“We was bad.” Kristopher’s sunken expression reflected the general mood of the cafeteria. He glanced at Harry sitting by himself a few feet away. Harry was one of only three white boys in the entire class, and the heaviest by far. His eyes were red with tears, and he used a chubby fist to wipe his runny nose.
Half-a-dozen of my boys, all black, including Kristopher, stood military-style next to a neighboring teacher who witnessed the incident. She stood between them and Harry.
“What happened?” I looked at the boys perplexed. Kristopher and another boy were quiet. Yet another was whimpering, “I din’t DO NUFFIN’!” Another was playing with his teeth while his friend beside him laughed and punched yet another boy in the arm, who mumbled in reply, “Stop it! It ain’t funny!” None of them met my gaze. Little Harry started to cry.
“These six were bullying this one,” the teacher pointed to Harry. “Called him fat,” she whispered. “Said he was stupid. They were ganging up, throwing food at him, the whole nine yards.” My eyes got wide. I didn’t know what to say. “You gotta problem with bullying?” Her question took me off guard. Bullying? In kindergarten? To my shock, I knew the answer.
“Only with my white boys,” I whispered. How could I have missed this? “They only pick on my white boys.”
“Well, you gotta tell ‘em to stop.” She shook her head and glanced around at the boys. “Tell ‘em it ain’t okay.”
Tell them it ain’t okay? Of course. Easy for you to say. The solution seemed at once perfectly obvious and completely impossible. How do you convince a child to stop being prejudiced? They don’t even know what it means.
I took a deep breath and lined up the class. My six bullies-in-the-making didn’t say a word.
“Sorry teacher.” One boy’s raspy voice broke the silence. His pair of black chucks squeaked back and forth on the linoleum floor. “We was just playin’.”
I sighed. An hour later the classroom was empty except for me and the six boys. They were in trouble, but most of them didn’t care. Now was my chance to make the consequence meaningful. Now was my chance to talk to them, to tell them it’s not okay to pick on Harry just because he’s fat and white. But what could I say?
I cleared my throat. “Boys, what happened in the cafeteria today…you were picking on Harry. You can’t treat other kids that way.”
“But we was just playin’ around with him,” said one boy.
“Yeah, we was just playin’ with him,” said another.
“But Harry wasn’t playing was he?” I stumbled to find the right words. “Harry was crying, wasn’t he? You can’t play that way with kids.”
“Why?” said one of the boys.
“Because…” I found my voice trailing.
“Because it’s MEAN,” said Kristopher, suddenly exploding out of his chair. Their eyes got wide, as if it were the first time they’d heard such reasoning in their life.
I blinked at Kristopher. “It’s mean.” I said. “That’s right. It’s mean. And that makes it wrong.” It seemed as if truth were dawning upon their faces for the first time, as if no one had ever told them it was wrong to be mean. “How would you like it if everyone ganged up on you instead? How would you like it if everyone called you stupid in front of everybody?”
And just like that they pictured themselves in Harry’s place, pushed and shoved, called stupid, milk poured over their heads.
“Man,” Kristopher said, his bottom lip trembling, his eyes brimming with tears. Two other boys started to cry.
The teacher’s admonition in the cafeteria suddenly returned. “Tell ‘em to stop. Tell ‘em it ain’t okay.” Could it really have been that simple? I’d balked at the idea in the cafeteria. It couldn’t be. But this crowd of sobbing five and six year olds told me otherwise.
It’s mean, and that makes it wrong. It really was that simple. How much heartache could we avoid if we simply taught our children to think this way from the start?