Confronting childhood bullies.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

In the 1980s and 1990s, my family lived in a larger town near the south. On the first day of school, “Lisa” saw my family and me, and we hit the trifecta of racism for her: dark skin, “weird” last name, and “ugly” hair. From then on, she made my life hell.

Lisa would bully anyone who was nice to me. She told kids I smelled because my family had dark skin and that if anyone hung out with me, their skin would go dark too. I tried to avoid her, but she targeted me on a daily basis for years. I hated school and cried almost every day.

The school was no help because Lisa was white and would deny everything or act like she didn’t know me. She faced no consequences or, if she did, they weren’t effective. We eventually moved, and I hadn’t thought about her until now.

I found out Lisa is an elementary school teacher nearby, and I want to alert her school board. Everything I said here is accurate so I’m not worried about slander or libel. I’m not scared of her anymore.

I’m not suggesting Lisa wear a hairshirt forever, and I have no idea what she’s like now. She could be a great teacher. But Lisa teaches the same grade level where she exerted the bulk of her abuse. She was a bigot from a very young age, knowing how to expertly use grown-up, pejorative insults. She had no fear of getting in trouble. As we’ve seen from high profile adults today, bad behavior often starts young. I agonize over her minority students. It’s no different than having a history of violence or sexual harassment.

I don’t want anything from the school system except their acknowledgement of my experience with Lisa and a promise to keep an eye on her students. I’m going to forge ahead, but I want to make sure I’m doing this right. What can I expect? Do schools even care about stuff like this? Would schools even want to know? What will they ask?

Maybe there’d be a lot less hatred in this country if more people stood up to it.

–Racist Bully, Racist Teacher?

Dear RBRT,

I’m so sorry about the years of racist abuse you suffered. I’m sorry about how it affected your childhood and your education, I’m sorry you weren’t believed, and I’m sorry you never felt any sense of restitution or justice. In thinking about the path forward you’ve outlined here, it sounds like you’re hoping for two things: the opportunity to potentially protect the wellbeing of Lisa’s students, and a measure of recognition and closure for the wrongs she inflicted on you in the past. You may be able to accomplish the former, but unfortunately, I don’t think you’ll get much satisfaction on the latter. That’s not to say you shouldn’t communicate to Lisa’s supervisors, but you asked what to expect, and I want to help you prepare for what I think will be the most likely outcome of your disclosure.

First, some advice on the process. You said you plan to alert her school board; I would not start there. School board meetings are highly routinized proceedings with a pre-set agenda, and while there is always time included to receive comments from the community, most boards have policies specifically prohibiting the public discussion of individual personnel. Even if this board does not, and you were able to share your concerns in person or via letter, they would not be met with the dialogue it sounds like you’re hoping for; addressing the board is more a matter of stating your perspective as a matter of public record, rather than holding a conversation.

Instead, I’d ask for a phone call or a meeting with the principal of the school. I’d frame the discussion by first acknowledging that the experience you’re reporting happened a very long time ago, and you understand that Lisa was a child who may have changed and grown considerably since then, but that given the extreme nature of how she treated you, you feel compelled to share it in the interest of the well-being of current students. Then, relay what you’ve told me here. You’ve laid out how Lisa treated you, how her behavior affected you, and the responsibility you feel to speak up quite poignantly. I think you can express your hope and desire that the principal will then proceed with due diligence and follow up accordingly. When you share all this, I hope the principal will listen carefully and thoughtfully, will empathize with you, and will engage with you by asking thorough follow-up questions. That’s what I hope. I can’t promise you should expect it. Even if you do have the affirming conversation you deserve, I would not expect any specific promises, commitments, or disclosures as an outcome. A school principal does have procedural responsibilities toward their employees, and any subsequent actions taken will likely be internal. You could also email the superintendent with a brief summary of your conversation as an additional layer of accountability, but again, you will probably not be included in any next steps.

I think having this conversation will mean you’ve done what you can to take reasonably concerned action based on your past history with Lisa, while also recognizing that you can’t account for her beliefs or behaviors as an adult. I wonder how you’ll feel after, though. Maybe reporting your experiences will give you the peace you need. If this has reopened wounds in yourself that need to heal, though, then I’d seek therapy with a practitioner skilled in supporting recovery from racial trauma. You endured real pain in your formative years, and you deserve kind, thoughtful, informed care if you need it. No matter how adeptly they listen to you or follow up on your concerns, you will not receive that care and healing from the leaders of Lisa’s district, so please seek it out on your own behalf if that feels right.

I’ll be thinking about you.

—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school teacher, New York)

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Should I put any restrictions on the books my children can read—in regard to content? My first grader is reading at a fairly high level (fourth to fifth grade) and has shown interest in pulling some of our more adult graphic novels off the shelves to flip through (MAUS, Walking Dead, March, etc.). She isn’t reading them in entirety usually but does like to read through sections. It got me thinking about if/how we may want to go about limiting certain books until an older age. I’d love to hear your thoughts on book content. Thus far, we’ve just taken to having conversations when I see her pull something off the shelf that seems like it warrants some discussion.

—Off Limits?

Dear Off,

Tricky question for me. By fourth grade, I was secretly reading Jaws, Helter Skelter, and a book on the Son of Sam murders, but in retrospect, I don’t think I was ready for any of that content at such an early age and wish someone would have seen the books in my hands and redirected me to more age-appropriate books.

So yes, you should put some restrictions on content. Even though your child can read a book doesn’t mean she is mature enough to consume the content therein. There are levels of violence, sexual content, and other adult situations that should be kept from your daughter until she is older. Just like you probably restrict the films that your daughter can watch based upon their ratings and your own judgment, keeping specific reading content away from her is also appropriate. Not only is she lacking the maturity to process many adult situations, she also has a right to her innocence.

That said, the line between what is appropriate and what is not may differ from parent to parent. My daughter, for example, was reading about Malala Yousafzai and the tragedy of girls in Afghanistan earlier than most of her classmates, but she was a relentless feminist at an early age and fell in love with the story of Malala. But that was a conscious decision, and we made sure to support and guide her as she read.

There is more than enough time to learn about the nuances of adult life and the horrors of this world. Allow her to be innocent of them when they have no bearing on her life.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

I have a newly turned 5-year-old son who is autistic. I basically married Sheldon Cooper, and birthed a miniature version. He will be entering Kindergarten in the fall with a 504, having been declassified from his IEP last year. His math skills are somewhere in the second/third grade level, but his social skills are minimal and he has zero patience with his peers who are not at his level. Do I say anything to his teacher outside of the 504 process? Do I just let them get to know each other and figure it out? I want his teacher to make their own judgements, but my son’s negative behavior increases exponentially when he’s bored. I’m so nervous about the fall. Academically he’ll be fine in the long run, but I don’t want him to hate school.

—Say Anything?

Dear Say Anything,

This is a tricky one. Since your child’s 504 plan is individualized for your child, give it a close read and see what it says about him and his learning characteristics. If his 504 contains a description of your son that you feel is accurate and complete, you can probably let the teacher get to know him, and maybe request a meeting a month or two into the school year to “check-in” and monitor his social progress. On the flip side, if the 504 plan is just the list of accommodations he needs, and does not contain what you feel is a complete description of his behaviors and triggers, I would request a meeting sooner in the school year so that you can provide teachers with some of that information.

In order to assuage your fears, though, I can assure you that kindergarten is an entirely different beast from preschool. Kids who had assaultive behaviors (hitting, etc.) in preschool that were triggered out of boredom become much better behaved when presented with academic challenges in a kindergarten classroom. Kindergarten teachers, perhaps more than teachers at any other grade level, are masters of weaving different skill levels into one classroom activity, as students come into kindergarten with vastly different levels of pre-academic or academic exposure, and often minimal data about their students. His teachers are prepared to “figure kids out” at breakneck speed. Not to mention, the kindergarten day is much more structured than the preschool day, and that structure may provide enough support to him that he isn’t bored at all.

Especially after a year of virtual or hybrid school, I have seen kindergarteners absolutely blossom in the classroom environment simply because it’s more stimulating and engaging. Even my more withdrawn autistic students have flourished in their social skills, in no small part because their kindergarten teachers have done a wonderful job of teaching empathy and kindness. He’s probably going to love kindergarten (bright kids usually do!)—I wouldn’t worry about that at all.

—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)

When my children take quarterly standardized tests at school to help with assessing their progress, the children see the result of their test score on the computer screen after they’ve finished taking the test. Could you explain to me what the rationale is here? This inevitably leads to kids comparing scores with one another. I’ve told my kids that these numbers are private, and that they shouldn’t compare scores; I’ve also told them to take other kids’ numbers with a grain of salt, as I’m sure there are kids who are not honest about their progress. But the entire thing bothers me. Why isn’t this information just given to the parents? Don’t teachers and administrators see detriments to this more public dispersal of information? I would address it with the teachers, but there’s nothing they can really do because of the way the test is administered—I’m just curious if teachers agree that this practice is abysmal.

—Stop the Madness

Dear Stop,

I agree with you. This practice is abysmal, for all the reasons you have outlined, and I can’t imagine a single teacher who would think this a good idea. It’s not what happens in my school district, and as far as I can tell, it doesn’t happen anywhere in the state of Connecticut. Our standardized test scores are sent to parents via the U.S. mail and electronically to teachers and administrators shortly as soon as results are available.

I reached out to colleagues in half a dozen other states, and all of them follow practices similar to my school district. Testing data is disseminated only to parents and teachers, who can then report progress to children in a more private, more productive, more contextualized, supportive way. Assessment data is a means of analyzing progress, identifying areas of need, and setting goals. It should never be used as a means of comparing oneself to other students.

I honestly can’t imagine a reason for reporting data in the way your school district does. It should be changed.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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