Philip was a quiet kid who always sat inconspicuously along the side wall of the classroom. His head would be bowed over his desk as he busily drew pictures, all the while contentedly oblivious that our teacher was commanding the attention of the rest of the class.
He was chubby, his hair looked as if it needed a comb run though it, and he seemed to have trouble keeping his shirt tail tucked in. Like Pigpen, the character from the Peanuts cartoon strip, an air of sloppiness surrounded him. Most of his classmates, including me, thought Philip was stupid, or at least a little slow. Today he might be diagnosed as autistic or ADD.
My first and second grade teachers mostly left him alone, but when we reached third grade, our new teacher, Miss McCoy, decided to make a project of reforming Philip.
She would call on him to answer questions, but being busy drawing he could never answer correctly. She would yell at him for not paying attention, snatch the drawings off his desk, then crumble them up and throw them in the trash. This never succeeded, so she resorted to corporal punishment.
Prominently hooked on a nail next to the blackboard was a wooden paddle. It hung there in constant reminder of what awaited us if we failed to behave. For most of us that worked.
The next time Philip failed to answer, she took him in the hallway with her paddle. We heard the whacks through the door as she spanked him. And, when they returned to the room, Philip was crying. This went on week after week. I never knew of a kid who was spanked more in school than Philip, but he never seemed to learn.
My classmates and I avoided him on the playground and at lunch; we never included him. He was different so we completely shunned him. I recall a few kids calling him names, but I don’t remember anyone physically bullying him. Miss McCoy seemed to be doing plenty of that without our help. Nevertheless, we were all laughing at him behind his back.
He frequently had pencil lead all over his hands, but one day he got some smeared on his face. A little bit above his lip. Miss McCoy said, “Are you trying to draw a mustache on your face?” The class laughed.
“Well, you haven’t done a very good job. Come up here to the front of the room. Give me that pencil. I’ll give you a mustache.” She took his pencil and rubbed the point sideways along the space between his nose and his upper lip until it was dark black. At first there were a few snickers, but eventually the class fell silent. Miss McCoy was relentless in humiliating him in front of us. At that point we all felt sorry for Philip.
Eventually Miss McCoy gave up on her project of reforming Philip and left him alone. He was able to draw in peace again.
One day as I walked past his desk, I saw one of his drawings. He had drawn two birds; one at rest and another in flight. They were beautiful and I was stunned by how realistic they looked—almost photographic in detail. I couldn’t believe a kid could draw that well. We were still drawing stick figures while Philip was drawing like an adult with years of experience.
Miss McCoy’s tactics, which were normal for that era, would not be tolerated today. Our schools, however, are still designed to foster conformity. Public schools’ one-size-fits-all approach to teaching lends itself to “Zero-Tolerance” in all areas of the educational process. A process which fails to recognize the unique strengths some children have.
When children do not conform or are genuinely unique (in whatever way), the other children will pitch in by bullying them back into conformity. Those on the sidelines learn quickly what is expected and what will not be tolerated. Unfortunately, that behavioral correctness spills over onto the playground, and children who are different will be isolated or taunted.
According to StopBullying.gov: “Children who are at greater risk of bullying are:
- Perceived as different from their peers, with difference defined as being overweight or underweight, wearing glasses or different clothing, being new to a school, or being unable to afford what kids consider cool;
- Perceived as weak or unable to defend themselves;
- Depressed, anxious, or have low self-esteem;
- Less popular than others and have few friends; and/or
- Seen as annoying, or provoking or antagonize others for attention.”
I find it sad that Philip’s remarkable talent was discouraged. Today, many private schooled and home schooled children are encouraged to favor and work within their strengths. How motivated might Philip have been if all of his studies could have somehow been tied to drawing and art?
Read more of my articles on Bullying:
Robert Evans Wilson, Jr. is an author, humorist and innovation consultant. He works with companies that want to be more competitive and with people who want to think like innovators. Robert is the author of The Annoying Ghost Kid, a humorous children's book about dealing with a bully. He is also the author of the inspirational book: Wisdom in the Weirdest Places. For more information on Robert, please visit www.jumpstartyourmeeting.com.