punishing self-defence

My brother told me about this at Christmas-time, and I'm still pondering it, so it seems like it wants to be a blog post. What happened (at least the third-hand version) was this:

Niece the Elder (age 7) was at a reading table at school, the only girl in a group of boys. She was fine with that — most of her friends are boys. Like every other table in the class, there was a pile of books in the middle, and the kids at each table had to choose a book, read it, and write an assignment about it.

Even though she was fine with being in the group, one of the boys at the same table was not fine with having even one girl present. Niece the Elder wanted to read a book about cats, but the boy snatched it away and shoved a book about princesses at her.

"You have to read that, 'cos you're a girl," he said.

"But I want to read about cats," said my niece.

"Well, we're all boys, so we can't read about princesses."

"I want to read about cats!"

"Oooh, so what are you going to do about it? Cry? That's what girls do, cry. Crybaby!"

Nobody less than twice her size makes Niece the Elder cry, so instead she picked up the princess book and threw it at the boy.

It hit him in the face, so he started crying, which brought the teacher over. My niece was up-front about throwing the book, so she was told to go sit by herself and do the assignment. In this classroom (and this is a whole other blog post), sitting by yourself is in itself a punishment.

As my niece got up and left the table, she patted the boy on the arm. "Now who's the crybaby?" she said. That's when she got assigned a detention.

In the note to Niece the Elder's parents, the teacher added that my niece was assigned to another group "where she would be happier." Presumably one with no young Archie Bunkers in it.

And here's my thing.

Of course Niece the Elder should have been punished for throwing the book. She has to learn that physically hurting people to get your way, even when you're in the right, is a bad thing to do. I think that part is beyond dispute. Physical violence cannot be condoned or excused in a classroom setting.

But I keep thinking about it from the boy's point of view. Sure, he got hit in the face with a tossed picture book, but it was his own actions that started this whole thing. If he'd been less of a junior asshole, none of this would have happened.

As far as I've been able to learn, besides a mark on his face that has long faded by now, this kid got everything he wanted with no consequences. He got to make his reading circle boys-only. He removed the only person in the group who had the guts to stand up to him. He bullied and belittled a fellow classmate for no other reason than his own budding sexism, and he totally got away with it.

So yeah, I approve Niece the Elder getting a detention because of the book-throwing, but I can't figure out why the kid who started it all not only got off scot-free, but was positioned as the entirely innocent injured party. And although this particular incident was a boy versus girls thing, I recognise it's a bullies versus the bullied thing. Boys can be victims of bullying too, and girls can be shits.

I've been discussing this with my friends and thinking back on my own years in elementary school, and we have similar stories. J-A recounted how a boy used to pinch her when the teacher wasn't looking, and when she pinched back in self-defence, he would howl. Then she would get in trouble with the teacher. I have memories of being told not to "pick on" classmates — after they'd picked fights with me, and I'd had the... luck? temerity? to win.

An interesting point about my experiences: although usually the reason kids would pick on me was because I was a "browner" (if that's not in your local slang, they meant kid with good grades, teacher's pet), I also happened to be one of the tallest kids in the class. From a physical standpoint, if I'd ever learned to fight — not that I ever did — I could have seriously hurt any of the girls and most of the boys in my classes up to about Grade 5 without even thinking about it. It wasn't just mean to pick on me; it was potentially suicidal. They were counting on my track record of not hitting back to get away with it. Which they did. When it was really bad, I used to hide in the back of the class and read a book during recess until the teacher specifically told me to go outside.

Damn. Now I wish I'd risked a few detentions and decked the little bastards while I still could.

Niece the Elder is only in Grade 2, and she's one of the smallest kids in her class — she doesn't have the physical advantage of height that I chose not to use. She's been in school for four years, and already she takes detentions in stride as part of the cost of getting an education. Her parents have long noted a pattern: she never starts a fight, but if someone starts one with her, she'll damn well finish it. Meanwhile, her marks are among the highest in the class, so eventually I suppose she'll start getting picked on for those in addition to liking cats over princesses.

I admire her willingness to stick up for herself, and for keeping punishments in perspective. When I was her age, even a verbal reprimand from a teacher would leave me upset for days.

But I'm very uneasy with this idea that people who stick up for themselves when they're bullied get punished, while the ones who did the bullying get coddled as victims. I keep thinking about how this is going to play out in high school... and then university... and then adulthood. I keep thinking about what Niece the Elder is actually learning from these incidents: not just that violence is bad, but that sticking up for yourself leads to punishment, while the instigator never gets touched. And what's that boy learning? That he can verbally push people into acting out, at which point he may need to work on ducking faster, but he will get his way if he keeps acting like a shit.

Neither of those are very good lessons.