A missed (or ignored) opportunity to really do some good…

16 minute read

May 9, 2023, 8:39 AM

I’m sure that you all are familiar with how terrible my seventh grade year was at Stuarts Draft Middle School.  I’ve written about it at some length, and also discussed it a little bit more after my autism diagnosis last year.  Recall that during seventh grade, I had a large problem with bullying, both from the students and from the staff.  In fact, that year was unusual because of heavy bullying from fellow students as well as staff.  Most of the time, the bullying largely came from the staff, and bullying from fellow students was less so (though it did happen), but in seventh grade, it came from all over pretty consistently (Michael Stonier was just the most memorable of many), and I was miserable for it.

Frank Wade, the chief bully on the staff side that year, had referred me to guidance for my alleged “problems”, and I would visit with Jan Lovell, the guidance counselor, on a weekly basis for the remainder of the year.  I didn’t mind going to guidance, because while they were terrible in their own right with their continued attempts to gaslight me into thinking that I was the problem rather than the victim, it meant that I wouldn’t have to deal with my bullies for a time.  In hindsight, though, this was just exchanging one bully, i.e. Mr. Wade and all of the kids that he enabled, for another bully, i.e. Mrs. Lovell the guidance counselor, but one bully was easier to handle than multiple bullies at once, though it was still crappy no matter how you sliced it.

Recently, I was thinking about one thing that I brought to Mrs. Lovell towards the end of the year, and I realized that she either missed or deliberately chose to ignore a tremendous opportunity to look into a bullying problem in the school.  It really made me think that while I don’t know how much they were paying her to be the guidance counselor, whatever it was, it was probably too much.  At that point in the year, I recognized that things were very bad, and I also recognized that the chances that things would improve before the end of the year were slim to none.  To that end, I had already mentally written seventh grade off as irreparable.  In other words, I was just doing my best to make it through it, and looked towards the future.  To that end, I had prepared a list for the guidance counselor of all of the kids that I did not want to be in homeroom with the following year, with the idea’s being that since guidance was the entity that did student scheduling and such, I was submitting this request to the correct department.  It was not a large list, mostly because homerooms were done alphabetically by last name.  Therefore, I only had the chance of being in homeroom with people with last names starting with P through Z.  So out of about 300 kids in a grade, I only had the possibility of being in homeroom with about 75 of them, and my list was limited to that subset.  And considering that students were arranged in three different “teams” in middle school, each belonging to a group of teachers who all worked together with the same kids, what I was really asking was that I be on a different team than these kids in eighth grade.

I took my time compiling this list, and exercised much care when I was making it, and I had good reasons why each kid that was on there made it on there.  When I came to guidance with my list, though, Mrs. Lovell refused to even look at it, and even got offended that I would do such a thing, saying that I was completely out of place to do that, and that I just had to suck it up and deal with whatever I was given.  Yes, it was a very bold move on my part, as I was very clearly challenging her (wearing that “openly challenges teacher” thing from fifth grade with pride), but thinking about it in hindsight, she really blew it right there.  If you forget about the context in which I had framed it and broke it down into its constituent elements, what I really did was compile a list of all of my bullies and then present it to someone who had the power to do something about it.  In other words, I gave her a roadmap to success, because these were the exact kids that I had problems with in school, i.e. this is how to go about addressing these problems.  At the end of the day, I just wanted to be left alone to go to school and be able learn in peace, and this was a list of the kids that prevented that from happening.  After all, the student code of conduct was that students were not permitted to hinder the staff’s ability to teach, nor were they permitted to hinder other students’ ability to learn.  This bullying definitely was a hindrance in my ability to learn, if I was focusing on how to avoid dealing with them instead of on learning.  If she really wanted to, this could have been a chance to analyze the list and determine what was going on with these kids, figure out if there were any common threads, and then develop a solution.  But instead, she let her pride get in the way, and completely squandered the opportunity.  I imagine that if they had investigated a bit, it would have revealed a massive bullying problem in the school.  But that would have been just too much work on the part of the school to get to the bottom of, especially towards the end of the school year, despite that these kids would all be back the following year at the same school, plus it would make the school look bad, and we just can’t have that, now, can we?  Additionally, schools have demonstrated time and time again that it is nearly impossible for them to look objectively at their own roles in situations, and that their actions may have contributed to a situation.  From their standpoint, it was a lot easier to just try to gaslight me into thinking that I was the problem, i.e. pin all of the blame on me and assume that everyone else was perfect, and not that I was the target of a large bullying problem that was enabled by many of the staff.

That whole lack of support in seventh grade gives me more respect in hindsight for Georg Kidd, the principal that was at SDMS during my sixth grade year.  That year, I had problems with bullying during the holding period that the school used in the early mornings.  Any and all students that arrived at the school before 8:05 AM had to wait in the cafeteria.  Because Augusta County did not stagger dismissal times for different school levels (i.e. elementary, middle, and high schools all went in and got out at the same time), a bus driver with multiple routes had to do one morning route exceptionally early.  That was my situation, with my bus driver’s having a middle/high school route and then an elementary school route afterward.  Therefore, we were dropped off at school at 7:45 AM, which meant that we were required to stay in the cafeteria for about 20 minutes every day.  This group of kids in the cafeteria was largely unsupervised, and the holding period was completely unstructured, with nothing for us to do there except wait around, and as such, kids got bored and, well, you know what they say about idle hands.  Kids were terrible, as they tend to be at that age, and I remember getting kicked hard in the shin on one occasion during one of these early morning holding periods.  Eventually, I spoke to Mrs. Kidd about the situation, and she took the perfect action, removing me from this situation where I was being treated poorly that I could no longer handle.  In that case, rather than being required to wait in the cafeteria with the other kids, I was allowed to sit in the hallway outside of my homeroom classroom during that holding period.  It was great.  I sat there and read books until the end of the cafeteria holding period, and no one bothered me.  I even developed really good relationships with all of the teachers on that hallway, and I feel like I benefitted from that in the long term.  Mrs. Kidd treated me like an adult, as I was largely unsupervised there, and I was grateful for it.  I was also a good steward of the privilege that I was afforded, not doing anything to mess that arrangement up and cause it to be rescinded.  There was a certain level of genius to the arrangement, too.  While she tacitly recognized that she couldn’t solve the overarching problem with the resources available, she could mitigate some of it by removing a victim of bullying from a bad situation.  It made the year a lot easier, and I got through sixth grade pretty well with one less thing to cause me undue stress.

This, by the way, is the arrangement that Frank Wade yelled at me about the following year when he was going off on me about a very bad day with a substitute, where the sub couldn’t control the bullies that he had enabled, and the sub ultimately blamed me for it all.  I described it this way in an earlier entry:

He also, on multiple occasions, yelled at me for an action that the principal had taken the previous year to help me deal with bullying during the early morning hours.  He disagreed with the action that the principal took, and essentially called me a wimp for having had that arrangement.  If it were up to him, I’m sure that he would have just thrown me to the wolves and let something boil over to a fight, which would have been consistent with his hands-off approach.

It was highly unprofessional on his part to bring that up, because none of that was his place to get involved.  That was between Mrs. Kidd and me, and he had no part in it – and if anyone had wanted him to be involved, we would have invited him to take part.  Therefore, it was absolutely none of his business, and it was not his place to judge it, either, gaslighting me into making me feel guilty for getting an accommodation, or think that there was something wrong with me, and not a fix to a problem involving many kids.  But considering that Frank Wade was a bully himself, it’s not surprising that he would side with the bullies over their victims.

It was a bittersweet moment when I learned during the summer after sixth grade that Mrs. Kidd had taken a new job as an assistant superintendent with a neighboring school district, because while I was happy for her professional advancement, that also meant that she would no longer be the principal at Stuarts Draft Middle School.  Mrs. Kidd really “got” me.  She understood how I rolled.  I never had an unkind word to say about Mrs. Kidd, and in 2019, I was sad when I learned that she had died.  Seriously, she was probably the best principal that I ever had, even if we were only together for a single year.

We had a new principal the following year, and while she was a good principal in her own right, in her first year there, she was still learning how the school ticked, just like how anyone starting a new job would spend some time learning how the company worked before going out and making a name for themselves.  I suspect that learning curve affected how the school operated that year, and treacherous people like Mr. Wade sensed something of a leadership vacuum and took full advantage of it, much to the detriment of me, and likely any other autistic kids in the school who similarly didn’t yet know that they were autistic (because autism wasn’t diagnosed like that for high-functioning cases back then).

It really also goes to show how much of a difference that getting the proper support from staff makes in a school experience.  Sixth grade, I had lots of support.  I was new to the school system that year, and the school staff went to much effort to make sure that I was doing well in transitioning to Augusta County.  I remember one occasion in the fall semester where all of us from our team who were new to the county that year were invited to a small roundtable discussion about how we were doing and how we were adjusting to things.  Additionally, I had a very supportive team of teachers that year, who geniunely liked me and provided a lot of support, plus I had Mrs. Kidd on my side, which, combined, kept a lot of the bad actors in check.  In seventh grade, by contrast, I had almost no support from school staff, as Mr. Wade took a hands-off approach to interpersonal conflict – at least until said conflicts finally came to blows (and then he would just have to pull them apart and send them all to the office).  And then when Mr. Wade couldn’t get me to submit to his will (probably because of the high-functioning autism), he sent me to guidance, where Mrs. Lovell did her best to gaslight me into thinking that I was the only one with the problem, i.e. all of my problems were my own fault.  So with no support from the staff, the bullies had their way with me, and made me miserable for it.  Thanks for nothing.  Fortunately, eighth grade was different.  I had a much better team of teachers who understood how I rolled, and they did their best to work with interpersonal conflicts before they boiled over into something bad.  My eighth grade homeroom teacher is now a principal at one of the county’s elementary schools, and I can only imagine that he is amazing in that role, considering how amazing he was my eighth grade year.  And my interaction with guidance was limited only to scheduling for high school.  With a much better overall situation, eighth grade turned out to be my best year in middle school.  My only real problem in eighth grade was when I got in trouble when the teacher overheard me talking about sperm count with boxers vs. briefs before Spanish class, and we laugh about that one nowadays.

All in all, though, the guidance department is completely useless when it comes to dealing with matters involving actual people.  When it comes to mental health, they are completely worthless, and will only work to gaslight you into thinking that the issues that you are experiencing are 100% your fault, and refuse to consider that any other entities – especially not the institution itself – played any contributing role in these situations.  If you think about it, they are more or less the equivalent of human resources in the workplace.  They are good in their “technician” roles, but not good in their “people” roles.  HR exists to protect the company, first and foremost.  Similarly, guidance exists first and foremost to protect the school.  Neither one particularly gives a crap about you beyond your immediate effect on the operation of the company or school.  HR is not the workplace equivalent of the guidance counselor, and as such is not a place to seek resolution of interpersonal conflict.  Guidance is the same, in that they’re completely incompetent when it comes to interpersonal conflict, unless you want to be gaslighted into thinking that it’s all your fault.  Then HR is typically fairly competent when it comes to their “technician” roles, involving recruitment and benefits administration (except when it comes to dealing with any sort of “customer service” issues in those areas, because HR, in my experience, pretty much universally has no “people skills”).  Similarly, guidance is competent enough when it comes to their own “technician” roles, like scheduling students for classes, recordkeeping, and compiling information for students to submit with their college applications.  Beyond those very limited “technician” functions, though, HR and guidance aren’t worth a bucket of warm spit, and should not be confused for people who are actually competent in those various other roles.  I would argue that eighth grade was my best year in middle school in part because my interaction with guidance was very limited, and those interactions that I did have with guidance that year were entirely in their “technician” roles rather than their “people” roles.  Likewise, I appreciate that the HR department at my current employer is 100% “technician” and does not interact with other staff on a regular basis (our union deals with interpersonal matters).

Meanwhile, I sometimes wonder how things might have gone with Mr. Wade and Mrs. Lovell if Schumin Web had existed back then.  After all, my writing for this space helps me to organize my thoughts and feelings about things, and it really can be quite cathartic at times.  I’ve had some sort of blogging component to the site in various formats since the site began back in 1996.  First it was my little “News of the Week” page, then the quote article, and now the Journal.  It is something of an outlet for me, and I really don’t know what I’d do without it.  Back then, I didn’t have the website, and it would be two more years before I would start it.  After all, back then, the World Wide Web had barely been invented, and most people had never heard of it at that point in time.  But what if the timeline of technology had been moved up about three years?  What if I had started Schumin Web on March 23, 1993 at 11 years old instead of in 1996 at age 14?  In this scenario, by the time that seventh grade would have begun, the website would have already been an established thing with some history behind it, i.e. no one could argue that the site was created specifically to criticize them (but if they deserved any criticism, that’s fair game).  During the site’s early years, I tended to write about school a lot in my “News of the Week” page, and I have no reason to think that I wouldn’t have done the same thing in seventh grade.  I remember the fireworks when my first-semester teachers in my tenth grade year saw Schumin Web, and learned that I was talking about them in my writings, which were publicly visible, as is still the case now.  And it wasn’t all negative coverage, either.  A lot of it was neutral.  But that didn’t stop them from going nuts over it.  I remember that my parents were contacted about my website, as they all considered it “inappropriate” to publicly question them, since I was just a student, and therefore beneath them.  My parents didn’t know enough about free speech and websites and what is and is not considered proper back then in order to properly advocate for me (but then again, the teachers didn’t know jack about it, either – they just knew that they didn’t like it), but the website continued, even though the teachers did their best to put a cramp on my style, and I got hauled into the principal’s office on more than one occasion over things that I had written on Schumin Web.  In hindsight, if I were my parents, and I had a child who was expressing themselves via a website like Schumin Web as it existed back then, I think that I would have turned the argument back onto the teachers pretty sharply.  I would show them the exact content, which back then was more or less a recounting of events that occurred during that period of time, with a few opinions peppered in there, and go over it line by line, asking them what they specifically found objectionable, and why.  I always presented my facts straight without any embellishment or fabrication, so they wouldn’t be able to come up with any valid criticisms of those.  Opinion statements, meanwhile, would always be off limits, because everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and no one’s opinion is wrong or “inappropriate”.  Whenever we had issues with school regarding the website, it usually boiled down to the school staff’s being a bit salty because they didn’t have full control over the narrative anymore as long as I was writing.  In other words, there are two sides to every story, and they didn’t like it that their side wasn’t the only one that was getting out.  In the end, they would be left going, “But… but… but… I’m the teacher, and I have to be right!”  In other words, you have no real argument other than that you just don’t like it, so go kick rocks.

I imagine that if I had the mouthpiece that was Schumin Web back then, Mr. Wade would have pitched a fit about it, taking me aside and yelling at me just like he did when I was expressing some candid opinions about him to another kid outside of school, and he found out about it.  On that occasion, he pulled me into his classroom before school and yelled at me about it, saying, “You can’t talk about teachers like that!” and called it slander.  Every single argument that he made in that interaction about why what I did was allegedly bad was complete bunk, and could be summed up by saying, “I don’t like that you’re telling other people that you don’t like me.”  Again with control of the narrative, in other words.  So imagine if this was on the website, and I said what I thought about him on there.  Imagine the fireworks then when he could actually read it with his own two eyes rather than just make accusations based on hearsay.  Then imagine the gaslighting after he ratted me out to the guidance counselor about it.  No, the problem wasn’t that school employees were doing things that they wouldn’t want to have to answer to if called out on it or anything.  No, that makes too much sense.  Rather, the problem would have been that I was publicly recounting incidents that would have painted school officials in an unfavorable light, because if not for me, the bad stuff would stay under wraps rather than be discussed out in the open.  I mean, a large bullying problem, as I had in seventh grade, is ultimately a reflection on the staff.  The students, now, what do we know?  We’re just kids, and kids are dumb.  But the staff had the power to stop it, and chose not to.  I wouldn’t be too pleased if I worked there and got beaned for not acting when there was lots of bullying, but at the same time, attempting to silence your critics just makes you look guilty, especially when they would likely have tried to gaslight me into taking it down because it’s allegedly “inappropriate” to criticize staff in that manner.

I also remember back when I was in school, many people told us that school is the student’s workplace, and therefore should be treated as such.  That was then a lot of the reason that the schools would tell you that criticizing the staff is “inappropriate”, because if you did that to your boss in the workplace, they would fire you.  However, school is not a workplace for students in the same sense as it is for the staff.  The analogy that school is to kids as the workplace is to adults is imperfect at best, because while there is certainly a superficial resemblance between the two, i.e. you go there and spend much of your day there doing work of some sort, it falls apart when you look at it with any amount of detail.

First, in the workplace, no one is forcing you to be there.  If you don’t want to be there, you can quit.  School doesn’t work like that.  Education is compulsory in the United States, and also, your movements are very restricted while you are in the educational environment, as in you are not even allowed to leave the room, let alone go off of the property or otherwise stop attending because it’s destroying your mental health.  If you don’t show up or otherwise leave, they will come looking for you to bring you back.  Also, much of the problems in the school are caused by this limitation on movement.  In real life, if someone is bothering you, you remove yourself from the situation, and that’s that.  In school, you are stuck.  If I could leave the cafeteria in the early mornings, I wouldn’t have gotten kicked in the shin that one time, because I would have been able to separate myself from that situation well before that.  Similarly, in the workplace, if you break the rules or otherwise cause problems for the company, they can fire you.  School can’t fire you.  You may be stuck with them, but they are also stuck with you, and that’s the case no matter how much you criticize them, and no matter how much they try to gaslight you into thinking otherwise.  And lastly, and most importantly, is the incentive for showing up and performing.  We go to work in order to get money in order to be able to fund our lifestyles.  Anything that gets between me and my paycheck is a bad thing, because I rely on that to fund the lifestyle that I want for myself.  And if the money stops, I’m not doing the work anymore, no matter how much I might like the job.  Schumin does not work for free, after all.  Likewise, efforts to improve and move up in one’s career are often driven by the desire to get more money.  Last I checked, I never saw a dime from all of my years in school.  So that argument goes right out the window.  School serves an important purpose in our society, but it’s only a workplace for the staff.  If it was actually the student’s workplace, I imagine that the Thirteenth Amendment would want to have a word about that, considering that attendance is compulsory and there is no monetary compensation.  For the students, it’s more of a relationship between a client and a service provider, as the students are there to complete a program, rather than provide labor.  That analogy is not perfect, either, but it’s less imperfect than calling it their workplace.

So there you have it, I suppose.  School failed me in so many ways growing up, but that handling (or rather, non-handling) of the list that I made of my bullies was probably the biggest single instance, amongst a host of other failures, where the school absolutely blew it.