a few more times that day, and waited for the secretary to leave her desk. After the last period of the day, I found the office empty, so I took my letter out of the box and slipped it into the principal’s mailbox. I wasn’t really hopeful that my letter would change anything, but I was desperate to do something. This was the only way I knew how to put bullying on their radar without having to talk to the people in charge. I was way too afraid to rat on the bullies.
I was super careful to hide the bullying from my parents. I knew that if they found out, they would start having meetings with the school. I would have to name the kids who were bullying me, and my classmates would be questioned to back up my claims. Students who witnessed the bullying would be forced to rat, the bullies would get in trouble and hate me even more. As if my life could suck worse than it already did.
I obsessed over this situation. It consumed me. And I only succeeded in covering it up for a couple of months. By October my parents became suspicious. They knew I had been cut from the soccer team and that most of my friends had made the team. This explained why a lot of my friends were busy after school, they obviously had team practices and games, but it didn’t explain why I had stopped seeing them on weekends.
And then at dinner one night, my mom asked as casually as possible, “Jonah, honey, what’s going on this weekend?”
Dad pretended not to be too interested.
“Not much.” I mumbled with a mouthful of sweet potato.
“Do you have any plans with the boys?” she pressed, avoiding my eyes, and reaching for more salad.
I shrugged. “Dunno yet. Maybe. Oh…I think there’s a soccer tournament. So no one will be around,” I lied. I kept my eyes on my food, trying to hide my face.
Dad piped up. “Well, why don’t we go watch the tournament? Might be fun?”
I swallowed too much food at once and reached for my water glass. I coughed a little. “Ah…I’m not sure where it is. It might even be away.”
“It should be easy enough to find out, ask your buddies. Or I can go on the school athletic site,” my dad cheerfully offered.
I moaned a little. “Come on, Dad. I don’t want to go to any of the soccer games. I didn’t make the team. It’s humiliating.”
They knew this was a reasonable excuse, so my parents didn’t push.
“Okay, I get it. Then why don’t we see if Tommy and his dad are free to do some surfing, after soccer? Or we could call Alex…or Derek? Derek really improved a lot this summer at surf camp. What do you say?”
I hesitated. “Ah…will there even be waves this weekend? Because I was thinking we could head out to San Miguel Island. Go on one of our expeditions. I have a big project coming up in art class, and I want to draw whales and seals…so if we can get some good pictures out on San Miguel, I can sketch from those. Please Dad? It would be really fun.”
I impressed myself with how quickly I dodged the surfing proposal. I glanced at my dad who was giving my mother a blank look. Then I looked at Mom. She was frowning. She was also smarter than both of us, so I knew it was about to get worse.
“Jonah, I think it’s great that you want to spend time with Dad, but it’s important that you keep a connection to your friends, whether you’re on the soccer team or not. You haven’t seen them at all. It worries us. Honey, is everything okay at school? Did something happen…you know you can tell us anything.” She reached out and touched my hand.
I blinked fast to keep back the tears that started to well up. I reached for my water glass again. The room suddenly felt like it was one hundred degrees.
“Mom, ya, everything’s fine.” I gulped more water, not looking at her. And then I rambled. “You don’t need to worry. The guys…you know, they all made the team, and I didn’t, so I don’t see them as much…right now…but it’s fine….and ninth grade is harder. We have a lot more homework and there are after school clubs. Everyone is pretty busy with sports, band and chorus…and ah…robotics…oh and the play. These things meet on weekends too. Just relax Mom.”
She stared at me. It wasn’t an angry stare, it was actually sad. Then she abruptly turned her attention to Dad.
“San Miguel can be plan B. Plan A for this weekend is surfing. I’ll call Tommy and Derek’s mothers to see if they’re free. Maybe have them over afterwards…for a barbeque. That would be fun, right Jonah?” She looked at me again, trying to smile.
Dad was nodding, also trying to look hopeful. I stood up quickly and took my plate over to the sink. I knew my excuses had become vague and unconvincing. They obviously didn’t buy the soccer tournament story.
“I’m all done,” I said. “I have some homework to finish up. Suit yourself Mom.”
I cleared my plate as quickly as I could, rinsed my dishes, put them into the dishwasher, and walked a little too fast to my room.
I lay awake that night and prayed that Mom wouldn’t discover what was happening from the other moms. I tried to predict how it would all play out. My friends probably hadn’t said anything to their families about me being bullied. So maybe the guys would just make up excuses too. Tell their parents that they already had plans for the weekend.
I finally drifted off asleep in the middle of praying. I asked God to forgive me for the lies I had told my parents – and would continue to tell for as long as I could. I felt sick over the lying. It was exhausting and almost as nerve wracking and scary as the bullying. Almost. But even if I managed to get through this weekend, I knew my time was running out.