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Sixth grade stands out.
I think it’s because that is the year girls team up. Teaming, in and of itself, can be a good thing — I suppose sociologists would say that young females, approaching puberty, unconsciously network in advance of the hormonal onslaught which will, unquestionably, completely upset their lives. Yes; banding together has its points, if only to keep the hair product and mascara from running away with the human soul.
But, as we all should remember, the motive is paramount.
Teaming, regardless of gender, is particularly effective when it becomes ganging. And ganging is usually grounded in an intent to suppress, or bully.
As for bullying, social scientists have pretty much settled on the defining character of a bully: insecure; cowardly. Yes; the Bully collective is nothing more than selective grouping according to need – in this case, need based in coveted security and safety through numbers.
These gangs of bullies form because they actually fear that another, or group of others, is superior. Perhaps the larger society of adults which surrounds them has provided the acknowledgement which feeds their perceptions. If adults have not provided sufficient emotional nourishment, pre-adolescents enter a deprived state and feel inadequate. Whatever the catalyst, each member rallies to obliterate the source of their feelings of inadequacy. And the source are the stand outs – the Exceptionals.
Exceptionals are found at the extreme ends of the spectrum. The intellectually gifted and/or talented, and the physically or mentally challenged – these are the socially distinct. On the one hand, the gifted are both adult oriented and adult reinforced; on the other, and out of necessity, the physically and mentally challenged receive a noticeable degree of adult attention. Both are a threat to those who have been deprived of sufficient nurture, and become the object of their ridicule.
What is fascinating, however, is what actually happens when the Bully gangs form; they effectively succeed in “flipping” the scene. The Exceptionals, initially perceived as superior, are stripped of anything with which they might have rightfully been attributed, traumatized so incessantly so as to render them psychologically injured, and often grow up believing that they are, at heart, rejectable.
But, those in the middle of these extremes, what will later comprise the Social Majority, settle into a degree of contentment with their team. Their members possess neither traits too exceptional to set them apart, nor emotional needs too deep; consequently, all attentions are consistently focused on the group, itself.
Usually formed by children from larger, and/or socially stable families, the Social Majority are immune to the predatory bullies because they are perceived as non-threatening. Having no need for the Exceptional – who invariably find one or two others of their ilk with which to agree to travel solo – these are effectively ignored.
By the end of sixth grade, the stage is set and the players know all their lines. And, this, my dear readers, is Western society. Still feel like pledging allegiance?
In our time, I have noted a couple key behaviors that still carry the vestiges of these most intricate of childhood strategies. The manifestations of these are among the most subtle of human interactions. Most won’t even notice them. The reason is inherent.
Most everyone in possession of a lucid sense of self can recall from which of the three “teams” she, or he, has come. Most, statistically, are among the Social Majority; the few who were Bullies probably wouldn’t address this discourse at all. And, the least populous, the Exceptionals, will recall – with more than one twinge – every visceral reminder.
But, what most may not perceive is that, as adolescence yields to adulthood, certain shifts occur. Occasionally, one from the Social Majority may – either by discovering a hidden exceptionality, or being offered an opportunity which radically alters the landscape – find her or himself traveling solo. One who may have been a Bully may fall into spiritual fortune, finding unprecedented securities and safeties heretofore unimagined. And, one with acknowledged traits which had been isolating in childhood may be welcomed by a large society of those who see value in their mutual connection.
On the surface, this may seem like Fortuna. Who would argue against social acceptance, on either side, for any reason?
But, regardless where one ends up in the grande scheme of social constructs, wherever one’s experience is rooted will inescapably color all future behaviors.
If given the opportunity to feel inferior, a Bully will bully again. An Exceptional will retreat, self-isolate, if bullied. And, one from among the Social Majority will ignore all else to seek out the familiarity of like-minded friends.
But, there is yet another layer. Deep in the heart of the subconscious, all behaviors – both experienced and observed – are learned. At moments under duress, every girl or boy actor reappears, and the costumes change; inexplicably, an Exceptional ignored by the Social Majority might become aggressive, almost bullying her way into a group. A Bully might push any and everybody out of her path, seeking solitude. And, a whole family from among the Social Majority might suddenly decide to bully its weakest member.
I sometimes become overwhelmed by nostalgia. Parts of my childhood were nearly heavenly, most particularly the earliest years. But, I remember sixth grade. I sat in the front, not to appear exceptional but because, ever since second grade when I was too tall to be one of the cute little girls who were assigned them, I would scramble every year thereafter for a front seat. Plus, I had the century’s most transparent crush on my sixth grade teacher. Sitting in the front enabled me to smell his cologne, and see if his dark brown eyes would ever look directly into mine. He was gay. He wore a turquoise ring from Arizona, where he spent the summer. And, after we graduated from sixth grade, he sent me a postcard from Rome of the fountain in the square, told me he’d tossed a penny into it for me, and signed the card by telling me I could now call him Jim.
I don’t remember much else about the students in sixth grade. I had one friend, Debbie, who moved away when we all left for junior high school. Because they all sat behind me, I couldn’t have known what any of them were really doing. I do remember seeing groups of girls, always walking away from me, and boys’ fleeting sidelong glances, through squinted eyes.
Children, just like people, are usually oblivious of the patterns that shaped them and continue to inform how they treat others. But, depending on the role we played in sixth grade, we may or may not, as adults, find ourselves behaving in or out of character. Sometimes we’ll ignore others, purely due to preoccupation. We might, if we finally find a group that totally accepts us, deliberately ignore an exceptional, driven by some deep memory of the pain of need. At other times, we might find ourselves shoving somebody else around, with words or attitudes, temporarily emboldened by fears of inadequacy. At still others, immersed in that which enables us to thrive, we might look up to find that everyone else has left the room.
Let’s be whatever moves us. Take solitude. Seek to be surrounded by our own kind. Or, be ignored. Recognize actions taken both toward and against us as reactive, often part of old patterns cut by the years when the teams formed around us. Though we might sometimes benefit from a little coaching, life doesn’t have to be a game. Whatever we choose, let’s be mindful of that which nourishes; if we do that, there will be plenty of room for everyone to play, and the attention we both give and receive will always be true and good.
© Ruth Ann Scanzillo 2/26/16 All rights those of the author, whose name appears above this line.
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