As I tucked my daughter in the other night, she told me to that a little girl had been kicking her quiet friend in class, the one with secrets in her eyes.
“She do like this!” she said in a tone forecasting trouble as she kicked her leg.
I was supposed to say, “If you see her doing that again, come get an adult. Get Julia’s mommy or your mommy. Okay?” I was supposed to say, “That wasn’t very nice. What should you do if that happens again?” I was supposed to say, “Thank you for telling me. If you all play together again, an adult will need to be near.” I was supposed to be an adult. I was supposed to have it under control.
Instead, I projected. “If she ever kicks you,” I said, my voice a warning, “you kick her right back. Don’t let anyone kick you.” I’m still ashamed of my daughter’s horrified look when she let me know I’d given the wrong answer.
“No mommy,” she said. “I’ll say, ‘No gracias!’” My daughter is a student in a language immersion program where the teachers govern classroom space with Georgia Early Learning and Developmental Standards. According to those standards, my daughter should resolve peer conflicts with the help of an adult who names the injustice and teaches the children to use their words. My daughter’s social development is guided by people who haven’t spent years waking at midnight to watch her breathe. She’ll need this and other strategies to survive this world where Black girls are prey to everyone but themselves.
In the era of zero tolerance policies, we parents must come up with the right ideas for our children to respond to bullying and harassment—or else. This is what I’ve got so far:
Strategy 1: Gather your words.
When I was in the fourth grade, there was a little boy in my class who liked to crawl under the desks and look up skirts. Had I kicked him in his gawking face, I would have ended up with the black eye he’d given my friend just a week before. The teacher did not spend years in school to pull black children off of each other, so she suggested that I ignore the behavior. He only wanted attention, she said. I told my mother. Although she couldn’t come to school with me (her own attendance record had paid for my skirt, food, insurance, and the like), she sent me with a fat envelope addressed to the principal. By afternoon, the problem was resolved.
Words could do what my foot couldn’t, my mother could do what my teacher wouldn’t, and writing is a strategy for survival. I tucked the lesson away like a fat envelope full of reproach and demands.
Strategy 2: Gather your people.
The same teacher assigned a heritage project that year. Black students were told to pick any country in Africa. I chose Egypt. When my teacher told me Egypt wasn’t an African country, I learned the way a family fights.
My father, a non-confrontational PTA board member, said nothing directly to my teacher. Instead, he drove me hours away to hear a leading scholar on Kemet and the original man. We wore matching sweatshirts emblazoned with pyramids and brazen text: “It’s a Black Thing. You Wouldn’t Understand.” My mother suggested that I add a paragraph to my essay– the problem of finding heritage over the gap of a bloody sea. My grandmother sewed a Cleopatra gown that sparkled with hand-glued jewels and a gold collar. My grandfather invited me to deliver my presentation at our family church where I stood before oracles who knew that where we’d been and where we’d go was not some trajectory that began on blood-soaked soil. I was a part of a cypher that, on its best days, offered counter-narratives to the lies my teacher told me.
Strategy 3: Gather your strength.
The school bus was too loud for my voice to matter, too insulated for my family to board, and too violent for me to survive, spirit intact, without fighting. Children spend years disrespecting each other’s boundaries because they know they have no rights any adult is bound to respect. Boys spend years fighting because they think it makes them men. Girls spend years not liking each other because adults haven’t figured out how to like girls. I spent a week getting slapped. When I reached over the seat and pulled the hair of the girl who won, I knew I wouldn’t be getting slapped again. A body as small as my own could make impact, even if it didn’t always win. These are the lessons I wish I didn’t have to teach.
Strategy 4: Gather yourself and live.
“Don’t ever let anyone hit you,” I’d said to a toddler, sounding like one of those men who asks just why a victim of violence kept letting it happen. We are not the controllers of pain. We are not the gatekeepers of hurt. We are not avid collectors of insults, slaps, beatings, rape or imprisonment. The world does not treat us as it does because we let it. There are closed doors everywhere, hiding abuse and hatred. Sometimes it is enough to speak. Sometimes we can fight back. Sometimes we can leave. Sometimes we can say, “No, gracias!” Sometimes, it is enough to live to tell.
Asha French is a mother and writer living in Atlanta.