If you haven’t figured it out from reading my articles, I believe in women standing up for themselves. I believe women can stand up to anybody and to institutional power. After thinking about why I feel so strongly about this, I realized I learned this powerful lesson in the first grade.
My first grade teacher was mean and a bully.
To this day I can’t tell you her name because I never really knew it. I always referred to her as the wicked witch.
Within the first hour on the first day of school she made it came very clear that she hated boys and blonde haired girls. Reading through the attendance roster, she rearranged us to let us know who she favored and who she didn’t. My friend Shelly, who was a sweet blond haired girl was removed from her desk in the front row and sent to the desk closest to the door. The teacher then moved two brunette girls up to the front and made it clear that they were her favorites. All the boys were sent to the back rows.
I was a redhead with curly hair and freckles. I now assume that she believed in the old wives tale that redheads are the devil’s children because I was moved to the back row, next to Gino, the boy she despised most of all.
She demonstrated her hatred of boys every day. When we had to line up to go somewhere, she typically called for the girls to line up first with her two favorites at the front of the line. Shelly and I took our places at the end. If boys jumped the gun and lined up at the same time as the girls they were humiliated. Her favorite punishment was to put bows in their hair and make them walk around all day with the bows.
As the last girl in line, I tried to make the boys sit down before they were caught. I was scolded for helping the boys and sent to sit in the hall as my punishment.
In those first months of school I was sent to sit in the hall about once a week for helping the boys or speaking out that something was unfair. I remember a spelling bee where the final 3 were myself, another girl and a boy. When the boy correctly spelled his word, our teacher told him he spelled it wrong. I spoke out and said he spelled it correctly. Other kids joined my protest. The boy and I were sent out of the classroom to sit in the hall.
As The Girl in the Hall, I got some attention because my school used this punishment to remove unruly boys from class. After the first couple of punishments, I began being asked by other teachers what I did to warrant my punishment and I replied with the truth that I opened my mouth to challenge my teacher’s unfairness. After a while I became aware that how often I sat in the hall was being monitored by the teachers next door and across the hall.
One day Gino came to school with a broken leg. It was no secret that he was abused at home by his father and his two older teenage brothers. Seeing his broken leg our teacher came back to him and asked him what happened. He said he fell down the stairs and after more questioning it was clear that his father pushed him. Our darling teacher then sided with his father, told him he was a bad kid and deserved it as well as the beatings he got from his brothers.
Sitting at my desk and listening to her, I began crying. She scolded me for crying. I will always remember it was at that moment that I began hating this woman. My tears turned to anger. I kept whispering to Gino that it was going to be all right and not to listen to our teacher because she was a mean wicked witch.
Later that day we went to gym class. Our teacher told the gym teacher that Gino couldn’t be excused from gym class because he didn’t bring a note from home. Listening to our teacher I learned that Gino’s mother couldn’t write a note because she was in the hospital with cancer. The gym teacher didn’t challenge our teacher and Gino wasn’t excused. I got the impression they considered Gino’s family “trash” and they were felt they were right to mistreat Gino because it was what he deserved. My anger and hatred intensified.
As we did our jumping jacks I looked over at Gino who was struggling with his full leg cast. Our teacher and gym talked as they stared at him, my teacher obviously proud of the punishment she inflicted on him. My 6 year old mind saw the evil, wicked witch portrayed in fairy tales. My anger exploded. I got out of line and went up to the teachers and started yelling at them. The gym teacher pulled Gino out of the line and had him sit along the wall. I was told to sit down too as was another kid who also got out of line to back me up.
I didn’t consider being expelled from gym class and sitting along the wall as punishment. Using my imagination, I pictured us sitting under a big sign that said, “The Winners.” I was never afraid of standing up to that witch again.
In early December our teacher said she had a special holiday project for the last week of school. Whoever brought in the most potpie tins could help her. I told my mother and we collected the tins from our neighbors and family. A week before the deadline I brought in a bag containing 18 -20 tins. My classmates were all excited about how many I was able to round up.
On the big day of the project, everyone told me they knew I would be the helper. However, our teacher announced that one of her favorites would help her. I felt betrayed. My classmates sat in shocked disbelief. Then one of the boys spoke up on my behalf. Before the teacher could reply, the rest of the class joined in, including her two favorites.
She had a full blown mutiny on her hands.
I knew the reason they stuck up for me was because I stuck up for them.
I spent the day helping my teacher do our project of filling the tins with plaster and putting a candle in the middle. Amazingly we got along extremely well. I could tell that for some reason this project meant a lot to her. It had a personal and special meaning that made her very happy.
Those last two days before Christmas break were the happiest days in the classroom. After the holidays it was all back to “normal.”
In the spring, she eventually went too far. When 3 boys lined up with the girls, instead of putting bows in their hair, she made “bonnets” for them out of doilies and ribbon. She then made them walk through the school with their bonnets on. I remember some other teachers seeing this and questioning her about it. She gave her standard reply that if the boys wanted to line up with the girls then she would treat them like girls.
When we got back to the classroom, she had the girls and the boys with bonnets remain lined up against the wall. She then berated the boys and told them she was going to call their fathers and tell them their sons wanted to be girls.
The boys got very upset and began crying. One boy got hysterical and kept pleading, “Don’t call my father, don’t call my father.” (It was 1967 in New Jersey so you can imagine how some fathers would react to that phone call.)
Most of the girls started crying. Then two boys who were seated stood up. From the look on their faces, I thought they were going to attack our teacher who was still mocking the boys relentlessly. Since our teacher was standing in front of me, I got out of line and placed myself between her and the boys who were ready to attack. I began yelling at her to stop. Other kids started yelling at her to stop and every kid in the class was either yelling or crying.
She got control of herself and sent me and the three crying boys still wearing their bonnets to sit in the hallway again. This time other teachers came out to check on us. I remember sitting there trying to console the boy who had been hysterical. I don’t remember what I said but it was clear something had to be done. The teacher in the classroom next door went back into her classroom and called the principal. The principal and some other women came and we were taken to the lunchroom for the rest of the day.
For the remainder of the year, our teacher was a lot more subdued. I assumed she got in a lot of trouble. I also noticed our classroom door was always left open as was the teacher’s next door. The principal or another adult stopped by our classroom every day.
On the last day of school our teacher tried to get in her last little jab in at me. I got 100% all year on my spelling tests so I was supposed to get a BIG gold star on the front of my spelling book. However, she gave me a little gold star. I knew she did it deliberately so I called her out on it. I stood there at her desk going through my book, showing all my perfect tests. She never looked at me or said a word but eventually slammed a BIG gold star on the front of my book. Everyone looked up. I gathered my book and walked back to my desk in the last row in triumph.
To me, I didn’t earn my BIG gold star for spelling.
I earned my BIG gold star for standing up to the wicked witch.
After reading this story it is easy to focus on my teacher and be outraged that she was allowed to bully, abuse and victimize her students. We can blame the school administration and the organizational power structure for not doing their job, intervening and removing her from teaching.
But if you focus on the teacher, you miss the real moral of this story.
Back in the 1960’s, we didn’t believe a third party had the power stop a bully. We saw bullying as a battle between the bully (and their friends) and the person being bullied (and their friends.)
It was up to us to stand up to a bully and make the bullying stop.
With this principle as my foundation, my first grade experience taught me all I needed to know about bullying:
- Bullies thrive when no one stands up to them.
- Adults can be intimidated by a bully and be bullied too.
- People can witness bullying and choose to look the other way.
- You have to be your own knight in shining armor. If you wait to be rescued, you will be bullied while you wait because of lessons 2 and 3.
- Most people are afraid to be the first one to stand up to a bully.
- If you are the first to stand up against a bully, you have to rally support.
- Other people will join you in your fight against a bully because most people want to do what’s right.
- If you stand up for other people, they will stand up for you.
- People who stand up to bullies together form a bond and become allies.
- Bullies don’t stop just because you stood up to them once. You have to keep standing up to them.
- If you keep standing up to a bully, eventually something will change, something will be done.
- All bullies can be defeated. It just takes one person to choose to step forward and start the process.
As a 6 year old, I summed up these lessons in fairytale terms:
When Good fights Evil, Good always wins.
As it turned out my first grade experience prepared me well for the rest of my life. In third grade two different groups of boys thought they could physically bully the girl with the curly red hair. They both learned I always fought back and if you rip my favorite coat I get really mad. In college when a guy tried to grab me, I grabbed him back…in the crotch. I then squeezed as hard as I could, yanked down and twisted. He screamed out in pain.
As a woman in a male-dominated workplace, first grade taught me to never be intimidated by any of the men I worked with or any of their power plays. I didn’t care who they were, I believed I could stand up for myself. If they retaliated, which some did, I just kept standing up for myself. I refused to let evil or bad behavior win.
Of course there were times when I questioned if I should back down (usually from listening to the advice of others.) There were also times when I questioned if I should get involved in a situation because the person being bullied didn’t want to stand up for themselves. But then I always remembered Gino with his broken leg and I felt compelled to take a stand.
(In case you are wondering, Gino’s mother passed away during the school year and he went to live with his grandmother…without his older brothers.)
I lived by my rules all through the first half of my career with success and great satisfaction. But in the latter half, Rule 4 went away and instead I had to report bullying and unfair practices to a third party (management or the appropriate corporate office) to resolve on my behalf. However, because of Rules 2, 3 and 10 still existed, I got mixed results depending upon the personality of the third party person.
I had some managers who handled the situation so badly they made the situation a lot worse. In one workplace we discovered that the person we had to file the complaint with, was severely bullying the bully we complained about. I had people who were supposed to stop the bullying, try to bully me for standing up for myself because they didn’t want the extra work. In all of these cases I kept going and eventually found the good people who sided with me.
Once I did get the fairytale response every woman hopes and dreams of – a true knight in shining armor who was more upset by the incident than I was. He actually had to delay his response a day because he said he was so mad that he would have punched my offender if he saw him the day I reported the incident.
I’ve also known managers who dropped everything to get on a plane and intervene in a situation.
The latter half of career taught me that in spite of corporate policies and new heightened awareness, Rule 4 still exists – you have to stand up for yourself; you have to be your own knight in shining armor. Don’t expect chivalry. Don’t expect anyone to fight harder for you than you are willing to fight for yourself. And if you are afraid to stand up for yourself, then just remember – If a classroom of first graders can stand up to their bully teacher, then grown adult women can certainly stand up to their workplace bully.
I never stopped believing in the lessons I learned in first grade. As I applied them throughout my life, I learned one more powerful lesson women are seldom told:
There is GREAT POWER in doing what is right, standing up for what is right and speaking the truth.
Bullies and evil-doers are afraid of this power because,
When Good fights Evil, Good always wins.
Empowered Women Stand Up to Bullies
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