Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Both and Either

I know both who I am and who I appear to be. I know that I am a person of worth and value - as I know all people to be people of worth and value. I know, too, that I am a person often seen as being of little worth and no value because of my weight and my disability - both and either. I attract attention. Every time I go out I know I will face either social intrusion or social violence. From staring and gawking to pointing, laughing and name calling, I experience them as a daily phenomenon. Daily. I'm not sure that those who fit in ever really understand or believe the constant experience of social discrimination of those of us who do not.

Recently I went to a gallery, Joe and I both regularly trek off to these kind of public spaces. We like the experience that looking at art gives - it's such an intimate connection between viewer and artist. It may be the function of art and literature to make it possible to see what someone else sees, or feel what someone else feels, enter into a moment experienced by another. In an odd kind of way its a bit of sacred communing. But being in a public space of any kind comes with certain dangers. This day we were at the gallery when it was being toured by several classes of students, maybe Grade 4 or 5. They came through, in small groups, accompanied by their teachers.

I tense up when around large groups of children. I immediately lose any sense of safety. The world's most incredible painting, the world's rarest artifact, the world's most unique thing cannot draw children in as much as the opportunity they then have to mock and make fun of me, my weight, my wheelchair, my very being. So, Joe and I experienced looking at a painting while small groups of children broke away from their group and came to terrorize me.

I use the word 'terrorize' carefully.

It may be seen by some, anyone who hasn't had the experience particularly, to be too strong of a word. It is not. Sitting looking at a painting while three girls stand barely four feet away, covering their mouths and laughing while their eyes, sparkling bright in the light, roam over every inch of my difference is a kind of intrusion that so difficult to bear that I begin to breathe like one in deep pain. Having two boys stand and puff out their cheeks and ape what they think being fat looks like might strike some as funny. It isn't.

It was hard to see the pictures.

It was hard to experience the connection.

But I'm not writing about the children here. They are, after all, children. I do not excuse them their behaviour because of that - they know what they are doing and they know that it is wrong. What they may lack, though, it that thing that governs behaviour. That is, after all, why we have teachers, and chaperones, and minders. What disturbed me was that in this public space these children engaged in very public acts of social violence against another person and not one teacher, not one, intervened. It would have been impossible for the teachers not to see what was happening. Impossible for them not to notice. The teachers there, and there were several, had groups of no more than ten or twelve children. To have your group suddenly reduce by a quarter is, if anything, noticeable.

We live in an era where people are talking about bullying and teasing. Talking. About. It. Schools trumpet that they have 'zero tolerance' for bullying. They say this as if it's a new concept. Schools have always said that they discourage bullying, there has never been a time were schools proudly proclaimed to be pro-bullying. They just keep changing what they call the claim.

It is easy to have 'zero tolerance' if you also have 'zero acknowledgement.'

I remember seeing a young boy, referred for problem behaviour, being teased relentlessly by kids at recess. His disability made him the target of choice. Teachers and Teachers Assistants stood on the playground and simply didn't see what was happening. Not seeing meant not intervening. It's easier that way. I spoke with the teachers on duty that day and all of them claimed to have been oblivious to the name calling, the brutal behaviour of the students. I had observed this for only a few minutes and was headed out to the playground to do something, I didn't know what, when the bell rang and the torture was over. The teachers, who I spoke to as they came in, saw me as more problematic, with my concerns and criticisms, than they did the behaviour of the children. One uttered the tired refrain, "They don't mean anything by it."

I simply don't understand why a teacher, or any adult, would be so negligent in their duty as to allow children to engage in hurtful behaviour without comment or without action. It's like they believe that their job is to keep children safe from traffic but don't care that the children traffic in hate.

I know, cognitively, that I am not lessened by those unlessoned in kindness or tolerance. But I admit to feeling so. I know, cognitively, that I have a right to public spaces. But I admit to feeling unwelcome. I know, cognitively, that I am a person of worth and value. But I admit that's hard to feel sometimes. Especially when the one's who are supposed to know better, don't.


Anonymous said...


sorry that you had to go through such a hurtful experience. Truly sorry.

My mom is a teacher for five to six year olds. And she would have said something, she would have reminded that children that this is a hurtful act. She would have been very firm about what they should have done, which is use common sense and empathy and apologize.

I know this, because she does it with all her heart at school and tells often stories from her experiences there.

I had to learn it from her and am still learning it constantly. We all need to learn politness and empathy and uniqueness - or at least if this is not working - controll about ourselves.

I try very hard.
I am have to say I am sorry again.
I try to speak up.
I try to comfort you.

Maybe I am able to ease your pain a little.

Love to "a fat guy in Canada" (I dont intend to insult you, I just quote the wonderfull post you did for me!!!!)
from Julia (with blue lips and big fingernails in Germany

Anonymous said...

Self-fulfilling prophecy. You expect bad things to happen - "Every time I go out I know I will face either social intrusion or social violence." Couple that with fear, inability or unwilling to say anything - and you have the perfect storm of "bad day". Why do you have to wait for someone else to notice? Once again you fail to speak up for yourself. It is like you think you should be entitled to special treatment. "Instrusion; violence; discrimination; terrorize; pain; disturbed; zero acknowledgement; negligent; unwelcome" - all words used in your post. Negativity begats negativity.

Andrea S. said...

Dear "Anonymous" at 06:13 am

Since when is wanting others to treat you with common courtesy and respect "special treatment"?

And, oh boy, way to blame the victim for being victimized. It is not paranoia (nor is it a self-fulfilling prophecy) to expect people to behave poorly toward you if they always HAVE behaved poorly toward you and the fact that you might be different from them. Just because it doesn't happen to you doesn't mean that it doesn't happen to others. I'm guessing you might not share the same differences that Dave experiences. News flash: some of the same people who may be perfectly nice to you are not necessarily perfectly nice to everyone else. Some people do seem to be unfortunately selective in who they decide to be "nice" to.

I think it is pretty natural for a lot of people to have difficulty speaking up for themselves in certain contexts especially if speaking out about a problem has often had poor results in the past. You fail to recognize that sometimes it can take a lot of courage to speak up. The victim-blaming philosophy you espouse in your comment doesn't exactly help.

Louna said...

I'm sorry you had to suffer through that kind of treatment yet again. You are a great person. You don't deserve this. Nobody deserves this.

Karry said...

I'm aware of this myself, being a fat woman. I had a friend (who has since died) who was fat and had MS. People on the street, or driving by in cars, would yell at her that she would be able to walk if she wasn't so fat. (She used a cane, but was very slow, or used a wheelchair. People seemed to feel she was in their way, or slowing them down. As if she was not allowed to take up space. Very rude and upsetting.)

Tamara said...

Sorry to hear you face this every day, Dave. It's ridiculous, but I know people in my own family who stare at people because of weight. It's embarrassing, and they know it's wrong - but still they do it. My own kids have done it - and they were taught by my mother. Now that she has dementia, she has totally lost her ability to edit herself, and I've been shocked at some of the things she's said ... and hurt by some of the things she's said to me. Only model-skinny is acceptable to her for me, but she was rarely that thin.

You know - I read a lot more about bullying today than say 15-20 years ago - especially when it comes to sexual orientation; but you really don't hear as much about it when it comes to anything else - especially weight.

As far as the unsigned Anonymous comment ... Self-fulfilling prophecy? I understand self-fulfilling prophecy when a parent constantly tells a kid they're useless. That makes sense. But, you're taking that concept to situations in which it doesn't belong.

Dave can be totally positive in every little thing he does, but that won't change people's behavior. Dave can choose not to talk about it, not to write about it - but that won't change anything - except maybe hurting his health.

I know that it can be absolutely exhausting to try to speak to someone about their use of the "R" word, and I don't hear it daily. I can't imagine how exhausting it would be to face this every day. No way I would have the strength to address every person and every situation.

For me, acknowledging it to the point of addressing it takes me to an entirely different place than just hearing it and doing my best to shake it off for the moment and think about it later. I can still salvage the experience I am trying to enjoy.

Once I've actually addressed it, I just go to a different place for awhile. Would have no possibility of enjoying the rest of the museum.

Rachel in Idaho said...

Anonymous, you have no idea at all what you are talking about. No idea at all. Anything else I could say directly to you would be completely unprintable and inappropriate, except that from my perspective it is entirely safe to say you were never bullied (more like tormented, really) as a kid.

I don't like the term bully because it sounds too mild for what I experienced, and that was nearly a quarter-century ago. And oh yes, they did mean it. I survived, but I'm one of the lucky ones; I was the middle school's scapegoat, and while people say "It's only a few years," at the time those few years were a far larger piece of my life than they would be now. I had no reason to believe the entire world didn't hate me outside of my family. I have those reasons now, but to get to that point I had to survive, and some simply don't. I have resources and legal recourse now if I end up in a bad situation. At the time I felt hopeless and helpless.

Every time I go out in public somebody looks at me, and I mean Looks at me, even if it's just a look. And I notice. Kids especially, though I am quick to forgive kids if they're simply curious. And I can even understand a second glance because I am more unusual physically than a "fat guy in a wheelchair." But there is no excuse for some of the expressions I see on adult faces, which are especially ridiculous when I am grabbing lunch before going back to work.

Rachel in Idaho said...

Oops -- add on "or doing something else just as mundane."

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry for your experience . . . spoiling an activity that you had looked forward to . . . that contrast of happy expectation and maltreatment at the treatment of 7 year old terrorists (I mean that word - "bully" is too mild to describe the treatment you received with the tacit approval of chaperones/teachers.
Do you ever wonder why bullying is so prevalant in Ontario (and maybe other) schools? It is my experience that teachers don't recognize bullying/terrorism for what it is because they are frequent culprits. I have seen it repeatedly - and when you call them on it, they are completely at a loss to get your point! Sad - these are the people to whom we entrust the care and nurturing of our children!

Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

I am sorry that you have to constantly face these hurtful attitudes and actions from others. I have a friend who has Down Syndrome who never likes to be near children for the same reasons - the taunting and ridicule. Children learn this. By not intervening the teachers and chaperones have condoned this behaviour. These kids will do this again.

I want to respond to anonymous at 6:13 am but I do not think I can do so constructively and respectfully so I will just leave it at this - I strongly disagree with your perspective anonymous at 6:13 am.

Dave, what you say about the difference between cognitively knowing something and knowing it with your heart is very poignant. Ridicule and rejection are matters of the heart not the head.

I wish there something I could write that could comfort your hurt but I know there is little. Just know that I am sending good vibes your way.


Anonymous said...


half an hour ago I talked with my mom about what happend to you.

She is a teacher. She has experienced this with her children in public places before. After noticing their bullying she talked to them; and told them, that any day they or one of their friends could end up in a wheelchair and asked them what they would feel if this happens to them. And then the children had to apologize.

The children tend not to bully anyone like this again after latest two of moms talks.

Well my mom is a first garde teacher and a social-teacher. And she knows me amd my disability so she really cares!


Rachel said...

I've been the parent chaperone in groups of kids like these. I've also been the mom of a profoundly disabled and very different looking kid, out among the ugly-starers. I have spoken up and taken action, but I've never felt completely at ease with how I've dealt with this.

My goal is to correct ugly behavior, without causing additional pain or calling more attention to the person being bullied/victimized. And I try to make the point without making an enemy -- to call the kids on their unacceptable behavior, without alienating them and making them shut down. Building bridges, not barriers, and all that. Great goals, but I don't think I've nailed it. Yet.

Here's what I've tried --

*walking over and physically blocking their view, asking them to attend to the event -- so redirecting, without direct comment about the negative behavior. -- should I have the made an apology to the person they stared at? I think I should have. And I should have followed up with pointed instruction later, in a more private setting.

*Making direct eye contact, smiling, and saying, so "I see you are curious about my son. Would you like to meet him?" They usually scurry away and look embarrassed there. So, direct approach, offering personal connection. I worry that this makes a negative experience even worse, from my son's perspective -- they avoid him rather than say hello and give their name.

*One time I was so irked, I pretended that I knew them, and made a big embarrassing fuss about how they'd "grown so much, last time I saw you you were only so high, and your grandmother was just telling me all about your summer the other day." (still makes me laugh, remembering the horror on lead bully girl's face-- and in our experience it's almost always bully girls). This is probably not a good thing to do, but it was sort of satisfying.

*At church, I've told staring kids with the ugly sneering expression to turn around by sternly motioning -- but that didn't turn out so well, since the 9 year old girl burst into tears. Her mommy berated me because "She's very sensitive." No further comment.

So -- what is a good thing to do right on the spot? I like to think through my course of action in advance. Next time I see school aged social terrorists in action, what do I say or do that won't make things worse?

Shan said...

I run into this attitude all the time, when I'm with other mothers - the attitude that as long as the kids aren't bothering US, the adults in charge, they must be "fine". I get suspicious - not sentimental - when I see groups of kids with their heads together. I've read "Lord of the Flies" and I remember being a kid: two very good reasons.

I'm sorry this happened to you. Weight is a very status-related issue in our culture, and it's the last bastion of safety for haters - an acceptable place to put their prejudice.

Anonymous said...

I think that the Anonymous writer at 6:13 AM may have fallen prey to the "just world fallacy" and I would encourage that person to go google that phrase for a more detailed explanation, as well as for information on psychology studies on how this psychological defenese mechanism works.

To summarize here: basically the "just world fallacy" (or "just world hypothesis") is a belief or assumption that the world is basically a good and fair place. Which sounds nice, but can lead to more problematic issues such as the assumption that in most cases people get what they deserve and deserve what they get.

When bad things happen, this can violate people's sense of the world being mostly kind or good. And yet they still happen anyway. Finding a way to blame the people who experience misfortune for their own difficulties can be a way of protecting one self from the idea that maybe the world is not always so fair after all. It can be a convenient way to avoid having to wrestle with our own fears of bad things happening to us, or having to wrestle with the idea that we ourselves might need to take action to help make the world a little fairer--even if it might mean we need to experience discomfort or be ourselves the target of other people's hostility.

This concept originates in psychology, but I think it also has a lot of relevance for people who promote human rights, the reduction of poverty hunger and other deprivation, peace building, equality and social justice, conflict resolution, crime prevention, and an end to "bullying" behaviors and other forms of "violence" or abuse(whether physical, sexual, social, verbal, emotional, etc.)

Anonymous said...

'I'm not sure that those who fit in ever really understand or believe the constant experience of social discrimination of those of us who do not.'
THANK YOU for saying this. The continual denial of this makes me feel a bit loopy. When I'm not feeling suicidal.
I'm sure that they don't understand or believe the constant experience of social discrimination.
And as for taking responsibility for what kids do bad... like lots of commenters have said, it's not that difficult. if saying something is hard then you just give them the look. They may roll their eyes back at you but that means you have told them it's wrong and interrupted their abuse.
antibullying initiatives. ha. another worrying omission is that when I look for advice for bullies, for parents of bullies, it's usually absent from the bullying info resources and website. We all think it's bad but no-one actually does it? Right.

Belinda said...

I am lost for words; sorry that the world is this way and despairing of it being changed by anything, even though I want to believe that something could make it change. I hate that there is such cruelty on the part of little ones, and apathy on the part of those who should be teaching them something better.

As for Anonymous who wrote at 6.13, I understand the fear of speaking up when a victim of hate. It`s the fear of a feeding frenzy intensifying when blood begins to flow. I`m not sure that the answer is the person being attacked speaking up to those doing the attacking. I wish I had the answer.

Kristine said...

Thank you for sharing this... I love my middle schoolers (pictured a few entries ago :), but I really don't enjoy chance encounters with little kids. It too often ends uncomfortably, even if it's just the kid that can't stop staring.

All I can say is that I'm doing my absolute best to teach my middle schoolers about treating people with respect and dignity, and that everyone has something valuable to bring to the table. I call them out on behavior and rude comments directed at each other (and at people who aren't present when the comment's made) constantly.

Since bullying is such a hot topic, kids will ask me sometimes, "Were you ever bullied in school?" And I can't say that I've ever faced a lot of teasing. But I take those and other opportunities to tell the kids about the ways people treat me--staring, condescending, dismissing, etc. My students certainly don't leave my class as saints, but I do feel like many of them leave with greater sensitivity and awareness.

basketballman said...

At first I was thinking terrorize was too strong a word for what happened to you, but then I thought about when I was a kid. As a kid there was no reason I should have been picked except I was different enough I had been raised to think that gay was okay, and that people of different complexions were just like everyone else. I would fight back both physically and verbally, and at first I would stand up for others. But then I learned I could fly under the radar and I became quiet and no longer worried about anyone else. I stood silent as others were picked on the way I had been picked on. And I was always amazed at how all this went on right under the noses of so many adults. There were a few exceptions such as a fifth grade teacher who made each child apologize for their taunting of another child.
As a teenager I was depressed and thought about suicide a lot. So maybe terrorize is not too strong a word, since those kids actions broke my spirit. I never let those kids know how they hurt me, I never gave in. Never give into terrorists, but if you don't let them know how they affect you, how will they ever change?
I can't imagine what it would be like if that humiliation continued on as an adult. All I can say is I hope you know many people like me quietly read your blog and say thank you for being eloquent and saying what I no longer have the courage to say.

Belinda said...

It's the day after my previous despairing comment.

I was driving to the city this morning, thinking about this post, and I thought, okay, we had so many factors that could have a more hopeful outcome after all:

Someone whose appearance draws sometimes painful attention from children--who is also internationally known and respected as a teacher on abuse prevention--and who is a writer.

In my minds eye I saw a little book with a story to grab a child's heart and teach them something that will last a lifetime. The "Words Hit Like a Fist" card but in the form of a powerful booklet for children. D'ya think?

BD said...

Your value and worth is not dependent on other people seeing it - some won't. It's intrinsic, it's who you are, part of your being, mind and soul. Must be hard though.
For what difference it makes, I value your thoughts and perspective - hence here reading!

Ettina said...

I shake my head when I see information on 'how to tell that a kid is being bullied'. Maybe in some cases it's hard to tell, but everyone at my school knew I was being bullied. I told the teachers multiple times - not every time it happened, because then I'd have done nothing else, but I did mention it a lot. I finally gave up talking about it because nothing was ever done. The kids would even interrupt the teacher during lectures in order to make disparaging comments about me, and she'd just keep talking like nothing had happened. Sometimes it's not a matter of being unaware. Sometimes, it has to be a willful blindness.

Anonymous said...

Dave, I apologize for what you had to go through, it amazes me how the world looks upon the physical appearance of a person.
I am 16 years old and in grade 11, I have been raised to accept everyone for who they are. My mother works with people with mental and physical needs, and I feel strongly about the matter. I would just like to mention a story of my personal experience.
My English teacher is in his mid 50's and was talking about people with special needs. He identified them as "not normal" and "inhuman", as a teen with such a close relationship to these people, I felt the need to stand up to him. I was extremely torn at how he viewed people wtih special needs. I questioned him on his use of what "normal" meant and asked him his definition to find that his answer was "they aren't like you and I", well then please explain to me what we are compared to them. To my surprise, the whole class rose against him and took my side on this situation. I was sent out of class due to my "disrespect towards a teacher" but it really didn't matter to me.
For the rest of that day I was so angry with how disprespectful he was towards indivuduals with special needs. What is normal in today's society?
Teens will be raised with thoughts that people with special needs are not "normal", I am honoured to stand up for them or for anyone for that matter. I feel as though people don't take the time to see how inteligant and amazing people with physical and mental needs are, I can bet that they are probably smarter then me in some cases. For me, it doesn't matter the appearance, or if you're in a wheerlchair, or even if you don't learn as fast as most people, we are all human, we are all different, so then what exactly does normal mean?
I lost respect for my teacher, thinking that as a role model to the students, he would encourage us to do the right thing. It just shows how people, even adults, don't always do whats best for my generation. I will continue to argue about this matter to anyone hoping that one day, people will finally realize that we are all flesh and bone, we all deserve that same respect.
Thank you