My son attended our local elementary school. For five happy years he walked down the hill to join his teachers and friends. Because my house backs on to the school, I could watch him at recess on the playground from my upstairs bedroom window. This bliss ended when he started junior high and had to ride the bus.
Turns out, the problem started even before the bus arrived. Because we had so many kids in our area, our one stop filled the bus. Imagine fifty-or-so 12 to 14 year olds gathered at the park every morning while waiting for their ride. Bedlam was guaranteed.
One afternoon on our way to soccer practice, my son told me that some of the older boys were stealing lunch money from the younger kids.
“One kid wouldn’t give them the money,” Adam told me. “So, they held him down, took off his shoe and threw it out the window.”
My daughter, piped in and said, “Look! There’s a shoe!”
And sure enough, there in the gutter was one shoe.
Because we live in an area of status symbol sneakers, I knew how important and expensive shoes could be. I also knew how humiliating it must have been for this child to have to attend school with only shoe.
I went home and did what I thought any parent would do. I called the school, told them of the situation, expressed my disappointment, outrage, and issued a few threats. The school thanked me and promised changes would be made. Then I called my mom friends who also had children riding the bus.
Did they share my outrage? Yes. Did they congratulate me on calling the school? No. They thought I had made a colossal mistake.
“Are they taking Adam’s money?” one friend asked.
“No, but that shouldn’t matter,” I replied.
“You just made Adam a target,” she replied.
Other mom friends agreed. I had unwittingly set my son up for retaliation.
Now, seriously concerned, I called my mother-in-law. After I explained the situation, she said, “There are jerks on the bus, and there are jerks in life. He has to learn how to deal with the jerks on the bus so he later he can deal with the jerks in the office, in the courtroom, or at the hospital.”
Fortunately, the school heard my complaints and took the situation seriously. For the remainder of the school year, a police officer not only waited at the bus stop, but he also rode the bus to and from school. I don’t think the mini-extortionists ever learned that Adam’s mom was the whistle-blower.
But I did have a conversation with Adam. I told him that if those boys were grown-ups, and if they had been caught, they would go to jail. I explained to him that he went to school not only to learn how to read and write, but also to decide what kind of person he wants to be when he grows up.
The bullies on the bus were learning how to intimidate. Because I knew the neighborhood, I knew those boys weren’t stealing because they needed money. The only kids going hungry were the kids whose lunch money was stolen. The bullies might have even believed they were stealing for the money, but I don’t think they were. I think they intimidated and bullied because it made them feel powerful, meaning that there had to be something or someone in their life that made them feel powerless.
Every day, whether we’re on a bus, in an office, courtroom, hospital or at home, we have the chance to decide what kind of person we want to be—where we find our power and joy. Some people are still, literally and figuratively, throwing other people’s shoes out the window, because, as my mother-in-law once so wisely said, “There are jerks on the bus, and jerks in the world.” And we have to learn how to live with them.
(This is a picture of me and grown-up Adam. We're still close.)