Sunday, 2 September 2007

Getting Through

Last night I had a Eureka moment with my 13-year-old and it couldn't have come at a better time.

I have just finished writing a novel about longterm American expatriates in Japan and I am now in the process of going over the text for perhaps the 200th time, checking historical references and tying up loose threads. A friend having sent me another memoir about the Bataan Death March, which one of my protaganists endured as a young man, I was reading this to make sure I had some of the details right, and I found myself rewriting one paragraph over a dozen times.

Just as I was getting to a crucial point and felt that I was beginning to make progress, along came my daughter. She had a look in her eye that said I want to talk. Normally I ignore my kids when they approach me during my off-kid writing hours. I love them, but my writing is very important to me and I don't welome interruptions. But having turned thirteen, my youngest has adopted some of those truly unpleasant teenage characteristics: a tendency to spend too much time in her room doing God-knows-what; sullen, blank stares when questions about homework are posed; a habit of Oh mom! eye rolling and exaggerated shrugs when I bring up the subject of laundry. So if she wants to talk, we will talk. Who knows when I will get another chance?

It turns out that my youngest has been making an informal study of the bullies in her class. She gave me an astute description of some of the more troubled kids who pick on others, a boy with many complex issues who has since left her school; a girl who was badly bullied herself a few years ago and is now eager to get revenge on the children who picked on her -- and some who didn't. My child has carefully analyzed the sources of bullying and broken down some of the most prevalent causes as follows:

(1) Kids who have never lived anywhere but in this town, who tend to feel as though their native status gives them certain privileges. Johnnie-come-lately types like my daughter -- she started school here at age seven as opposed to the natives' average age of five -- are often dismissed as interlopers and shunned.

(2) Kids who have been bullied themselves, either by parents or other children.

(3) Kids with obvious differences, either physical or emotional.

(4) Kids with any of the above issues, who possess natural charisma or leadership skills.

What amazed me most was that my daughter realized that (4) was the most dangerous kind of bully. It was when she was describing one such boy -- a natural leader born and raised in this town who has almost certainly been beaten by his father and suffers, not surprisingly, from a behavioral disorder -- that I suddenly saw it: a Teaching Opportunity.

Having grown up in Japan, my children see themselves as Japanese. They don't want to hear any comments about Japan that they perceive as critical or negative. During our first week here we happened to meet an elderly man whose brother was a former POW of the Japanese, and my children's first question after this encounter was "Why didn't that man like us?" All I could do was point out that the man had liked us just fine; what he hadn't like was the fact that we had lived in Japan for so many years. He would forever associate the country with the unfortunate experiences his brother had suffered during the war. We tried in vain to explain to our children that they weren't Japanese. Next, I tried to educate them about the war and its causes. I got too ambitious: their eyes glazed over before I even got to Russo-Japanese War. By the time I was ready to start on the Versailles treaty, it was a lost cause.

But last night I had the perfect opportunity: a discussion of what makes bullies. We went from imbalances of power and inferiority complexes to the origins of war, touching on many issues I have long wanted to discuss with her: colonialism, racism, cultural misunderstandings, man's inhumanity to man. Right in front of me I had the materials my friend had sent. They made for painful viewing, but I let my daughter see them. Once again, we talked about bullying. We found parallels between the classroom bullies who, having been brutalized and bullied themselves, seek to do the same to others, and the worst of the officers and guards in the Imperial Japanese Army who made the Bataan Death March the horrific atrocity it was.

I don't flatter myself that I did much more than pique her interest in the Bataan Death March and other atrocities of the war that have largely -- and tragically -- been forgotten by the general public, but ladies and gentlemen, I got through. I talked, she listened; she talked, I listened. Teaching and communication took place between a grown woman and a 13-year-old girl, and if that isn't a miracle, I don't know what is.

Later, I went back and rewrote the chapter I'd been laboring over. I put in a little about bullies and what makes them the way they are. It reads a lot better.


kathie said...

Hey Mary, great post. I know what you mean about protecting your writing time, but also what it means to notice when that sliver of opportunity to have meaningful dialogue with your kids is staring you in the face. How smart she is! I think that's a true gift for her to be able to step back from the inner-workings of her life and see the truth in what's happening. Have you found an agent for your book? Sounds fascinating...

Eryl Shields said...

I often find taking time off work to deal with distractions that on the surface seem totally unrelated ends up, somehow, helping the project I'm working on.

Your daughter sounds marvellous.

Jeff said...


Great that you had that opportunity to share and teach. I sometimes think that my 4 years living and working in England gave me so many insights to our history here in the US.


debra said...

Long after our important tasks have been forgotten, out children will remember the times we have listened. And we will have the relationships with them to cherish.

Mary Witzl said...

Kathie -- My kids make things worse sometimes by interrupting my writing when they seem to have nothing in particular to say. The problem is that lately even when they don't seem to have anything to say, they really do. My job is to figure out when they are just winding me up and when they are trying a more roundabout approach because the matter is too sensitive to bring up directly. Needless to say, sometimes I get it wrong. This one time I got it right AND got to practice teaching, so hallelujah!
No, I have no agent yet, but I've only just finished this book. My collection of rejection letters will start very soon...

Eryl -- Whenever I get bogged down in a plot, trying to think my way out of an ending that seems too pat or a solution that seems too predictable, I go and pull dandelions. To look at my garden, you wouldn't know just how many times this has happened, but then I don't use inorganic weedkillers...

Jeff -- Welcome to my blog and I hope you come back. Your blog made me laugh, so I will certainly revisit it. I know what you mean about gaining insights about America from having lived abroad; living in the States I never felt so American as I have living overseas. Where did you live in England?

Debra -- My kids probably provide me with as much inspiration as they do interference, when it comes to writing. I hate to paint too rosy and positive a picture of myself as a caring and concerned mother, especially when I am so often driven to distraction by my kids and their endless demands. But I do feel that a genuine interest in their stories and musings is one of the best gifts I can give them, truly better than things or money. And it's just as well, considering the inheritance they'll never get from us!

Christy said...

She sounds like an astute kid. I'd be interested to hear her take on the differences between boy bullies and girl bullies.

I admire your willingness to take on such a tough topic with her as well. That's something that I'm learning with my own kids - how much of the whole truth to tell. I think honesty is always the best, some sometimes it's really difficult for me to be honest at an appropriate age level. It sounds like you hit the mark.

Kady said...

Best of luck with the book. BTW, my husband and I both lived in China for many many years so I appreciated your Yokohama post (I'm of Chinese descent, so not so much me, but J is white and spent many many years learning Chinese and teaching English). I totally understand the "glazed over" aspect of trying to teach kids. I get that with my 3 year old when I try to get her to count her numbers.

Mary Witzl said...

Christy -- My daughter claims that girl bullies are more apt to use psychological methods of torture, but boy bullies are generally physical.

At the present time, I just want my kids to have an open mind about history, and to think critically. Once they have started doing that, I'll just leave them alone to explore things on their own. When they were smaller, deciding how much to tell them really was an issue.

Kady -- Thank you for commenting.
My husband lived in China too, in both Wuhan and Beijing. Sadly, he did not learn to speak Chinese. When I first started studying Japanese, many of my classmates were from mainland China and Korea. My Japanese was so awful that few Japanese people wanted to speak with me, but with my Chinese and Korean classmates I had no choice. When I speak Japanese over the phone, people still ask me if I am Korean or Chinese.

A Paperback Writer said...

The junior high school teacher is applauding you and your daughter, miles and miles away.....
Oh, yes. We know about bullies here, too. They just dress a little differently, but the qualities are all there. We teachers know them.
The school district where I work has a zero tolerance policy for bullying. It's a far, far different world from the one where I grew up, where harrassment and bullying were considered normal. Thank heaven things have changed.

Mary Witzl said...

A.P.W. -- Bullies definitely know no borders, but I think it is certainly possible to discourage or encourage them, and the attitude of the authorities involved is crucial. When I was in junior high, teachers didn't really want to hear about it and my life was a misery.

At our kids' school, a teacher once stated that bullying had been eliminated. I think this is nonsense: the only way to get rid of bullying is to get rid of people. I think your school's statement about zero tolerance is more realistic.

Carole said...

Nothing is sweeter than heart communion with an offspring. I love those moments with my children although the oldest is now thirty three, I still thrill when we connect on a completely different level than the ordinary.

Yuck, the whole subject of the bullying brought up memories I had long buried and forgotten. Most of my bullies, came in the form of teachers and school authorities. Or at least the deeply painful ones. Perhaps a post in the making or perhaps, I will shovel a bit more dirt on these memory bones and keep them buried.

Mary Witzl said...

I have bonded with so many people who were bullied when they were kids. What is funny is that I have almost never met anyone who confesses to having bullied. Maybe I am just naturally attracted to other non-bullies.

If you do post your own experiences, Carole, I'll be sure to comment. One of the reasons I want to write for children and teens is because of my own experiences on the receiving end and how awful they were.

Years ago when I was at university, on a trip back to my hometown I spotted one of my past tormentors. He looked miserable: a six o'clock shadow, grubby T-shirt, and grumpy toddler in tow. He pretended not to recognize me, and I tried my hardest not to gloat.

A Paperback Writer said...

My favorite punishment for bullies -- especially when I catch them in the act -- is thorough public tongue-lashing and humiliation. I have a sharp wit and a sharp tongue, and when a kid is merciless with another kid, I assault them verbally. Oh yeah. I can be mean.
But it works. Not once in 19 years have a had a repeat offender bully in my classroom. They learn that they cannot outdo me and they will get the worst of it. Nowdays, my reputation preceeds me, and the kids know that a victim of harrassment will be vindicated by the teacher on the bully. Usually, no one tries anything where I can see it.
Let me give you an example from a few years ago. I had a large elective class about other cultures with kids of all abilities in 3 different grades in it. One day, a new kid, the type who seems to have "victim" tattooed on the forehead, came in with a schedule change. There was only one seat left, behind a cute and snotty boy named Alex. I told the new boy he could sit behind Alex, and Alex immediately plugged his nose and said, "EEEEWWWW!" as loud as he could. The whole class laughed.
I didn't get mad. I put a concerned look on my face, walked over to Alex, and deliberately sniffed the air around him. Then, with the whole class listening, I said, "Oh, it's okay, Alex. You don't smell THAT bad. I'm sure he'll be just fine."
The class burst into laughter again, but this time at Alex instead of at the nerdy boy. And NO ONE dared to pick on the new kid all term.
Mission accomplished.

Mary Witzl said...

APW -- Good for you, and how I wish you'd been around when I was in junior high school! I might as well have had 'Pick on me' tattooed to my forehead; life was very hard. But I still firmly believe that the miserable five years I spent in junior high and high school have stood me in good stead as an adult.
After I left high school I was thrilled and amazed to find that people wanted to be my friend.

Jewell Ertman said...

Oh Mary,

This is great to read and hear this happens between Mother and daughter, it almost brings a tear to my eye. Still to this day I am unable to have conversations like these with my mum. She never really talked to me about social workings and ... well anything really. I have always had a difficult time speaking my mind and putting my thoughts and emotions into spoken words, but if I was prompted to do this, perhaps I would be much better at it. Instead I gravitate towards writing, that way I can edit and re-edit and re-edit to my hearts content (my favorite part of writing).
Oh look, I'm going off on a rant about myself. It's refreshing to hear that a young woman is interested in these things and making the connections she had.

silken said...

awesome stuff. My sister has lived in Singapore for 15 years. she would be fascinated with this post as well as the conversation you had w/ your daughter. good for you both!

Mary Witzl said...

Jewell -- You shouldn't apologize for ranting (which you weren't); ranting is pretty much what this blog is all about, and I pride myself on my rants and welcome fellow ranters, especially when they do it amusingly.

As for your mother not talking much, in my opinion that is a shame; real communication between parents and children is essential. But my children would probably be envious of you: they often get tired of my garrulousness and would find a quiet mother a real advantage.

Silken -- Thank you for commenting! Friends of ours also spent years in Singapore, and given the Japanese occupation during WWII and the subsequent post-war white-washing and denial on the part of the Japanese government (especially the Ministry of Education, who still want to portray Japan's wartime invasions as innocent ramblings), there are still undercurrents of hostility.

I hope it doesn't sound as though my daughter and I have this sort of communication all the time! All too often we have the sort of snarly exchanges that most mothers have with their daughters. On this one instance, we connected, and the fact that this is pretty rare made it all the more wonderful.

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