Published in the Educational Therapist journal, July 2017

Bullies and victims in Educational Therapy

It is important to help the learning disabled, humiliated, or anxious child that bullies as well as the learning disabled child who is bullied.

Dear Readers,

I’m thinking about two cases I had in which one of the aspects of the therapeutic alliance with my students was dealing with bullying.  That issue had profound significance for our work together: without encountering it there would be no progress on the reading and writing issues that each adolescent needed help with because bullying had so damaging an effect on each student’s self esteem.  An approach to this topic was critical to the success of each remediation, even though working through it may have limited the success of those reading and writing goals we had set together.  Remaining in a therapeutic alliance that I would not leave was important, even when I felt unable to help the child make progress toward better academic functioning.  Sometimes, the needs of a student are so great that educational therapy proceeds slowly, as sometimes it must.

The first case was one in which a privileged adolescent boy had ADHD, reading fluency and comprehension issues, with writing organization, spelling, and handwriting difficulty.  Jacob was a handsome boy with long brown hair and big blue eyes who struggled with his weight and with his complexion.  His school failures had led him to switch schools three times in the last five years.  He wasn’t a great candidate for tutoring, as the tutors were used to pulling him through work by taking a strong hand in writing his papers with him—nearly infantilizing him in the process.  

Not that resistance was easy. He had learned to expect tutors to do his work for him, and tutors were easily replaced.  When a school was concerned about his lack of progress, or when the boy complained about the fit with his school, his family would find another helper. The lure of the family’s financial support was irresistible to the schools that had accepted Jacob and had taken on the challenge of teaching him.

Jacob had a home on a wide NYC Avenue, with a bedroom filled with snakes and saltwater tropical fish.  The tank and the fish were exquisite to look at. He enjoyed feeding live food to his pets.  

This was the way of nature, he told me, as I cringed to see a mouse tossed into one of the snake’s cages.  “Good baby,” he’d say as the snake made short work of the mouse.  It wasn’t much different in the tank.  A few bait fish would be thrown into the tank, began to swim crazily to avoid predation, but they’d lose.  I couldn’t help but be upset by the scenes of death played out each time I visited.

“It’s like quail hunting,” Jacob said.  “We breed them to hunt. I release them and shoot them. That what they are for.”  He was referring to a pastime he favored in the country.  In the city, he kept a dart gun with a fairly powerful range.

In his world, he was right.  Little animals were bred to kill.  And that is the way of nature among predators within cages and without.

What cage was Jacob in, I wondered?  What was this competent boy, so shy in public, working through?  His mother made it home for dinner every day that she was in the city.  He ate together with his brothers and sisters daily, and she was at home for long stretches between visits to her philanthropies and friends.  She was a single mom with four children and kept a beautiful home that she shared lavishly with family and friends in NY.   Her home was filled with art, and a single low silver bowl of roses graced her dining table at all times.

Jacob was alone a good deal though he had one special lifelong friend who lived downstairs, a boy who had ADHD and Tourette syndrome, and whose family were in the movie business.  While his friend had a driver to take him to school, Jacob refused the ride, and instead enjoyed walking through the city to school.

When I met Jacob, I organized a math tutor for him and decided that I would work on the language skills in reading and writing that would be critical to his ability to write successful papers on his own.

The first day Jacob met the science tutor, he shot him in the bicep with his dart gun.  The tutor, a tall and strong young man, had the presence of mind to pull the dart from his arm and say, “What now?”  Jacob backed down immediately and decided he loved that tutor.  He did his work from then on and didn’t trouble anyone with a display of any kind.

Jacob tried to intimidate the math tutor, the first day she arrived to see him.  He told her he’d like to shoot her with his rifle.  She was a stout woman who had lived in NY a long time.  She said, “Jacob, you had better kill me with the first shot.  Because I will come up here to f**kyou up if you don’t.”  She quit, and Jacob was sorry to see her go. He told me he really liked her.

“Jacob, if you offer to shoot a woman, why wouldn’t she take you seriously? Don’t you get how strange a way that is to say you like someone?” I told him.  “Understand me right now.  Talk that trash again, take out the dart gun again, and I shut it all down.  Hurt anyone and we all go.  I go, the science tutor goes, and you can figure it all out alone.”   

So Jacob, who couldn’t leave off testing me yet, tried something new.  He told his teacher that he couldn’t hand in his paper on “Ode to a Grecian Urn” because he hadn’t seem me yet to write it.  His English teacher blew up at me: “Enabler!” she screamed into the telephone.  “Look what you’ve done to this boy!”  Now I had plenty to say to the teacher who shouted at me, but I also saw Jacob later that day.  

            “Jacob, I don’t write your papers, and you don’t get to delay turning one in because you haven’t shown your work to me. You’ve lost her good will, understand?  She thinks you’re a wus.  Is there any work done on the paper?”  No there wasn’t; he hadn’t started it.  It was late and he hadn’t told me about the paper.  He wasn’t sure what the poem “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” was supposed to mean.

“OK, so you don’t get the poem.  We can figure that out, but you have a new assignment.  You are going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to find and draw a Grecian Urn, and you are including that with you paper.  And you are going to tell the teacher that you were inspired to go look at this urn by her assignment.”  I knew this teacher and what how vain she could be, how frivolously she could make favorites of kids and denigrate others she couldn’t reach.  So Jacob went off to the Met with a sketch pad, and came back with a pretty fine drawing.

“I didn’t know you could draw!” I said. “What did you find out about beautiful people by looking at the urn?”

“I don’t know.  It’s pretty.  The poem says beauty is all that matters.”

“Is it?:

              Cold Pastoral!

              When old age shall this generation waste,

              Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

              Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st, 

                          "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

                          Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

              “What do you make of the figures forever frozen on the vase, never changing, never to hold their lovers in their arms, never to grow old or die?” I asked.

              “Frozen, are they? Looks good but it isn’t so good.  That’s the point, isn’t it?” Jacob said.

Jacob got a good grade on his paper.  Something about really looking at the urn long enough to draw the lithe figures on it helped him see the trap that the poet set in the poem’s line about beauty. 

Jacob lived in a world of high fashion with a dressing room full of clothing, and a guest list of movie stars and beautiful fashion icons whenever his mother was home for dinner.  He understood the poem.

His teacher was very happy with his paper.  She felt he had turned a corner, and Jacob neither gave her nor received from her any further trouble.  His grades improved.  

When he graduated high school, he wore a ring his mother had given him, inscribed with a line from Invictus, “I am the captain of my soul.”  College wasn’t for him, but Jacob seemed to grow into his role as a member of a powerful family, and got a job he liked in the music business.