On the first day of second grade, my son Cheese Boy made a new friend. Like my son, Caleb liked Star Wars and Legos and wore a wide grin that matched my son's. He was a year older than my boys, but in the same grade. They played together at recess and had a few playdates.
Then suddenly, the honeymooon ended.
My twin boys started fighting at school, not with anyone else, but with each other. There was some hitting and a call to the principal's office. This was all within the first few weeks of school and certainly not the ideal way to start the new year.
The principal suggested I shadow my boys at lunchtime so I could see first hand the dynamics at play.
It was eye opening.
Caleb was there, running across the playground with Cheese Boy when they spotted me.
"There's your stupid mom," he murmered, out of the blue.
"That's not nice," I replied, shocked.
Chalk Boy, my other son, spotted me as well and headed toward us. As he approached, Caleb yelled, "There's your stupid, stupid brother. Run!"
So they ran away, laughing. My other boy stood there next to me, his face sullen. "They hate me," he said, kicking the ground.
So here was my "Aha!" moment: Caleb relished pitting my boys against each other.
Caleb also relished leading other kids into trouble.
My boys would come home telling us that Caleb would put them up to no good. "Pee on the ground next to the toilet!" "Throw wet toilet paper up to the ceiling so it sticks!" Then if a yard duty approached, Caleb would finger all the other kids, and never himself.
At reading groups a few days later, I arrived at school for my turn at volunteering in the class.
The kids were all lined up outside the class, including Cheese Boy and Caleb.
"Who is in the BEST FRIENDS club?" Caleb shouted merrily, waving his hands in the air and turning in circles. "Let's shake on it!" he said as a few boys moved in to put their hands together.
When Cheese Boy moved in, Caleb stopped him. "Nope, not you Cheese Boy, you're not in the best friends club, lalalala!"
My son looked at me and then down to the ground, feeling the pricks of rejection.
I couldn't believe what I'd just witnessed. He'd said it out of earshot of the teacher, but he had no problems alienating my child in front of me.
When we entered the class, Caleb looked up at me, spotted the Lego necklace my sons had made for me to wear to class (this was second grade, after all) and instead of complimenting it like so many other kids had done, he said, "Why are you wearing that stupid necklace?"
Yeah, my stupid necklace. I told the teacher what Caleb had said. The teacher shook his head like he understood the situation but I'll never know if he ever really noticed this not-so-nice side of this boy.
There are kids who are so socially smart, that they inflict their greatest harm under the radar. My guess is kids like Caleb win our school's coveted Project Cornerstone awards because they know exactly which behavior to display and when; their bullying takes place in corners of the playground, when no one is looking.
At Halloween, we ran into Caleb. Chalk Boy, who loves younger kids, took a liking to Caleb's younger sibling. I noticed Caleb pinching his sibling when their mom wasn't looking. But when Caleb saw that Chalk Boy was befriending his sibling, Caleb got between them and started hugging his sibling. It was then, of course, that the mom noticed the love fest. She flashed Caleb a smile, and said something like, "That's a nice brother, Caleb!"
The following year, in third grade, Caleb came over to play. A few minutes later, a small plasma globe on my son's desk was broken, the glass shattered. Caleb had "accidentally" whacked it with a lightsaber. Accidents happen, of course, but was this part of a pattern of bad behavior?
Then the boys moved outside. They were playing with the boy who lives next door. Inside, the neighbor's mother could see and hear what the boys were doing from behind the blinds in her office where she was working. When she came out, Caleb pointed to her son and said, "He hit me on the head with a hammer."
"No he didn't," retorted the mom, "I was right there and besides, you would be bleeding if he did that."
We managed to stay away from Caleb for the rest of that year.
My boys started fourth grade this week. On the third day of school, Caleb found them on the track. "Hi Chalk Boy!" he said, probably in his usual sing-song voice. "Hi," my boy replied.
Then Caleb erupted in mocking laughter. "Hiiii!" he yelled, imitating my son's voice and covering his mouth as he laughed. The friend he was with did the same.
"Your mom is stupid," Caleb said, tossing out another insult.
"And your brother is a crazy, stupid, idiot, moron!" he continued.
But this time, my Chalk Boy, wisened by maturity, stood his ground. He was not going to play this game. Two years ago, he would have hit Caleb, and then been sent to the principal's office for hitting. But this time, he just ignored Caleb and walked away.
Not getting the feedback he wanted, Caleb allegedly blocked my son, putting his body in front of his. His friend blocked my son's backside. My son told me he just kept on walking, hoping that a yard duty might come along.
Fortunately, a yard duty did happen to come by, giving my boy an opportunity to escape.
Can I tell you how proud I was of my boy? Both of my boys, actually, as both had been approached by Caleb and neither took the bait this time.
What I learned from these incidents, is that public schools tend to punish the behavior they can see. They punish the child who is caught hitting, for instance. But any parent knows that if there is a hit, there was probably a provocation. The "victim" is likely just as, if not more, guilty than the hitter.
Also, it's the physical behavior that stands out and brands children (usually boys) as kids with bad behavior. The name calling, the subtle whispering of instructions to do something naughty, the peer pressure and the ostracizing all fly beneath the radar, and is potentially far more damaging than, say, kids who injure each other using sticks as swords.
Outwardly, Caleb seems to be a model student. He probably picks up trash when he knows the principal is nearby, so he can win a "Caught Ya Being Good!" award.
Of course, with the exception of what I and the other mom witnessed ourselves, the Caleb incidents are anecdotal and told to me through the lenses of my kids. Details might be slightly off, I don't know. "It's best to avoid Caleb," is the the advice we all heed. But if he's not being mean to them, certainly he is being mean to someone.
Bullies can fly beneath the school radar, even if your school is a Cornerstone (anti-bullying) school. Keep an open mind. Bullying isn't always something you can see.