Helping a bullied learning disabled child

Bullying and its aftermath were central to the work of educational therapy.  What would we have achieved if we hadn’t dealt with it?  Not much.  

I got a call from a good clinical psychologist whom I love to work with.  She had a case that she hoped I could take of a 14-year-old girl who had left school and needed to continue learning until she could be stabilized.  I’d need to create an interesting curriculum for her. The parents wanted a semester of work with me, and then to enroll her in a private school in the suburbs.  The doctor said that the work would take far longer, and that she would help the parents to understand the gravity of the girl’s current dysfunction.  I was told that she’d show substantial memory impairment, executive function deficits and extreme disorganization around writing.  Her moods were unstable, and she could become despondent in minutes, such that she had taken to cutting herself.

The issue?  She’d collapsed after she told her conservative religious school that she was a feminist and an atheist.   Her schoolmates ostracized her, she was cyber-bullied and threatened with death.  The school administration was tardy in picking up on the gravity of the breach by the community and so didn’t acknowledge her distress until it was acute.  Her family was one of great love, but of seething anger that never seemed to be expressed.  Her mother idealized her as a saint, a poet, and a genius, and the girl had nowhere to go with that at 13 but down.  How could she be threatened by her peers and still be a saint and poet?  The mother was so afraid for her daughter that she had difficulty acknowledging what was happening to her.

Ruth put bandages on her arms that seemed designed to draw attention to what the girl couldn’t say about her dilemma.  They were rainbow hued.  Whom could she go to for a reality check, to be a kid who’d been bullied, and a kid with anger, grief and shame about it.  Her school community had ostracized her in spite the courage it had taken to speak her beliefs.  She thought she would be allowed to carry her own beliefs and examine them, live them out as any young person does.   Now, she was never left alone lest her despair cause her to kill herself.

I met with her five days a week, and we created a curriculum that would let us go out and observe the neighborhood.  We read Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa as our text for the semester.   Ruth needed to be engaged in the world—it was too easy for an intrusive thought to derail her if she were concentrating on a book and was reminded of her grief.  So we did an anthropological study of a local playground, and of a local coffee shop.  We’d walk there together, and take out our notebooks to do Observation and Recording of everything we saw our chosen subject people do for or two minutes at a time.  

When I look at my notes, I am writing about her.   My instructions to her were, “What do the two people you pick to observe today actually do?  Let’s not interpret it—that’s our prejudice interfering with our study.  But let’s really write down two minutes of action.  It’s not as easy as it looks.”  We’d write about it back at the office.

What was it about this delicate, truthful child that had set off such a furor?  All of us on her team loved her in a way that evoked the desire to protect her and challenge her thinking.  I remember her observation about two toddlers playing in parallel, and learning to share a ball by offering it and withdrawing their hand at a critical moment.  I remember the nanny nearby quietly showing the children how to pass the ball back and forth, an exercise in trust.  

“Learning to trust,” she said. 

“Yes,” I thought, hoping that learning to trust me would become part of her healing.

Another day she arrived in tears.  She had turned a different corner to get here and passed a construction site.  Her clothing was very conservative, her skirts past her knees, but today a construction worker, she told me tearfully, had told her to fix her skirt.  Part of it had caught in her underwear exposing a thigh.  She was humiliated, and sure that she had done something unforgivable.

“Tell me what the construction worker said,” I asked.

“He said my skirt was hiked up, and he smiled,” she told me weeping.

“Did he insult you, or say anything suggestive?”
            “No, he just smiled, and I felt terrible.”

“Ok, let’s do two things. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and think first that he was trying to help you.  You didn’t know your leg was showing.  And two, let’s go talk to the foreman and make sure nobody is disrespectful to you going forward.”

“I can’t go back there,” Ruth said.  It must have been terrible for her, this modest girl under a man’s gaze.  

“I would love to teach you how to handle such a conversation.  Do you want to come watch me?” I asked.

“No, but tell me about it.”

“Ok.”

And I did.  That afternoon I went to the site and asked if any of the men I saw remembered a shy girl with glasses and a long black skirt passing by that morning.  No, nobody did.  

            “Because,” I said, “This child was frightened by a comment one of you made to her.  She’s my student, and she is fragile.”

            “I’m fragile,” said one big red-faced man, “Can you help me?”

            “I can,” I said, “But first let me tell you how I’m going to help her if she comes to my office in tears again.  I will call your foreman, and I will lodge a harassment complaint against anyone who bothers this child, do you understand me?  She’s 14.  You have sisters?  Mothers?” I was loud enough to be heard.  The men around me looked down.   “I expect to hear that you protected this child if ever she passes by here again. And I’ll be passing by every day to say hello to you myself.”

And I did.

I told the girl what I had done, and as I’d hoped, she felt better.   Her mother called to thank me.  We framed it as an accidental wardrobe slip and an inept comment from some guy who probably just wanted her to know her skirt was disarranged.  Then I invited her to the coffee shop around the corner for another Observation and Recording.

When we arrived a beautiful round young woman, dressed in a flouncy sundress, a belt, an up-do, high-heeled sandals, and bright colorful earrings took her turn at the counter.  The men immediately began to smile broadly at her.  The counterman blushed.  

“How are you,” she said in a husky croon.  “How is your baby doing?”

“Fine, fine!” he said.  The man was about 30 and had wavy black hair.

“Ah, good!  That’s good.  Now what shall I have, you handsome heartbreaker?”

They both laughed and he put his hand over his heart as if to offer it to her.

“I’ll take a coffee.  And how about a black and white cookie.  I shouldn’t but I will.” She smiled.  If he could have shined up that cookie for her he would have.  I asked my student to watch her walk and talk, and to see how at ease she was with her beauty, how many people were smiling at her.

“She’s so pretty, and I wish my sister could see her!  My sister is big like her, but she doesn’t like being big.”

“Isn’t that interesting?  This woman wears her weight so well and moves so beautifully.  What does her walk tell us?”

“She’s happy.  She knows she’s giving people pleasure with her presence.”  

“She’s a skillful person.  And an innocent flirt..see how she just lights the place up by being herself?”

“Fascinating.  I...I like her.”

“Me, too. Let’s go back and write about it,” I said.

When I talked this over with her doctor I asked whether we’d done well to go out into the world in this way, as I thought is was a great thing for her.  She agreed, but also warned that the mother might have very strong feelings about letting her daughter let go of her suffering.  The mother wanted the daughter as she was before she declared her new beliefs, not this child trying tentatively to experience the world outside of her home and close-knit religious community.  How dangerous it was, looking back, and yet I couldn’t see keeping her in a world of books that allowed claustrophobic thoughts to dominate her conversation.  She’d been so traumatized that reading a book could bring about a heartbreaking depressive episode.

Her therapist was in frequent talks with this rage-filled mother.  I wondered how my work would play out.  I never heard from her regarding our observation of the coffee shop diva, but I soon came under pressure to approve the sending of the child to another school in the fall.  I couldn’t agree that it was healthy for her.  I didn’t think it was easy enough for her to write yet, without falling into a reverie that could derail her.  Her doctor didn’t want her moved yet from our care.

But the mother needed her to be well,  enrolled her in a private school that demanded a great deal of organizational skill, and my student couldn’t keep up.  She was frightened about being disliked, and unsure about how to form a community in so strange a place.

In October, the therapist called to say that the child made another suicidal cutting gesture and that she placed her in hospital for four days.  

“I want her to see what it’s like there.  I want her to be sure she doesn’t want to go to the hospital again.”  

The girl came back to my practice after a month of school and after a week of hospitalization to tell me she had no intention of going to either place again.  The hospital was like jail, she said, and the kids were really crazy.

“I’m glad to think that you won’t go back,” I said, and we got to work.  But within another month, the doctor recommended that the girl go away to a wilderness program and then a girl’s therapeutic school out west.

“She has to get away from her family’s expectations, the doctor explained.  “There isn’t any change that can happen in that system right now.”

I was sorry to see her go, and heard that she had gone AWOL in the mountains the first week—she was going to walk out of there to talk to her father-- and that they’d found her and brought her back.  Six weeks later I heard that she had become a leader among the girls, voted most resourceful and most courageous.

And finally, after her time in the therapeutic school, with a group of friends very different from those at home, with a set of experiences designed to make her rely on herself, she began to thrive.

I remember how worried we were about her, and how touched, and how much we wanted her to succeed in becoming whoever she was meant to become.  The task of freeing herself from her conservative environment was much too great for the now 15-year-old idealist, but at 16, the woman she would become was visible.  I admired this poet, this lovely girl, this brave soul.  We read a book about a far away culture, took walks on the lively streets of the Upper West Side, handled comments by strange men who may or may not have had good intentions toward Ruth, and with her psychologist and doctor, we knew when to move this child from her environment to a therapeutic one.  I'm pleased to say that Ruth won a leadership award at her school, and I hope that this magnificent young artist is thriving now.

Bullying and its aftermath were central to the work of educational therapy.  What would we have achieved if we hadn’t dealt with it?  Not much.