No Free Lunch

After the bullies had moved out of our neighborhood it seemed that Doug’s life became a lot easier. He was enjoying the time he spent after school at the Boys and Girls Club. There was a young volunteer coach that took a particular interest in Doug and worked with him each day on his basketball skills. This helped Doug’s confidence in so many ways.  I was extremely grateful to this coach and let him know I was each time I saw him. Doug was finally starting to grow a little taller. His feet were growing much faster though and this left him more awkward than he had already been. He would trip and fall constantly while running down the basketball court. Laughter would always erupt, knocking his new found confidence down a few notches. But he persisted.

I received a call from the principal at his elementary school one afternoon. He asked that I come in a talk to him about Doug. I told him I’d be glad to come in the next afternoon.

That morning as I was driving Doug to school he begged me not to come see the principal that afternoon.  He was very adamant about it. He began crying. “Please mommy! Please don’t come in my school!”

“Doug, it will be okay honey.  Mr. White just wants to go over some things with us. Why are you so upset?”

As he was getting out of the car he looked at me, tears running down his cheeks, and he said “Because my friends will pick on me about how fat and ugly you are.” He closed the door and ran into the school.

I sat in the school traffic, stunned. I remember looking around at other moms and being envious of their nicer cars, and their stylish hair cuts, and their pretty young faces. A horn blew somewhere behind me and I slumped down in my seat as I put the car in drive and pulled out of the parking lot.

I drove to work sobbing. I didn’t want to be an embarrassment to my little boy. Had the other kids always laughed at him and picked on him because of how fat and ugly his mommy was? I felt a waive of nausea welling in my stomach. I had to pull over and just sit and think. My head was swimming.  Guilt consumed me. This little skinny, clumsy nine year old has struggled all his life, trying so hard to fit in, and I have constantly screwed things up for him. I had left his father, I had become an alcoholic, I had let his favorite Aunt die, I had moved in with a man that was not his daddy, and now, now… on top of all of that, I was some one he was ashamed of.  “Why God? Why am I a parent? What right do I have to mess this poor child up so badly?”

I was nervous as I left work early that afternoon for the meeting with Mr. White at Doug’s school. Should I do as Doug asked and stay away from the school? I thought about calling and canceling our appointment, but decided I best go speak with the man.

Doug was already sitting on a wooden chair facing Mr. White’s desk when I arrived. He looked at me with his big blue eyes. I could tell he was nervous.  I sat down on the chair beside his and reached for his hand. It was wet with sweat and shaking. Mr. White told me that Doug had not brought any lunch money to school in about a month. He suggested that perhaps we were qualified for the free lunch program and started to hand me the application forms.  “Hold on a minute. I’ve given Doug lunch money every single morning. We can certainly afford his lunch. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Doug, don’t you pay the lunch lady with the money I give you?”

Doug took his hand from mine. He pulled his knees up to his chin and covered his head with his arms. He curled up into a tiny ball on that little wooden chair and began to cry.  “Doug honey, look at me. Answer my question sweety. What are you doing with your lunch money?”

After what seemed several painful minutes, Doug finally looked at me and shouted.  “I have to give it to my friends Terry and Bobby!”

“Who are Terry and Bobby honey? And why do you have to give them your lunch money?”

He became angry that I would ask such a stupid question. He glared at me and then, in a tone I’d never heard from him, he almost spewed the words “I give them money, MOM, so they won’t let any body KILL me.”

Ice cold chills ran down my spine.  I was livid that there were two bullies scaring the hell out of my son each day and stealing his money, but I was even more shocked at how my scared little boy just spoke. It was if some one else was inside his frail little body speaking in a mean hateful voice I’d never heard before. I stared at him for a minute, in absolute disbelief.  I heard Mr. Whites voice in the background telling Doug that he needs to always come tell a teacher or any faculty member when ever some one picks on him.

I watched as the monster that had just spewed words at me shriveled away and my pale, sickly looking little child came back to himself.

“Here is what you need to do Doug” I said in a stern voice.  “You need to start taking up for yourself. Every time some one teases you and you let them know it hurts and let them know you’re afraid, then they feel like they can get away with it all the time and they’ll pick on you over and over again.  If you’d just stop being a baby, and sock ’em in the nose next time, I promise you, you won’t have any more problems.”

Mr. White interrupted me.  “No, no, no.  We certainly don’t want to promote that sort of behavior in our school. We can’t have your son hitting some one. He’d have to be suspended if he did that. We don’t tolerate violence.”

“Well, you shouldn’t tolerate blackmail either.  I trust you will find out who Terry and Bobby are, and you will have them pay for the lunch charges in the cafeteria, before you suspend them?”  I asked.

“No mom, NO!  Please, it’s alright. We can pay that mommy, please.”

I could see the terror rising inside Doug.  He was horrified of the thoughts of what Terry and Bobby might do to him if they knew Doug had told on them.  I found myself trying to calm him down, telling him that it was ok. That we wouldn’t let Terry and Bobby know, and that we would take care of the lunch charges ourselves.

I ended up writing a check to the school for the missed lunch payments.  I asked Mr. White to speak with Doug’s teachers and see to it that they keep an eye out for any bullying. “This has got to stop, this is getting very serious and clearly, he (Doug) is to terrified to tell  the teacher anytime something happens.”

Mr. White agreed and reminded me, again, that violence is not the answer and that I should never suggest to my child that he hit someone.  I told him he was right, although I wasn’t sure, at this point that I believed it.

Doug and I left his office, holding hands, not saying a word.

In the car, it was as if nothing had happened. Doug asked if we could go get some ice cream.

We went to Tony’s Ice Cream Shop and sat at our favorite corner booth. As the vanilla ice cream dripped from the cone, down Doug’s chin, I said “You know honey, you can’t give Terry or Bobby any more money because, first of all, mommy can’t afford to pay them AND the lunch lady each day, and second of all they don’t have a right to bully you like this.”

Doug threw his ice cream on the table and insisted that Bobby and Terry weren’t bullying him.  “Mommy, they are my friends. Why don’t you believe me? I give them money so they won’t let the real bullies kill me”

“Who honey?  Who are the real bullies? Tell me Doug, so we can stop this. Let adults help you. Not Bobby or Terry.  I will help you, and your teacher and Mr. White will help keep you safe from the bullies.”

I could see his frustration growing.  He would not or could not tell me any of the names of the ‘real bullies’.

I couldn’t sleep that night.  I lay in bed thinking about all the things that were going on with my son. My stomach ached. I lay there trying to come up with solutions to this bully problem.  Sleep would not come for me, nor did it come for Doug. I could hear him across the hall in his room, talking.   I held my breath for a moment so I could listen. At first I thought he was talking in his sleep. Then I realized he was carrying on a full conversation.  “It’s ok. I’ll get money. I know you guys will keep me safe.  My Pap has a lot of money. He’s a good guy. He’ll help me pay you.”

“Doug, honey, who are you talking to?” I asked as I peeked in his bedroom door.  ‘

“No one mommy, good night, I love you.” he pulled his blanket over his head and rolled over, turning his back to me.

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