What We Preach And What We Practice

Is GFS really a utopia, or a “bubble,” free of bullying and kindness-better than other schools?

In my 6-year experience, GFS is an incredible school, but we are all just kids/adolescents/teenagers, therefore bullying does still exist. That’s the way life is. In kindergarten, I went to a public school in Brookline, MA, and their public school system is much better than Philadelphia’s. My school was only K-8 and we only had two buildings to GFS’s 17, but they promoted self-expression and community, perhaps not as much as GFS, but still a good amount. We had no uniforms and a nice playground and gym. I had many solid one-faced friends and it was quite the safe haven.

Part of  the safety I felt  was probably the fact that it was only kindergarten, but this type of  haven is still sometimes unheard of in 1st and 2nd grade here, for some reason. During Lower School at GFS, the 1st and 2nd grades had “Partner Time” with the 5th graders and the Kalkstein 6th graders. Some six- and seven-year-olds excluded each other and, most notably in the case of the infamous tire swing on the Emlen playground, if one person wanted to do something else, they were too scared of the others and protective of their “popularity” to speak up. I witnessed this from the perspective of a fifth grader with my partner last year. It’s somewhat ironic that while we promote these acts of kindness, in the 6 years I’ve been here and in the experience of many others there  are certain kids who still don’t seem to have regard for other kids’ feelings. This is not to say that I didn’t have amazing teachers, supportive friends and fun classes; but we can’t always focus on the bright side.

These teases and put-downs, in every grade, seem in my previous experience to be centered mostly around one unpopular person. At GFS this is quite different from the stereotypical ‘Mean Girls’ cliquey setting; except perhaps for the one classic “popular” clique in every grade.  Even the popular clique here doesn’t trade insults. The “loner” bullies who have been the reason for many tears were friendless, obnoxious and usually quite universally disliked, yet still continue on with the swagger of a celebrity.

My recent experience has been that in Middle School, people reinvent themselves—and their friendships—and that results in people quite different from the people whom you shared your 5th grade graduation with. Although teasing and insults were not rare, beforehand, in Middle School it becomes “cool” to insult others as an “inside joke” or a “burn” (Does “Duuuuude you just got burned!” sound familiar?)—many times without the other person’s knowledge of the joke or without them laughing along. Some ‘special’ teacher’s pets will stand up in Meeting preaching about how welcoming and friendly a community we are, then turn  a round and  go outside and tease an unlucky kid who happened to wear the same hoodie as they did a few days ago.

But now that I’m done telling you about my experience, let’s talk about the administrators and teachers of the school, who work tirelessly to make our experience and education amazing. Can they prevent this, or is bullying and teasing just childhood/adolescence, and not preventable? I actually think that many of these verbal punches are so under the radar that they are hard for teachers to detect, and that bullying just is part of middle school. It is impossible for teachers to listen to every student complaining about so-and-so, and we may be too quick to cry “bully” (but that’s for another article). The teachers can’t police the students and stalk their social media, etc., like a California school district that hired a company to stalk their students’ social media. I wrote this article to bring to attention the irony of the difference between what we preach, and what we practice.

“We regard education not as training for a particular way of life, but as part of a lifelong process, and as we guide and encourage our students in their personal growth, we try to cultivate and support them in principles that Friends have long considered to have lasting value. Among these are truthfulness, simplicity, and self-discipline, the resolution of differences without violence and respect for diverse heritages and experiences.”