[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #14 in April 2014]
My daughter Sol is a lively eight year old who is navigating third grade. She attends a wonderful neighborhood public school in Chicago. Two AREA editors, Jacob Klippenstein and Mohamed Mehdi, and I sat down for a conversation with her. We have changed the names of the kids and teacher mentioned in this story, and hope it may be a fun read as it was a learning experience. We had started by asking her about some of the “activist” things that she has been a part of, but she shut that down pretty fast and went straight to what was most relevant in her daily life—problems at recess. Since this interview, the situations she described got a little worse and then got a lot better with time and the help of the great staff at her school, as well as a teacher-led conflict resolution circle. I appreciate the manner that her school handles these situations with patience and great love. What became most clear through this and the weeks of bullying that followed was the need for me as a mother to slow down and listen to her talk about these things that sometimes seemed silly to me as an adult but which were full of big learning for her. I had previously not heard much about what was going on before this interview and this conversation led to her sharing more, expressing a lot of anger and frustration due to exclusion. In the weeks that followed she needed new kinds of affirmation to be herself and that being unique is great and fun no matter what the groups are doing. Encouragement from family, friends, and afterschool program providers have helped turn a challenging time of learning about bullying and conflicts into a period of growth and renewed confidence.
Jacob: Your mom was telling us about what you thought social justice might mean. Were you thinking about that?
Sol: Being nice and being fair, that’s all.
Mom: Instead of what?
Sol: Instead of being mean.
Jacob: Is there an example in Chicago?
Sol: Like at my school some people are like, “You’re a pig.” Or, “You smell like farts,” or, “peeyoo, he just farted. Stay away from him.”
Mohamed: That’s not being nice. What makes them not be nice?
Sol: Sometimes there’s not a reason, sometimes there is a reason. Usually it doesn’t have anything to do with that person.
Mom: Like they’re not thinking of that person or what? What do you mean it doesn’t have anything to do with that person?
Sol: Like what if they went through something really hard and then they might be saying that.
Jacob: Are there any other examples of people being mean?
Sol: Like, right now, at the school, people are picking teams to beat each other up. And other people have been planning for the next outdoor recess we’re gonna . . . *she gestures “beat up” by hitting her fist against her palm*. There’s Maria’s team and Ethan’s team. And I’ve seen some of the plans they are making. Ethan wrote down on this paper a plan of . . . He’s going to have his team beat up another team. He said the plan is to make them outnumbered, but to pretend that they’re the ones who are outnumbered. And they can get somebody to distract them and be like, “I’m on your team,” and then the team will all hide in places. And as soon as that person comes out looking for them, they all scatter about and start beating each other up.
Mom: Is it a game?
Sol: No, they’re just beating each other up.
Mohamed: But what about the teachers, don’t they stop them?
Sol: It’s because they’re like planning to keep out of sight of the teacher. [The teachers] are not necessarily everywhere, but recently I got a cut because somebody was hurting me. The teachers they were, well, they’re not everywhere and in view of everything. So then they’ll like pick spots where they can like . . . *she hits her fist against her palm*. But sometimes people actually agree to fight somebody else. . . . They’re like, “I’m fighting you tomorrow.” “OK.” “OK.”
Mom: Was it always like this on the playground?
Sol: Not always, but it’s happening a lot.
Mom: When did it start to change? You all have a recess monitor now right?
Sol: What’s a monitor?
Mom: Somebody who watches during a period of time. Wasn’t there some guy being the monitor? And your teacher wouldn’t go because she was doing something else?
Mohamed: So how many times a day do you have recess at your school?
Sol: Once a day.
Mohamed: Do you look forward to recess now or no?
Sol: I do.
Mohamed: But how do you avoid getting in conflicts with these kids that want to beat people up? Did you join a team? Or you just do your own thing?
Sol: I do my own thing, but a few days ago, myself, I seriously made a plan about how I’m going to . . . I seriously made a plan like Ethan.
Mom: You did? About how you’re going to do what?
Sol: Well, the thing is, you wanna know something cool? Nobody knows this. . . . I’m pretending to be on Ethan’s team. I’m like, “OK, come on, let’s! . . . Yeah! . . . Here’s the plan . . . Yeah, OK.” But I’m secretly on both teams and I’m trying to like . . . *she holds both palms out to the side like she is breaking up a fight*.
Mom: Ahhh, so you’re secretly pushing them away from each other?
Sol: I’m secretly . . . I’m seriously trying to figure out a way to hide it.
Mom: Why didn’t you talk to Ms. C about it?
Sol: I’m actually going to talk to Ms. C about it but because I’m pretending to be on Ethan’s team . . .
Mom: Isn’t Ethan the one that hurt you?
Sol: Yeah, but I forgive him. So, I’m pretending to be on his team, but I’m seriously on Maria’s team AND his team. I’m in the middle.
Jacob: So, the teacher doesn’t know?
Sol: So, I’m pretending to be on Ethan’s team. I’m like, “OK, yeah, I promise I won’t tell the teacher.” But I did not keep that promise. I seriously did this *she crosses her fingers*. I seriously crossed my fingers.
Mom: But don’t you think Ethan would be upset if he found out that you had done that and if he found out you weren’t telling him the truth? Generally people like it when you’re honest with them. What do you think is going to happen?
Sol: If he ever tries to fight with me I’m going to go tell the teacher.
Mom: Well, that’s what you need to do.
Sol: That’s what I have been doing.
Mom: When you and Ethan had the fight the other day, where was Ms. C?
Sol: She wasn’t watching us.
Mom: Why? Where was she?
Sol: She does other work because she needs to.
Mom: The teachers used to be with you on the playground and then it changed.
Sol: In second grade it changed because a few other teachers who weren’t teaching in their own class . . . the people that read to you in the morning and say the schedule and things like that.
Mom: What else changed at that time? A lot of things changed? Remember when everybody was wearing red?
Sol: The strike.
Mom: What were you fighting for?
Sol: Smaller classrooms.
Mom: So before the strike your teacher would come with you on the playground, school started later, school ended earlier and you’d have your teacher with you on the playground. Did people beat each other up before this happened?
Sol: No, nobody would join teams and beat other people up. This is the first time I’ve ever done stuff like this.
Mom: Do you think it’s because you’re older? Or why?
Sol: No, I’m not joining a team and beating somebody up. It’s because I just like to stop the fights. I’m kinda like my uncle when he was a kid. I’m doing it like this because I don’t want anybody to know stuff and keeping secrets because a whole bunch of kids might join their teams again . . .
Mohamed: So, if you could imagine the perfect recess, what you’d like to be doing at recess, if all this stuff wasn’t going on, what would you like it to be like?
Sol: I would like to just play without dealing with any of this weird join teams and beat each other up.
Mom: As a kid, since there’s not that many kids writing [for issue #14 of AREA] what can you tell [the adults] that they may not already know?
Sol: Remember they were once kids, too.