It doesn’t stop at school.

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This was an uneventful morning until I was on my way to work, when I was stopped in a line of traffic that was not too bad, since it was after the usual morning rush, but put me slightly in the way of a left turn, if you were in a car on the other side of the road trying to cut across traffic.  I wasn’t in a true intersection – it was one of those curvy kinds of roads where you could make a turn if you wanted to and could get across, but it wasn’t a clear intersection with a light or anything like that.  The light was way up ahead and there was no directive not to block the way.

Anyway, a car tried to do just that — cut across traffic to make that left turn — and that would have been completely fine with me, under normal circumstances.  But in this ambiguous situation, with the nose of my car already positioned within the turning space, with not much room in front of me, I found it odd that the car trying to turn left made a VERY aggressive jerking motion that almost hit me.  It wasn’t a polite attempt to signal and ask to cut in to avoid a long line of traffic.  It was some jerk saying,”you WILL let me in here, because I am very important and I get what I WANT.”

I don’t think so, pal.

I immediately pulled up as close as I could to the bumper in front of me, in a strong showing that I would not be intimidated by Mr. Middle Management on his way to his company parking spot after stopping at Starbucks for his $5 coffee.  OMG, I cannot STAND being bullied by aggressive drivers!  This prompted the guy to roll down his window, lean out of it and start yelling at me while gesturing wildly and honking.  Traffic remained stopped long enough for us to make eye contact.  All I could think to do was look at him and mouth “What is your problem?”  The line of cars picked up and it was over.  He was able to turn immediately, as there were no cars behind me.

I have no problem confronting people in order to defend myself or others, but the incident left me shaken nonetheless.  For some reason, I couldn’t help but mull over in my mind what that guy could have been so angry about, to overreact that way.  He looked to be about in his 50’s, white hair, glasses, wearing a suit and tie.  I forget what kind of car he was driving, but it was probably a BMW or Mercedes.  He probably commutes into Hartford from one of the wealthy surrounding towns, and has a lovely family with kids in high school who he adores.  Maybe on a good day, he is actually a nice person.  It made me really, really sad to think this is what the world comes down to:  people who play the good guy all day long for their families, but don’t hesitate to let the nastiness show because a girl rushing to work in her mom-mobile was inched into a (questionable) intersection, and simply tried to defend herself against an aggressive, and arguably dangerous, driver.

That’s when it hit me:  the negative feeling that had washed over me just then was the same feeling I got when I was bullied in elementary and middle school.  If you’ve been following education law developments in Connecticut, you’re aware that the State recently implemented new requirements for school districts concerning bullying and creation of a “safe school climates.”  Throughout the U.S., children are being bullied in traditional ways as well as by use of the Internet and social media.  They are victims of suicide brought on by relentless harassment that was once passed off by well-meaning parents and teachers as “kids being kids.”  There are still young people being tormented by their peers because of their sexual orientation.  We are concerned for our children, for these vulnerable young people.  We wring our collective hands, and we seek ways to protect them, hoping that new laws and stricter oversight in schools will make things safe for our kids.  We are incredulous at the suicides and clinical depression and the sheer cruelty.  We ask, How could this have happened?

And then it really hit me:  the reason school bullying has always existed, and will likely continue to persist, is because of that aggressive driver.  Adults are bullies too.  That guy who cursed me out this morning probably goes home to his own children, loves them, and worries about protecting them at school and in the wider world.  But our children learn from our example.  When our children see the way their parents treat each other — the guy who feels more like a man when he runs people off the road, or the mom who hides her own insecurities by pointing out flaws in another mom’s parenting, or the professional who turns his back and calls something gay or retarded when he thinks no one is listening — how can we not believe that we are creating a culture of bully versus victim, with our kids mimicking this behavior in school?

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That shaken feeling wasn’t just the discomfort I had felt.  It was also the creeping realization that the urge to be a bully resides in me, too.  I wanted to defend myself — who wouldn’t?  But then, I pulled up intentionally instead of being a complete pacifist and letting the guy have his way, bully or not.  I mouthed off a counter-response instead of staring straight ahead.  I got aggressive where instead I could have said, This is not worth my time or energy.  Go in peace.

As a parent of young children, I still don’t know how I will address the subject of bullying when they get to school.  Worse, I fear that the conversation needs to happen NOW.  Yes, even with a 2-year-old.  I hope she is one of those kids who sails through the school years without feeling the need to put others down in order to feel good about herself, and certainly without being the victim.  I wish this for her in her adult life as well.  Realistically, I know that she will be exposed to this behavior at some point, and that it will be difficult for her, or for a friend, when it happens.

All I can do for the time being is recognize and remember that adults need to model positive behavior for their children.  It is not enough to point our fingers and demand compliance with the rules.  It is not enough to think what a shame it is that some student in another town took her life because someone else was cruel to her.  It starts with each of us as parents, right now.

How have you dealt with the issue of bullying with your children?  Have you encountered adult bullies, and how do you react in a way that protects yourself and teaches your children the right thing to do?

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