Thursday, May 07, 2009

Bullying and ub3r1337ness

Implied profanity warning.

Even if you've only been reading this blog for a short time, you will be aware of my elder son's woes at school. Bullying is not only something that happens to little kids in the playground. It is also not only something that happens to the fat kid or the slow kid. It can also happen to the handsome, bright, confident, sporty kid.

I share our experiences here (a) because we need to speak up against this and (b) in case any other parents are experiencing similar woes.

When our son switched schools in September, he went from being the most popular kid on campus to the most reviled. His life now is filled with sotto voce remarks in maths class, with shoulder barges in the corridor, with en masse proddings with badminton racquets in PE, with gossip and torment and ridicule. ALL. THE. TIME.

My confident-to-the-point-of-arrogance son has disappeared. In his place I have a boy who hides away in his room playing World of Warcraft (WoW) until we drag him away from it to eat, shower, do his chores, finish his course work, etc. I can seldom drag last year's county 200m champion and javelin runner up to the athletics track.

I spoke to him about it recently. I reminded him of the 9 year old boy who played chess for the county team. Whose wails after a defeat could be heard all the way from the team room, but who, by the time the next round was called, had regained a certain set to his jaw and a steely determination in his eye. This boy could not, would not stay down. He was stubborn. He was determined. He was defiant. He was a winner who just had to find a way to persuade his opponent to recognise that fact.

I asked him what had changed. Why he chose to try to keep his head below the parapet, and allow his tormentors to curtail his life so effectively.

As a family, we are not known for profanity, but he produced a torrent of it. He was tired of feeling like sh*t, of being treated like sh*t, of putting up with an endless, unrelenting stream of sh*t all day every day. He just wanted to be left alone. He just wanted to get through a day, just one day without abuse.

He spoke of how he got to help people in WoW. How other players had developed respect for him. How he was able to give people a leg up to achieve greater things (sound like anyone we know?). He spoke of the sanctuary it had become. When the real world becomes too much, aren't we all tempted to retreat into fantasy? In this respect, how is playing WoW different from reading fiction all day every day, or retreating into daydreams?

Up until now, I have been the one contacting the school and trying to deal with issues, while respecting the boundaries my son had set. At the same time, I tried to persuade him to let us take it further. I worried that retreating after the first intervention proved counter-productive only served the bullies' agenda.

Yesterday my husband decided that enough was enough. That, sorry kiddo, but there are times when a parent has to overrule his son. He made an appointment to speak to the head of 6th form at the school. Man to man. About a boy. It was hard for me to butt out. But my husband has a different way of dealing with things and my way hasn't worked.

After they had had a discussion, they called the lad in. Between them, they set some plans in action but... and here's the kicker, the head said he totally understood what a retreat WoW can be and how easy it is to sucked in to the exclusion of all else. Now you can imagine the 'oh yeah' written all over the face of a 17 year old who hears this from his head... until the man reveals that he is a level 80 Night Elf Rogue and a level 78 Human Paladin.

Now I don't play the game, so I didn't know quite how impressive this was until I told my younger son this news, whereupon he declared the head to be 'ub3r1337' (pronounced uber-leet).

So now, there is this sense of connection. Of someone who understands. We have a partner. Our son has an ally. While he freely acknowledges he can't manufacture a friend, the head has undertaken to put a stop to the torment, without putting my son at further risk. Whether it will work or not remains to be seen. In the meantime, there is an open door policy for my son, should he ever need a safe space to retreat to.

Now we get to hold our breath to see if this will work. Exams are looming and WoW isn't going to get him the grades that he needs to go the university he wants!


Doug Belshaw said...

Really sorry to hear about the bullying, Karyn, and very much respect the way you share such things on your blog. I hope things get sorted.

Remember also, though, that things can be a blessing in disguise. Who knows what your son is being prepared for? I hope and pray that the pain you and your family have experienced lead to something much more positive. :-)

Karyn Romeis said...

@Doug I recognise that this experience might prove valuable in the future. I have seen that time and again.

In fact, after 10 years of unspeakable loneliness in the UK myself, I am (at last) beginning to find my feet. Last week, one of the young women in our church commended me for always being able to draw in the people from the edges. I guess I acquired that ability by being on the edges myself for long enough to learn how it feels.

But back to my son - we're not going to be fatalistic enough about it to give up the fight! So thanks for your prayers. We're going to need them!

Lisa McCulloch said...

My heart goes out to you and your son. High school can be so awful.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad there is some progress towards the school providing support, and hope the situation resolves soon.

I'm interested in your comments about WoW. I attended a conference on Second Life in education, and the key speaker outlined the reasons he believed that WoW was so popular with young lads. If I can find a link to the talk, I'll send it to you. It was really eye-opening stuff to do with self-esteem, being part of a team, and being rewarded for achieving.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this story.

This is one of the parenting "things" that I worry about.

How to let kids work out their own problems but have them feel supported at the same time.

Keep us updated if you can.

Karyn Romeis said...

@lisa, @sharon and @eugene Thanks for the messages of support. Only time will tell if it works. The pastoral teacher we saw in the first instance told us "This doesn't happen in this school." The head says, "There is bullying in every school, this one is no exception." How do two such divergent messages come out of the same staff room?

@Sharon a post follows about the talk you mention.