Sticks and Stones

sticks and stones

The thing about learning a life lesson is that when you are learning the lesson, learning it is the farthest thing from your mind.  You are too caught up in the drama, the pain, the fear, and the anxiety to say to yourself, “Someday this experience is going to be a valuable lesson that I can share with others.”  But that is what ends up happening.

It could be a little thing like when I was worrying if my son would ever take his first steps.  He was already fourteen months old and getting way to big for me to carry around everywhere.  Even though someone told me, “When he gets married, you’re not going to have to carry him down the aisle.”  I still worried about it.  But low and behold, within that month, my son was walking around and getting into trouble taking apart anything that was within his reach.  So the lesson was, everything will come in its own time.

But sometimes the lesson is bigger.  When I was PTA Co-President for the elementary school that my children attended, I learned that the rhyme we learned as children, “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you,” simply isn’t true.  Sticks and stones may hurt you on the outside, but names and words can hurt you even worse on the inside.  This is something that bullies learn early and by the time they are adults, they are very good at it.  Names and words have the power to destroy a person’s reputation, regardless of if they are true or not.  And just like children, other adults are afraid that the bully’s attention will turn from the victim and onto them, so they hide behind their fear.

As a young mother who had a college education and who had worked for years before having children, it was a difficult transition when I decided to become a stay-at-home mom.  I missed having the feeling of accomplishment and respect that I had enjoyed in the workforce.  I loved my children, but I also needed something for me.  So I turned to volunteering to be able to use my creative and organizational skills to help within my community.  I thought that as a volunteer I would be able to “make my own hours.”  But what I found was that those hours were 24 hours a day.  All the time that I invested was rewarded with parents calling me at all hours to complain about everything from their children buying erasers at a book fair to the policies and procedures of the Board of Education.  I never heard a word of thanks for my efforts from anyone.  I didn’t know that when I decided to take a position on the other side of the table at those PTA meetings, that I would become the object of every one’s anger and frustration.

A month into being co-president, a child fell from a piece of old playground equipment and broke his wrist.  Our PTA had a committee that was in the process of asking for better ground cover under all playground equipment.  The mother of the child was understandably upset and wanted to hire an inspector to come in and evaluate the playground equipment to see if it was up to standards.  She went to the Board of Ed and they told her that they had the playground equipment inspected every year and that they would not give her permission to hire her own inspector.  At the mother’s request, I went to the Board of Ed and asked them to allow the PTA to hire an inspector.  They told me that if I hired an inspector and that inspector trespassed on school property without their permission, that they would arrest the inspector and anyone who had signed the check hiring him.  Then I called several superior members of the PTA within my town, county, and state.  I was told that if I signed a check to hire this inspector without the permission of the Board of Ed, my school would lose its PTA charter and that all the money in our account would be taken away and spread out to other PTAs.

So I told the mother of the child that I couldn’t sign a check to hire an inspector.  I also told her at a PTA meeting that if she still wanted to hire an inspector, we could ask other parents to voluntarily donate cash to her to help her pay for the inspector.  She refused, she wanted me to sign that check and nothing else would make her happy.  But I couldn’t do that.

Over the next two years that I was co-president, she spread around to the community of parents that I didn’t care about the safety of our children.  Every PTA meeting was hijacked by her bullying and people stopped coming to meetings.  People on the PTA board started to resign.  The Board of Ed and the principal of the school told me to get this woman under control.  The principal even accused me of “letting the tail wag the dog.”  So the parents turned against me and the administration of the school turned against me, but there was nothing that I could do.  I wanted to quit too, like the rest of the board was doing.  But the PTA told me that if our school didn’t have a board consisting of at a minimum, a president, and treasurer, and a secretary, they would take the charter away from our school and, again, all the money in our account away from our children.  So I stayed.

I cried every night and I lost a lot of friends and felt very alone.

But I knew who I was.  I knew that I cared about every child in that school and every child in this world.  I knew that I had done everything that I could to help this woman in spite of her bullying, name calling, and accusations.  So I kept on going.  I did what had to be done and worked very hard to make sure that the PTA programs still went on as they were needed.  It was always difficult to get enough volunteers to help at these programs and now it was even more difficult.  But I kept them going.

Time passed.  The twin towers were attacked and life changed for all of us.  I became very ill, but somehow survived.  Thank goodness I didn’t die, because all of a sudden the PTA parents surrounded and supported me.  They made dinners for my family, they sent flowers, gifts and cards with words of encouragement.  They took over all the programs and kept things going for the kids.  Even the principal and administrators sent me flowers and cards with words of thanks.  Okay, so maybe I had to almost die to get those feelings of accomplishment and respect that I had missed from my days in the workforce.  But it did feel good to finally hear that people had seen what I was doing and how hard I was working and that they appreciated all that I was trying to do for their children.

Eventually people saw for themselves who I was and who she was.  They made their own determinations based on their own experiences over the years.  In the end, I learned that in time the truth comes out in the wash if you keep putting one foot in front of the other.  It is very easy to quit and hide when your reputation is attacked and lies are spread about you. But the only way people will know the truth is if you show it to them every day with your head held high.   It was one of the most difficult life lessons that I have ever had to learn.  The experience changed who I am and how I live my life.  That is what a life experience does.

Time and experiences change people.  From the outside you may still look the same, but on the inside, where those “names” injured you, you change. So here I am sharing this with you and hoping that my life lesson helps you realize two things.  First, that words do cause injuries and, second, that if you are a victim of bullying, even if everyone else deserts you, stand up for yourself and don’t give away your power to the bully.  Because if you do, the bully wins.   Author of The Tin Box Trilogy

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