Fly with the eagles: An inspirational story #bullying

What causes a child to bully other children?  It seems natural to wonder about it.  Some speculate it is low self-esteem.  Other research tells us that many bullies have plenty of self-esteem.  I’ve heard people say that bullies bully because “they can”.  I don’t think that tells us a lot.  I’m thinking of one child I met back in 1999.  This situation may not apply to all bullies, but I think it is worth examining.

I became aware of Dean through my conversations with his teacher, Mrs. H.  I was working as a teacher in a local elementary school.  I ran a resource room for Emotionally Impaired (EI) students.  My resource room was located across the hall from her classroom.  Mrs. H. would stop me often, stating that a student in her first grade class was close to forcing her to give up teaching.  She described her frustration to me vividly.  “I can’t teach with this boy in my class,” she would say.  “That boy is going to drive me nuts.”  She stated that she spent much of her time correcting his behavior.

Bully 10

Dean would often interrupt her lessons with questions.  He often moved about the room without permission.  He talked with peers incessantly.  He would, according to Mrs. H., push other students when standing in line.  Recess and lunch time were occasions to “goof off” and behave aggressively.  Other students were avoiding Dean and joining in Mrs. H.’s disapproval for him and his behavior.  I half expected to see a monster.

I met Dean in the hall one day.  Mrs. H. pointed him out to me as Dean was filing in from his bus ride.  He was bundled in a green hooded winter coat.  He was smaller than I expected.  I stopped him and introduced myself.  “Guess what?”  he beamed.  “My guinea pigs had babies.”  He seemed very warm and enthusiastic, unlike the child that she described.  I agreed to have him come to my room when he failed to follow the classroom expectations.  I eventually ended up spending most of my days with him.

Mrs. H. reported that Dean was doing fine academically but I had my suspicions.  While he was fairly good at “sight” words, he labored over blending the sounds in unfamiliar words.  That is another story.  I knew that Dean did not like being seated during instruction.  When I worked with him, I tried my best to let him move around.  We incorporated movement as part of our lessons.  He seemed to enjoy learning this way.  I quickly became fond of Dean and his enthusiasm.  His interruptions seemed too passionate and full of curiosity for me to take offense.  I think he became aware that I enjoyed his company.  He quickly made progress.

While Dean’s reading skills continued to improve, his behavior at lunchtime, recess, and bus rides home were still a problem.  I was baffled.  He would step on loose shoe laces or jostle other students.  I got some insight into this while walking through the hallways with Dean.  His fellow students would often look to me and tell me that Dean was “bad” or that Dean had misbehaved that morning.  Dean would become indignant, saying, “nuh-uh” in protest.  I simply responded that “I see Dean doing very well right now.”

Dean was spending more and more time with me.  He would have several successful hours in class only to misbehave in a serious and potentially harmful way to other students.  For instance, he would push a child down the slide at recess if he wanted to use the slide himself.  As an only child, I suspected that Dean did not have practice sharing with others.  He certainly showed no empathy in these situations.  Despite many serious discussions, Dean would often miss the mark with his behavior.  At an IEPC meeting  the team decided that Dean would spend his entire day in my resource room.  I felt very disappointed that he would not be with his peers.

One day, after carefully preparing–so I thought–Dean for recess, he returned to my room with a note stating that he pushed a boy in a mud puddle.  In my confusion and disappointment I asked “why?”  and “when will it stop?”  I gave Dean a box of crayons and several pieces of unlined white paper.  I asked him to draw a picture of himself feeling what he felt at the moment, his house, and his family.  What he drew that day opened a door for us. He drew a picture of himself in the center of the paper.  There was no ground beneath him.  He drew no arms.  I wrote his words in the margins next to the picture.  He said he felt “bad” and “sad.”  He, without my guidance, offered another picture of himself.  He was all black with red eyes.  Armored spikes covered his body.  He looked like a warrior.  He had a weapon at his side.  “What is he like?” I asked.  “Scary.”  “How do the other children feel about him?”  “They think he is cool,” Dean responded.

Dean drew two pictures of his family.  He included his only parent, his mother.  On his shoulder sat his guinea pigs.  They were all smiling.  He also drew a picture of his couch, living room, and fish tank.  “We love the fish tank” he said.  His last picture was a chaotic and violent scene.  He scribbled in black around a figure of his mother being thrown into a wall.  An ominous figure, named Terry, was beating Dean’s mother.  Terry had red eyes.  Dean drew two pictures of himself in that scene.  One showed him laying in bed.  The other had him pointing a gun at Terry.  He was holding a “Hungry Hippos” gun, pointing it at Terry.  On the ground was debris.  “These are the eagles Terry broke.”  “They hurt my feet when I stepped on them.”

I confirmed that this event, in fact, happened three years earlier.  Dean’s mother tearfully admitted that she had no idea that this had been bothering the child.  Terry no longer lived in the home.  Dean denied that Terry hit others, i.e., Dean, but I received information that suggested otherwise.  Regardless, violence had helped Dean understand his world differently than others.  I consulted the school psychologist, principal, and the entire special education staff.  We held a meeting and Dean immediately engaged in counseling.

I told the staff all of what I knew.  The violence, however, was only one important aspect of Dean’s experience.  The entire milieu  helped to shape his understanding of the world and his place in it.  Dean did not know his father.  His mother worked a full-time job.  Dean had uncles who encourage him to fight when injustice comes his way.  Dean’s teacher was stressed.  Few adults had taken time to build a personal relationship with him at school.  They did not know that Dean wanted to be a veterinarian so he could help repair all the broken eagles in the world.  They had too often seen his behavior and not his heart.

I eventually left that school.  Before I left, I tested Dean’s reading.  He had advanced.  At the time, he was spending most of his day with his peers in his own classroom.  The staff had decided to forego the Emotionally Impaired label.  Mrs. H. insisted that he stay in her classroom.

At the school’s entrance is a trophy case with pictures of all the staff members.  I, having joined the staff later in the year, did not have my picture in the case.  Dean would often notice the oversight and point it out to me.  I would point to a poster of our national symbol and joke, “That’s me, Dean.”  Delighted, he would say, “You’re not an eagle!”  On my last day with the children, they threw me a party.  Dean presented me with a book with messages from all the children.  On the cover, Dean drew a bird flying over trees and toward a yellow and orange sunset.  In his own hand is the message, “Fly with the eagles.”

Published by drmartinfletcher

Martin Fletcher, Psy.D, L.P. Dr. Martin Fletcher is the Shrink of The Shepherd and the Shrink Podcast. He is in private practice at Renew Hope Counseling where he also supervises a team of talented clinicians. In late 2019 Dr. Marty teamed up w/ Dr. Matt Hook to respond to the growing mental health crisis. The goal is to help people create healthy spiritual lives in order to restore meaning and purpose to individuals, families, and communities. Psychology meets spirituality. Dr. Fletcher holds advanced degrees in clinical psychology and education. His treatment approach involves quickly reducing symptoms while helping patients design and maintain health promoting lifestyles. Dr. Fletcher is a husband to Kathy and dad to 3 sons and one daughter. His interests include fitness, guitar, motorcycles, mountain biking, and exploring the role of spirituality in health. Dr. Fletcher is fully licensed in the State of Michigan.

8 thoughts on “Fly with the eagles: An inspirational story #bullying

  1. That was a moving post. I can relate because I lived something similar with my youngest. Although I was not beat I was a single parent and he was the “second” born. I would tell the teachers to learn his heart to get to know him and they too would only focus on behavior and Not the root! Since then I’ve received my Doctorate in Teen Counseling helping Teenagers who bully or are bullied!

    I appreciate that Dean had you in his life! We need more teachers like you!

    1. Thank you, Dr. Jeanelle. I appreciate the kind words. You have a mission now, I hear. We need more professionals like you. We are learning so much about bullying these days. Let’s use this information to improve our schools and the lives of our children. Take care.

  2. I’m sorry, but I disagree. I have had much much too much contact with bullies.
    A bully is not by definition a “tough” or prone to violence child. A bully is a selective predator. The child who thinks violence or being aggressive is the answer to life’s problems may on occasion appear to bully other children, but they are opposed to the concept. I have witnessed the toughest kids in class(on different occasions and in different schools) stand up for the child being bullied.
    I have also seen a bully get smacked in the face by another child, and do nothing. Bullies know the “pecking” order of their social environment.
    A tough child could care less if the person getting on their nerves is bigger or stronger than themselves.
    A bully waits or to be more precise, follows the heard to single out the weak or defenseless.
    I was bullied. As a child I had a handicap. I was not bullied when I had a brace or crutches or cane. But! When I was still the weak and disabled child, without the tools I previously needed to move around, they came out of the woodwork to find me.
    Bullies bully, cause they can.
    Warning: Since a bully is selective, the recent movement to stop bullying will only have them hiding. Hiding until another fad movement comes into play.
    A stop to bullying is akin to “World Peace.” Call me when that happens.

    1. I’m sorry to hear that you were victimized by bullies. One of my boys faced a bully who was way bigger and older. Not fun. I think it is a good thing that professionals and other adults are giving bullying attention. I don’t know that I was trying to make a point in the post. I certainly don’t believe that Dean should be used as a profile or model for understanding all bullies. I do think that we need to be careful about how we label 1st grade children and even older children. I’m also optimistic that when the culture strongly rejects a behavior, it can become stigmatizing. As long as we are clear about what bullying is and can identify it, we have a chance of reducing it.

  3. julie henes-picano
    April 20, 2011 at 7:51 pm (Edit)

    This is a pretty insightful story to me. I have 5 children of my own, 1 with ADD & 1 with ADHD. Since I own & direct 2 childcare centers I see a variety of parents and children and know from personal experience that children have many different reasons for having social difficulties. For my ADHD guy who is 8. He has some traits like Dean (minus the violence and bullying). He learns far better when he is moving, he has ALOT to say (and most are very creative concepts) and all I want for him, as his mom, is for others to just appreciate him for all that he has to offer & to meet him where his skills and style is best suited. Currently my guy is in a private school environment where his teacher (for the past 2 years) is young, flexible and creative enough to create successes for him in the classroom. He is an excellent student. My fear in the years to come is that not all teachers will care about teaching the children as much as they care about getting to the end of their day in the same way that they did for the last 20 years. I hope more caregivers will love children & do what ever it takes to create successes for their styles of learning!

    April 20, 2011 at 8:14 pm (Edit)

    I think those are very good observations. You identify a real concern for me. With all of the pressures on teachers to raise standardized test scores, I’m wonder what effect this will have on our teachers. An adult under stress may find it difficult to focus on the real needs of the child. I think we need to take a good look at the purpose of education. Is it a jobs training program or a place to help the child develop?

  4. Thanks, Davina. Thanks for reading and commenting. I think are rushing ahead with “school reform” without first agreeing on the purpose of schooling. The research isn’t getting applied. We know the important role that emotions and relationships play in learning and development. Yet, policies keep stressing teachers, kids, and administrators out. How can this work? I miss your blog posts, Davina. Hope you find time to write again soon.

  5. Exceptionally touching story, Marty. This testament proves how much a little more time spent with children can make a huge difference in their lives. When we take the time to try and understand their feelings and emotions, rather than constantly correcting and punishing them, we are opened to a new world and it helps to give perspective. Thanks for sharing.

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