fighting bullying one novel at a time


A lot goes on before this scene, so here's a bit of background:

Meadow Brook High School, where Beth Maller works as a guidance counselor, is ready to explode. Homophobia snakes through the halls. Administrators cling to don't-rock-the-boat policies. And mean girls practice bullying as if it were a sport.

The girls' locker room is "bullying central," where Tina Roland and her sidekick, Jen Scotto, go after Liz Grant. Liz is an easy target, even though her mother is a secretary in the school. Ann Richardson, the gym teacher, does everything she can to lessen the tension. But Ann, too, becomes a target when students suspect she's a lesbian.

This is how Beth, the guidance counselor, imagines what happens.

     It starts in the fall. Tina and Jen go after Liz, and it doesn’t matter that her mother works in the school. Liz won’t rat on them; Tina and Jen are certain of that. The only sophomore girl in gym class, Liz is a perfect target––so easy to keep her threatened and quiet.

     Liz asks her counselor, Ms. Greene, if she can take gym some other time. She’s willing to change her lunch period, to skip lunch altogether. Liz knows she won’t survive gym without a female classmate. But Debra says, “No way. Mr. Stone won’t let anyone change gym sections.” Debra won’t even ask him.

     So Liz asks him herself. “Please, Mr. Stone. I’ll do anything to have a different gym period. I don’t want to be the only tenth-grade girl in that class.” But Peter doesn’t budge. No changing schedules once programs are printed. No time for that nonsense. No sir. No way.

     Liz toys with asking her mother to speak with the principal. He’s a nice man, Mr. Andrews, Liz thinks. He’ll probably help––especially if Mom asks him. But Liz decides not to have her mother do battle for her after all. It’s bad enough her mom works in the school and knows everyone and everything that goes on. Better to just accept things than to have Mary intercede.

     Liz tells me what happened in October. Tina takes Liz’s watch, the one her father sent last year for her birthday, the only decent gift he ever gave her. Tina steals it from Liz’s open gym locker when Liz races to the toilet after the mile run. But Liz suggests it wasn’t such a big deal, actually, and she did get her watch back. “So promise you won’t say anything, Mrs. Maller,” Liz says. “I never should have told you, ’cause if my mother finds out, she’ll say it was my fault.”

     But I can’t get this image out of my head: Tina sitting on the bench in the locker room, sticking out her arm to show off Liz’s watch. “Better hurry, Liz,” Tina says. “Wouldn’t want you to be late for your next class.”

          “Give it back. Please,” Liz begs.

          “Hey, Jen!” Tina calls to her sidekick. She takes off Liz’s watch and dangles it from her fingers.

          “Give it back, Tina. Please,” Liz says again. “It’s a good watch. I need it.”

          “Of course it’s a good watch. I wouldn’t have taken it if it wasn’t a good one. I’m not stupid, you know. So, you want it back? Well, if you catch it, you can have it. Now what do you say we make time fly? Jen, look alive. Catch!”

     Tina and Jen toss Liz’s watch like a ball. Girls cheer as it sails over them. Or they leave. Or they pretend not to notice. They can’t get involved, can’t tell Tina to stop. If they do, their lockers will be next.

     Ann Richardson walks in on the action. “Hustle, ladies,” she calls. “Let’s go! Don’t want to be late for third period, do you?”

     Tina pockets the watch. “Of course not, Ms. R. Jen and I are just helping Liz look for her watch. Aren’t we, Liz?”

     Liz keeps her head down. She doesn’t speak.

     “Liz, I’d like to see you,” Ann says when the bell rings. “Meet me in my office. And Tina, you and Jen go on to class now.”

     “Maybe you should give it back to her,” Jen says when the teacher leaves. “It’s an ugly watch anyhow.”

     “I think you’re right,” Tina answers. “It is an ugly watch.” Tina sidles next to Liz. “Listen, loser. Here’s your fuckin’ watch. And if you tell anyone about this, you’re dead. You hear?”

     Liz doesn’t tell when Ann asks if everything’s okay. “You can always come to me if there’s a problem, Liz. Those girls can be tough.”

     “Thanks, Ms. Richardson.” Liz studies the floor. “But everything’s all right. I just need a pass to English, that’s all.”

     Liz doesn’t wear her watch anymore. She keeps her locker open only while she’s changing, and she never leaves her lock on the bench.

     A few weeks later, Ann tells me, they get her during volleyball. Liz starts by playing front right. After four rotations, she’s next to Tina, who’s center at the net. Jen’s on the other side and  knows the plan: Hit to Liz and watch Tina slide into her. Volleyball’s tough. Sometimes you’ve just got to knock into the player on your left, especially if that player is Liz Grant, who must have told about the watch ’cause Richardson’s been keeping guard ever since––even supervises in the locker room, though no teacher’s done that since second grade.

     Liz will have to be warned again, Tina must think. Adults can’t know what goes on in our school. It’s our world. We make the rules.

     Rule number one: If you snitch, you get hurt.

     I picture Liz on the floor near the volleyball net, her breath sucked out by Tina’s impact. Ann rushes to check Liz’s knee.

     “I’m okay,” Liz says. She doesn’t look at Ann. She doesn’t look at anyone. She struggles not to cry. If eyes meet, she might. Ann helps Liz to the bleachers, packs her knee in ice. Then Ann calls for Tina.

     “No. I’m okay. Really, Ms. Richardson,” Liz says again. “It was just an accident. I’m sure Tina didn’t mean to bump into me.” She speaks loudly so Tina can hear—as loudly as she can without breaking into tears.

     Ann tells me about the rest of that game. She brings in a substitute for Liz. Tina and Jen hit without force, as if it’s a beach ball they’re pushing around now. They’re just passing time, waiting for the kill, Liz must think.

     But it doesn’t come then because Ann stays in the locker room. “Get a life!” Jen says under her breath when she sees the teacher spying on them.

     “Maybe this is her life,” Tina answers. “Everyone knows she’s a fuckin’ homo.” Tina turns toward the door, where Ann stands guard. “Might as well give her something to dream about,” Tina says as she adjusts her bra, wiggling her breasts.

     “You sure you’re okay?” Ann asks Liz when the class leaves.

     “Fine. Thanks, Ms. Richardson. See you Thursday.”

     Liz tries not to limp. She can’t risk anyone asking what happened. Telling would make her feel the hurt, and then she might cry. Liz knows the rules.

     Rule number two: If you cry, you get laughed at.

     Liz doesn’t tell anyone the truth about what happened. Not her mother. Not Ann. Not even me. When I see Liz in the hall, she shrugs off her slow walk.

     “Just a banged knee,” she says. “No big deal.”

     Tina and Jen wait for Liz after fourth period. They corner her in the corridor between the science labs and Liz’s locker.

     “We’re not morons, you know,” Tina says. She blows an enormous purple bubble, then picks the stringy remnants from her lips. “Jen, you want to tell her why volleyball was so rough?”

     “Oh, yeah. Sure. You told Richardson about that stupid watch. We know you did. She’s had her eye on us ever since.”

     “That’s right.” Tina blows another bubble. “And next time it’ll be worse. You snitch, you die. Got it?”

     Liz nods.

     “So, we have an understanding now. Right, Liz?”

     Liz doesn’t answer.

     “I’m talking to you, Liz Grant. We have an understanding now, don’t we?”

     “I didn’t say anything about the watch. Honest.” Liz stabs at the truth.

     “Yeah, like I really believe that. Who do you think I am, an idiot?” Tina takes a package of Big Chew from her bag, unwraps a piece, drops the paper on the floor. “But today you did good. I liked what you said after the . . . after the volleyball accident. Shows you’re not completely brain-dead.” She kneads the gum between her fingers and offers it to Liz.

     “No thanks.”

     “Take it, loser. It’s the only time I’ll ever give you anything.”

     Liz takes the gum. Tina watches until she puts it in her mouth.

     Ann tells me she separates Liz from Tina and Jen in basketball. Ann knows what’s up. She’s known all along. But she can’t force Liz to squeal. Ann has rules too.

     Richardson’s rule number one: Be discreet. Or the kids won’t trust you. And they’ll make your life miserable.

     Ann doesn’t tell anyone trouble’s brewing in the locker room. Not the teachers. Not the counselors. Not the administrators. That would only make it worse. Bob and Peter would call Tina to the office. They would listen to her story, then be nowhere to be found when she attacks Liz.

     But Ann stays visible. She lingers by the locker room, listening to sex talk, to put-downs, to laughter. She protects Liz now, stands inside the door to stem the abuse from Tina and Jen.

     Richardson’s rule number two: When you smell trouble, stay close to the garbage. Or they’ll hurt Liz even more, which is what they’ll do if they get the slightest chance. They’ll hurt Liz if she talks. And they’ll hurt her if Ann says anything to anyone. Because somehow they’ll find out. And they’ll say that Liz snitched.

     I picture Liz in the locker room, trying to be invisible. She speaks only when spoken to, and always answers when Tina asks, “How’s it goin’?” Liz doesn’t wear jewelry on gym days. She doesn’t talk when kids make fun of Ms. Richardson, who’s one of Liz’s favorite teachers, who actually seems to care. Liz doesn’t comment even when they say, “Ms. Richardson’s a dyke.” Even when they announce, “Homos shouldn’t be allowed to teach.”

     And they joke about Ann’s name. It starts when Ann comes into the locker room after softball.

     “Let’s get a move on, ladies,” she says. “Wouldn’t want to be late for your next class.”

     Liz thinks Ms. Richardson’s checking on Linda Marshall, who fell at first base when Tina stretched to catch the ball, blocking the bag with her arm.

     “God, that teacher’s so annoying,” Tina says. “She’s really starting to creep me out.” Tina looks straight at Ann and tugs at her panties. Ann turns away.

     “Didya see what Richardson just did?” Tina asks Jen. “She wouldn’t look. Well, fuck her! Like I’m not good enough, not her type maybe. Or maybe I turn her on. Whaddaya think, Jen?”

     “If she’s into women,” Jen says, “she’s gotta be turned on by you, Tina. You got it where it counts.”

     “Yeah, well whatever. I just can’t stand Miss Girlie-Eyes watching us dress. I mean, fuck it! We’re entitled to some privacy.”

     “You’re right, Tina. This sucks.”

     “Yeah, big time. And I was just thinking: I wonder if Richardson’s parents know about her being a homo and all. I mean, I wonder if they even think of her as a girl, or if she’s more like a son. You know, with all her sports and stuff.”

     “Yeah. And you know what would be so funny? What if Richardson’s father’s first name is Richard? Then she’d be, like, Richard’s son.”

     “That’s great. Richard’s son. Mr. Richard’s Son.”  

     I hear about the laughter. They laugh in the locker room all the time. “Poor Richard,” Tina chuckles when Ann’s around. “Always wanted a son, and look what he got. A fucking dyke. Mr. Richard’s Son.”

     Everyone calls her that now. In the locker room, they all say Mr. Richard’s Son this and Mr. Richard’s Son that. Everyone thinks it’s funny. Or they pretend to. Or they pretend not to hear.

     Then one night at dinner when Mary doesn’t have a date and Liz doesn’t run to her room, Mary asks about school. The way I picture it, Liz stares at her spinach and cries.

     “What’s wrong, Lizzie?” her mother asks. Liz can’t tell her about the watch or the volleyball game or the meeting in the hall. She can’t talk about the hurt or the threats or the fear. She can’t tell her mother. She can’t tell anyone, really. Tina will kill her if she does.

     But when tears come, Liz has to say something. So she spills the one thing she thinks can’t get her in trouble because it’s not about anything Tina’s done to her. She tells Mary about Mr. Richard’s Son, and how that makes her sad because Ms. Richardson’s such a nice teacher.

     “I bet it’s Tina Roland who started this, isn’t it?” Mary asks.

     “Oh, Mom. It’s just everyone.” Liz warns herself to be careful, not to say much––just enough to explain the tears. “It’s no big deal. It’s just that they’re all so mean to Ms. Richardson.”

     “But it’s Tina who started it, right? Tina and that one who follows her around. Jen Scotto. Am I right? Those two are just mean. Been that way ever since I’ve known them. So you stay away from those girls. If you ignore them, they won’t bother you.”

     Liz clears the table and goes to her room. She thinks she’s safe now. She didn’t really snitch, so why should they get her?

     But Mary tells me about Mr. Richard’s Son when I see her after Liz collapses on the track. She tells me Liz is stressed about school and anxious about what’s happening in gym.

     I meet with Tina and Jen separately. Jen freaks out. “That fuckin’ skinny moron!” she cries. “If this gets me in trouble, I swear I’ll kill her!”

     I speak with Ann, who says she’s on to them. Has been for a long time.

     “Why didn’t you tell me everything’s that’s been going on?” I ask. “Maybe I could’ve helped. Liz talks to me all the time, but she never said anything about this.”

     “She can’t, Beth. It’s her private war. The minute Liz makes it public, she loses. She’s a smart one. She knows silence is her only defense. And I respect that. I understand it.”

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